Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard

Miami's feline fringe is a vanishing breed

Ann has several brothers and sisters, but she considers her cats her family.

"I've called them my friends," she says. "I've called them my kids. But it's really not the same as a normal domestic [cat] or a dog. The top of their list is certainly not pleasing you."

In 1992 Ann became ill. She couldn't go to work for two months, she says. She was constantly exhausted and found herself unable to cope. After undergoing a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She recalls losing her short-term memory and running a low-grade fever for three years. Things are slightly better now, she says, but not by much. "If I didn't have my cats," she says, "I'd be gone. They need someone to love them and feed them."

Alan Rigerman with Chaos, his cougar
Calvin Godfrey
Alan Rigerman with Chaos, his cougar
Anthony Zitnick with Chaos
Calvin Godfrey
Anthony Zitnick with Chaos

Rigerman rises and heads for the cat room. He meows loudly, and Ann's cats stare down at him from their high perches, hissing and baring their teeth.

"I remember once I was here and the licking started," he says, staring fearlessly at the canines of Ann's oldest cat, a pure caracal named Kira. "The licking turned to biting." The cat sank its teeth into Rigerman's arm. He sat calmly and waited for it to retract them. "Ann was mortified. But I told her: 'Ann what are you upset about?'"

Rigerman putters deep into the Redland, passing tree farms, fruit stands, and barren you-pick fields. The sun hangs low on the horizon as he inches his way, both horns blaring, down Krome Avenue. The rural byway gleams with the sinking yellow sun; everything is made beautiful in that light. Rigerman counts roadside memorial markers aloud and wonders why he and Ann never became an item.

He is happy to be back in this part of town, the place where his interest in owning cats was sparked. When he began teaching, he made a bond with a couple named Frank and Ellen Weed, who lived in a trailer out in the Glades. The two bred hundreds of cougars in what's now Everglades National Park. Ultimately they were shut down and kicked out after being cited ad nauseam by federal wildlife inspectors eyeing their land, but not before Rigerman had brought class after class out to see the Weeds and their cats.

He recalls a visiting troop of Boy Scouts one day needling an aging Frank Weed with questions. "Mr. Weed," said one boy in an obnoxious voice, "why do you have all these animals?" Rigerman loved Weed's response. "Because I want to and I can," the old man told him.

Whatever Rigerman owned, he brought to school. He was Mr. Rigerman, the oddball ecology teacher who disdained homework and reveled in field trips. "I love teaching," he says. "It's fun. Where else can I get that kind of an audience?"

After giving it up, he began substitute teaching. That was cut short in 2003, following a melodramatic flareup in a photography class. Several students accused him of disappearing into the darkroom in the middle of class and returning to conduct the remainder of the session in his underwear. They alleged that he terrorized them with a sack full of snakes and lizards, and made lewd and lascivious comments: mocking a girl about the length of her skirt, suggesting he had slept with their teacher, and telling one student she was "fucking beautiful" for her age.

He thinks the accusations were drummed up by a group of pernicious girls. The animals were harmless. He says his "underwear" was, in fact, a pair of shorts.

Rigerman battled the charges, and in August 2005 he was reinstated to an eligible list of substitute teachers. "You are prohibited from bringing any animals to any school site at any time," wrote Maria Teresa Rojas, assistant superintendent.

Rigerman heads west on SW 168th Street. A detour takes him over some nasty dirt roads before delivering him to a five-acre gated compound. The fence is impressive, rising high into the air with a cantilevered incline.

These are where his animals will go when he dies, Rigerman guesses.

Beyond the fence, flocks of emus graze on a large meadow. A massive bison idles up to a parked swamp buggy and begins scratching itself against the chassis.

Set back from the mass of wildlife is a large gray house.

Rigerman slowly rolls up a dirt road and settles at a sort of shed piled with the makings of a great Tom Waits song. Tractors and huge circus cages sit amid a clutter of engine parts beneath a wooden overhang adorned with cow skulls. A trio of mean pythons captured from the swamps sit idly in cages.

A broad-shouldered man with red skin and a trim black beard appears out of the distance. A thick, slobbery guard dog trots along at his side. The figure smiles and nods at Rigerman. This is his land, and his name is Frank Pajon.

Pajon came to the States from Cuba at the age of one. At age eight, he began working in his father's gas stations in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and sometimes got pulled out of school to work the pump during the cold winters. During his formative years, Pajon dreamed of living on a kind of jungle ranch, surrounded by every animal under the sun.

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