Bringing Home The Big Cats

Animal Lovers Live With Ferocious Felines

Looking at Gene Light today, it's hard to believe that he was the victim of a brutal tiger attack - in his backyard in Lubbock, Texas. Rufus, his attacker, was a family pet. As 48 Hours Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports, even though the tiger could have killed him, it couldn't kill his love for the species. And Light is not alone in his affection for a ferocious pet.

"When I heard the bones crush in my head, I figured, well you know, this is it," Light says. "He grabbed me by the head, he ripped my jaw out and my right ear canal," he says, noting "it hasn't changed the way I look at them."

Today, Light still owns two Bengal tiger cubs and four more fully grown tigers, which eat nearly 15 pounds of meat apiece every day. But for his family, the haunting memories of the attack linger for life.

"Rufus was 9 foot 6, so he was a big cat," says Light's wife Andie. "He just reached up with both paws and dragged [him] down." she says. "Rufus took his head and just bit."

"I can remember the look in his eye," she says of her husband. "The look of death, like he knew he wasn't gonna make it. And to this day, it's just that look that you never forget."

"The tiger that had a hold of him was just shaking him like a rag doll," says son A.C. "Dad was laying there, and he was completely covered in blood and he wasn't moving."

The reason for raising any animal "is because you're looking for a companion of some type - some type of friend. Doesn't matter if it's a dog, a cat, a tiger, a lion," Light says. "I communicate with the tigers and now I do it through the fence a lot more than I used to," he admits.

Lauren Villafana of Yorktown, Texas wasn't as lucky as Gene Light. Her mother, Kelly Hranicky let her raise two tigers from the time they were cubs.

"We got the tiger cubs and the female slept in Lauren's room," Hranicky says. "Lauren loved the animals. That's the way Lauren was."

But Lauren's father, Dr. Richard Villafana, had his doubts. "From the moment she got the tigers, I was horrified," he says. But there was nothing he could do, as Lauren lived with her mother and stepfather about an hour away.

Six weeks ago, Lauren was helping her stepfather brush the animals. Suddenly, one of the tigers lunged and then clamped his jaws around her head. The tiger had severed her carotid artery. She died that night at the age of 10.

And then there are people like Fred and Paula Tholen. Not content to raise dogs or small cats, the Tholens have raised 2-year-old Nila the lion since its third day.

"This is something we've always been wanting; it's kind of like our dream," says Fred Tholen. "She has no wild tendencies. She doesn't know how to hunt. She doesn't know how to kill."

Nila's life in suburban Houston is very different than it would have been in the wild. Fou surveillance cameras keep a constant eye on the lion, for which the Tholens paid a mere $1,600. Nila has heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

"I love this cat the way you'd love your children," says Paula Tholen. "I'm talking about an animal that not everybody has. She's not wild. She's far from wild."

The African lion is actually a native of Kansas. Nila came from Ray Smith's ranch, where he raises lions, tigers and bears. Smith currently has 31 big cats; for cubs he charges an average of $750.

"Lions are the big sellers," says Smith. "Can't produce enough to supply the demand," he says. "It's a good business. There's more demand than there ever was."

Smith is part of a growing industry. Big cats are for sale in catalogs and on the Internet across the country. Currently, only five states have laws prohibiting ownership of these animals.

The trouble is that the cubs can get too big to cuddle, and for many owners, too much to handle.

One terrified 8-month-old pet tiger named Caesar was abandoned near Dallas. And in Michigan, King and Lucky have been at a Humane Society for more than four months, with no place to go. In the last eight years, 23 big cats have ended up in this shelter, and finding permanent homes for them gets more difficult with every new cat.

Tippi Hedren runs a sanctuary outside Los Angeles. An actress, Hedren cares for her own cast of characters, each a star of the same kind of tragedy.

"We get five to eight calls every month," says Hedren. "Mike was abandoned in a mechanics yard in Yonkers, N.Y. This is the one that was abandoned in the garage in Wyoming. All of the pads on her feet were frostbitten, and she lost four inches off her tail."

"Boo was purchased in Texas for what I understand was $6,000," says Hedren. "He started tearing up the furniture and she didn't like it, so she put him in a closet," she adds. "Leo was living in someone's basement outside of Branson, Missouri."

"I'm always very happy when we're doing a show like this and one of the cats does something like that," says Hedren of a lion attack. "[It] becomes, you know, dangerous. Because it does exemplify that they are not good pets and shouldn't be pets."

Indeed in 1996 a trainer in Berlin was nearly mauled in front of a live television audience when his trusted lion turned against him.

But the Tholens aren't worried. "I can hold food in my mouth, and she'll take it out of my mouth," says Paula Tholen. "I don't know if that's smart but it's trust. I trust her totally."

Every day, Nila eats 8 to 10 pounds of meat out of Paula Tholen's hand. But dinner time at Ray Smith's is not as tranquil. Rather, it's a loud reminder that while these animals are bred to be pets, they are born to be wild.

Humanitarian Pat Darby says the best way to love a wild animal is to leave it alone. She has seen hat can happen when people try to tame these animals. Darby takes in abandoned cats at her sanctuary near Sacramento, Calif.

"If you look at Denny over there," she says. "The people declawed him and they literally cut off pieces of his foot....It's ethically wrong to take an animal like this out of the wild and try to make it a house pet."

And while the Tholens, the lion and the golden retriever could live happily ever after, they're nevertheless propagating a problem for people who emulate their lifestyle, but underestimate the risks.