Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard

Miami's feline fringe is a vanishing breed

Zitnick's approach to the cat involves a lot of chokeholds and half nelsons. He stealthily subdues the rambunctious cougar. "This is where a few years of high school wrestling pay off," says Zitnick, who is studying massage therapy in Pompano Beach. He straps the thick nylon collar around Chaos's neck and leads the tremendous cat backward, out the door of the holding pen.

The two men cut an odd figure as they drag the 200-pound carnivore across Rigerman's sloping yard, past grazing tortoises, toward the calm canal water. Boats and back-yard playgrounds line the banks. Sometimes the cat charges forward; Zitnick baits him with a dried coconut.

Rigerman takes the thick chain from Zitnick and wades into the water with his feline. "This is what it's all about," he says, grinning. The cat paddles clumsily around him, climbs onto his shoulders, and dunks him.

Ann at home with her most sociable cat, Tikka, a serval-caracal mix
Calvin Godfrey
Ann at home with her most sociable cat, Tikka, a serval-caracal mix
Tikka hangs out next to Ann's leopard-print bar
Calvin Godfrey
Tikka hangs out next to Ann's leopard-print bar

Zitnick helps Chaos back onto land and begins lathering his fur with Johnson's baby shampoo while Rigerman bobs in the water, raving about the harmless inevitability of invasive species.

Zitnick guesses he'd someday like to own a cat — a tiger or a cougar. "They're not ... they're fun to ...," Zitnick pauses to think as he rubs suds along Chaos's tail. "It's not an everyday house pet.... I kinda do things out of the ordinary."

Eventually they tie Chaos to a stone anchor near the property line. The cat looks happy, at last, basking under a stubby palm tree, batting at the low-hanging fronds.

"You boys have a cat down there?" asks Rigerman's neighbor Shelly Girling from inside her house. A pleasant-looking woman with quaffed red hair and a bright floral-print dress wanders to the edge of her yard.

Rigerman stumbles out of the water and encourages Girling to let her Dachshunds out. She decides against it, but leans over her fence and asks how the baby is. Chaos tosses mouthfuls of sod into the air and pounces on the gray coconut, sinking a massive canine into it, almost as an answer.

The scene takes on a Norman Rockwell quality. Fluffy white clouds slide across a deep blue Sunday sky, and Chaos begins to look more and more like a lovable fixture of the Rigerman household. Until it's time to return him to his cage.

The cat does not want to go.

Zitnick uses all of his might to drag Chaos back, foot by foot, into his enclosure. At the door of the cage, Chaos leaps up onto Zitnick's shoulders and opens his mouth, running his canines along the length of his arm like a puppy tongue. Zitnick reaches out both hands and seizes the cougar by the throat, lifting it off the ground. He steps a few feet into the cage and hurls it to the ground. It hits the concrete floor with a resounding thud and bounds back up just as Zitnick shuts the gate.

Rigerman, seemingly unable to resist, heads into Chantell's cage. He barks and coos until she allows him to scratch her behind the ears. "See," he says. "She's not going to hurt me. If she were going to hurt me, I would yell, scream, and punch the shit out of her in the face."

By dazzling the owner of a service station with a few exotic pets, Rigerman convinced the man to install a second horn in the trunk of his aging Toyota Corolla, free of charge.

Plodding slowly along the Dolphin Expressway on a recent hot weekday afternoon, his vehicle is almost as loud as he is. A baby alligator head sits on the dashboard amid a pile of plastic corn snakes. Rigerman employs the gator's lacquered jaws as a caddy for a trio of spare eyeglasses.

"I wear the same thing every day," Rigerman explains between bursts of his horns. "So I like to change my glasses as often as possible."

Rigerman has decided to pay a visit to Ann, a longtime friend and cat expert, who asked that her last name not be printed for fear of animal rights "loonies." Her small green townhouse in Westchester is among the oldest in Miami, she would later explain, and consists of a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms: one for her, one for her cats.

Rigerman arrives unexpectedly and slowly works his way past the black steel door and into the apartment. Ann has spent about the past 20 years perfecting her house as a dual habitat — a cat-proof people pen. Orange short-pile carpet lines the floor, and a long, pillow-plotted couch juts out from the middle of the living room. All electronics, books, and cords are neatly tucked away — nothing extraneous or chewable is lying about. Occupying one corner of the living room is a large leopard-print bar surrounded by framed photographs of various cats: leopards, servals, and caracals.

The back patio had been converted into a sort of outdoor play area, enclosed on four sides by a black chainlink fence. Beyond the fence, a small canal separates Ann from a row of other houses. Occasionally they enjoy a full view of Ann's three cats — though they rarely go outside.

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