Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard

Miami's feline fringe is a vanishing breed

In 1973, at age 13, he moved to Miami. He wanted to be a veterinarian, he says, but joined the Marine Corps instead. After his discharge, he worked as an auto mechanic at Gables Lincoln-Mercury, which happened to be next door to a business owned by an animal importer and drug kingpin named Mario Tabraue.

Pajon had already taken care of a serval at that point, but Tabraue was into big animals. He hung out at Tabraue's business as often as possible and developed an eye for tigers and cougars. To Pajon, Tabraue was an animal guru — someone who loved and knew a lot about exotics. Pajon would not comment about Tabraue's legal trouble, but according to a Miami Herald article, he was busted in 1987 on racketeering charges (which included dismembering and burning the body of a federal informant). It was around that time when Pajon decided to get his license to own cats.

(Tabraue served 12 years of a 100-year sentence and has since resumed his import business on a compound in the Redland. He declined, through intermediaries, to be interviewed for this story.)

Pajon began keeping and breeding cougars. About five years ago he bought the adjoining lot and cleared the land. He put up eight-foot posts and wired them with electric fencing — all for the sake of lions and tigers. A year later he got his Class I license and purchased a pair of six-month-old tigers.

Pajon provides a brief tour of his menagerie as chickens skitter about his feet. Beyond a sliding gate, a mishmash of red deer, turkeys, peacocks, cows, geese, toy ponies, llamas, and a donkey roam the meadow Pajon cleared. Many peck at a pile of Cuban bread loaves put out that evening.

The place looks like a strange slice of Xanadu, a sort of rough-cut exotic dreamscape dotted with the occasional palm tree. Though Pajon's place is located in Miami-Dade, it seems a planet away from the chintzy boardwalks, seedy ghettos, and cookie-cutter suburbs that define Miami in movies.

Pajon has made himself a paradise, or at least he's working on it.

He wanders over to a female lion named Nala. "That's Alan spelled backwards," Rigerman chimes in from over Pajon's shoulder.

"It's also the name from the Lion King," Pajon replies.

Rigerman purchased the baby lion last summer — he maintains a Class I license, but only for infants — and turned it over to Pajon after three months.

The cat's fur is matted; it looks exhausted. Pajon recently dropped close to $1000 treating the lion for toxoplasmosis, a parasite typically found in domestic cat poop. Nala is slow, Pajon says, from the medicine.

Stray cats have been traipsing on his property and might have contaminated the lion's food. At the advice of county police, Pajon and his rifle keep a lookout for roving feral packs of the town's unwanted pets.

Next Pajon crosses to Sinbad, a 600-pound Siberian male tiger. He's being held in a temporary cage, cobbled together out of a section of white tile flooring and chainlink fence. The Siberian (the largest cat in the world) lumbers toward the fence as Pajon nears, stroking itself against the metal weave as if the links were the fingers of a benevolent giant.

Pajon walks deeper into his property, past a wolf in a circular enclosure to a huge oblong cage where his most precious creature is kept: Umba, a 400-pound female Bengal tiger. She leaps out of a plastic hot tub liner, shooting gallons of water playfully toward Pajon. The cat eats roughly 15 pounds of fresh meat a day and seems to melt before her master.

"I try to sit with her for at least a half an hour a day," he says, gazing at the deep orange lines that slither and slide over her massive sides.

He has never trained her to perform, he says. "If you train them to perform, you can't touch them," he says. "You have to use the whip." Though he has spent as much time with Umba as possible and accustomed her to walking on a leash, Pajon attributes her pleasant nature to the luck of the draw.

He ducks through the outer door and into her cage without hesitation. While he shovels out some unwanted bones and droppings, Pajon turns his back to Umba.

"I trust her completely," he says, taking her head in his hands and placing a heavy chain leash around her neck. He walks her like a big dog, muttering "leave it" out of the side of his mouth as she eyes a passing chicken or a cage full of yapping Dachshunds. Pajon proudly leads his tiger up onto the bed of his pickup truck and back down. He wraps his arms around her neck and squeezes — a tremendous, sphincter-puckering hug.

Pajon makes a living as a corrections officer, often working double shifts in the Miami-Dade jail system. He might begin at 4:30 a.m. and end at 9:00 p.m. On a good day, however, he will get home at noon and spend quality time with his animals.

He has brought the tigers on Sábado Gigante and to photo shoots in an effort to offset the cost of the upkeep. He and Rigerman plotted a recent event at Club Space, to exhibit the tigers in cages outside to net a windfall of $5000, but the deal was broken when animal rights activists got hold of the flyers, lobbied city officials, and hounded the club owners. Rigerman offered to show up with his porcupine and a few snakes, free of charge. But the club turned him down.

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