In a small animal sanctuary 50 miles south of Buffalo, tigers paced back and forth around the rotting carcass of a dead cat. Flies swarmed piles of excrement. One tiger, in a cage next to two female lions, was missing most of her tail and one ear.
Rusty screws and plywood supported ramshackle metal cages. Several big cats showed signs of cataracts, and, according to people who were on the scene, they hadn't been given food or water for some time.
The site, an animal sanctuary known as JNK's Call of the Wild, had fallen into disrepair after a death months before left the surviving owner unable to provide for the animals.
Along with dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits, and a horse, the Sinclairville, New York, facility held 11 tigers, three lions, three bears, and two wolves, all malnourished.
On May 27, 2014, armed officials from federal and state agencies as well as rescue officers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) put a dangerous plan into action: They executed a search warrant to seize all the animals and shut the whole place down.
Moving a tiger isn't easy.
Moving more than a dozen large, exotic, dangerous animals is a potentially deadly logistical nightmare.
"It was handled like a military operation," says Gail A'Brunzo, wildlife-rescue manager for IFAW.
The stakes were unusually high. "You don't get much of a second chance if one of those animals comes after you," she says. "Police were standing around with high-powered rifles."
While a small, privately owned, and unmaintained facility that's full of lions, tigers, bears, and other animals might sound like a crazy, uncommon sort of thing, it's not.
It's so easy to get exotic animals in the US that there are more tigers in captivity here than there are in the wild throughout the world, according to Carson Barylak, who works on legislative issues for IFAW and heads their "Big Cats in Captivity" campaign.
The campaign's goal is to curtail the private ownership of these animals, allowing legitimate zoos to own big cats, but generally prohibiting ownership and breeding by private individuals.
A bill (the recently-introduced Senate version is cosponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders) that would accomplish much of this is currently under consideration by the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works.
How many of these cats are out there right now, in backyards, in farms, or in whatever ad-hoc facility someone designs to keep them in? "Well over 10,000," says Barylak — and that's mostly tigers, with a good number of lions and smaller groups of leopards and other wild cats.
How the JNK situation happened
Problems at JNK started long before authorities took action.
The facility was like many in the country, run by private owners who wanted to care for exotic animals. They'd been in business for almost 20 years, but as a series of videos by IFAW on the seizure explain, at some point things had started to fall apart.
By the end, the animals were just sitting in small, poorly maintained cages, where investigators said it seemed roadkill would occasionally be tossed in to feed them.
As Barylak explains, many of the individuals who decide to start a facility that ends up like JNK mean well at first.
"This isn't clearly a good guys and bad guys kind of thing," she says. "These people think they are doing something good."
But feeding big cats, bears, wolves, and other animals year after year gets expensive. They require a significant amount of space and food — far more than the animals at JNK had. And that's hard to afford, according to Lynda Sugasa, the executive director of Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary, a Nevada facility that took two of the tigers from JNK.
"You need enough space, and you need to see that it meets your budget," says Sugasa. "A lot of sanctuaries start out with good intentions, but then they get overwhelmed."
Safe Haven is verified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), a group that certifies sanctuaries that aren't buying, selling, or breeding animals, as long as they meet stringent requirements for the quality of care.
It's difficult to get a GFAS certification. A'Brunzo explains that there are good sites that aren't verified or accredited, but that IFAW tries to place animals in GFAS-certified sites, as it's a pretty reliable sign of quality.
But no one needs GFAS certification to own a tiger. In many states, there are barely any restrictions at all.
In New York, which is a relatively strict state in terms of exotic-animal ownership — you can't just go out and buy a tiger at an auction or get a permit that lets you privately keep a lion — people can still get a license from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) if they are going to display the animals. Barylak says getting that license is an "extraordinarily easy" process that costs approximately $40.
That USDA exhibitor's license can function as a loophole that allows people to keep exotic animals if they are going to display them, even in states like New York where you technically can't keep big cats as pets under any circumstances.
The USDA does evaluate facilities, but their visits are sometimes only once a year. Even then, serious violations to the Animal Welfare Act may not result in any action.
"They can identify violations and still keep [facilities] going for years," says Lisa Wathne, a captive-wildlife expert at the Humane Society.
Enforcement is a complicated problem that takes time. Some USDA inspectors are excellent, according to Cathy Liss, the president of the Animal Welfare Institute. But she says that "enforcement typically takes too long, and the fines aren't enough" to deter irresponsible ownership of exotic animals.
While experts say there had been a history of violations at JNK, the situation had become particularly bad in the six months before the seizure.
In a video shot the night before authorities confiscated the animals, Andrea D'Ambrosio, a USDA inspector who had been evaluating the situation for over nine years, described the situation as awful.
"The last time I was there it was disgusting. There was just tons of rotting carcasses everywhere," she says.
There had been an accident and one of the facility's owners had died. After that, things deteriorated rapidly.
"It's a pretty sad situation. The owners definitely have cared about these animals, but they have lost the ability to continue caring for the animals," Kelly Donithan, the IFAW wildlife-rescue program officer who was on site told WIVB at the time. (Tech Insider tried several phone numbers and email addresses for the former owner of the facility, but we were unable to get a comment.)
JNK lost its USDA license in February 2014. The next month, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation refused to renew a state permit allowing them to keep the animals. But since the owners didn't immediately relinquish them, authorities decided to start formulating the plan for a rescue. They reached out to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), who contacted the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to facilitate placement.
With everything arranged by the end of May, including homes for the animals at legitimate sanctuaries in Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, it was time to act.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the actual seizure was easier than many expected. The sanctuary owners handed over the keys, and over the course of two days, vets and sanctuary personnel were able to remove the animals.
Most immediately jumped into transport cages baited with fresh meat. Many hadn't been fed for an extended period of time, according to IFAW representatives. A few animals, including a lion and a wolf, had to be tranquilized to get them to leave their pens.
One tiger was too sick and weak, and had to be euthanized 17 days after arriving at her new home with Big Cat Rescue in Florida. But for the most part, the animals arrived safely, settled into the sanctuaries, and received medical care for their various ailments.
Just the start
A case like JNK's sounds dramatic, but more than anything else, it's just a manifestation of a much larger issue.
In most cases, there's not even a government record of which exotic animals are being kept by exhibitors or private owners in any location. As Wathne, from the Humane Society, explained, facilities are supposed to keep records of animals that come into and out of their possession, but the USDA doesn't make copies or keep those records themselves.
That means that there are more than 10,000 big cats out there that no authority is keeping close tabs on. Barylak, from IFAW, says that 10,000 is a conservative estimate.
Animal-rights groups want legislative changes that essentially prohibit private buying, selling, and breeding of these animals. Especially important, they say, is making it illegal to handle tiger cubs, something the USDA now allows while the cubs are approximately between eight and 12 weeks old. To work within that short time window, facilities that regularly offer cub-handling to visitors must continually breed animals.
"If I had to call somebody the bad guys, that's who it would be," says Barylak, referring to the breeders who offer cub-handling. "They know what they are doing."
A tiger might live 10 to 12 years in captivity, which is part of why places like JNK find it easy to come across animals that need to be adopted. People who like the idea of a pet tiger at first may tire quickly of the cost and attention required for their care. Those who breed them for the purpose of selling cub-handling opportunities create a steady stream of unwanted adult animals. Many of these tigers are crossbreeds of different tiger subspecies, meaning they aren't valuable for conservation purposes (i.e., legitimate zoos); that's why places like JNK (and other sanctuaries that may or may not be able to handle the burden) step in.
If those sites can't adequately care for the animals, it results in violations of the Animal Welfare Act and creates situations where a dangerous animal might escape and hurt or kill a person.
Along with the obvious harm to animals and risk to people, Barylak says that allowing these situations to persist undermines US international authority when trying to crack down on trade in illegal wildlife — often referred to as one of the largest black markets in the world, right behind markets for drugs and guns.
Most of the time, we're not even aware of it when there might be a problematic situation with dangerous animals in our own backyard.
As Donithan, the IFAW officer on site for the rescue, wrote: "In [the] less than 24 hours after the JNK animals arrived at their forever sanctuaries, half a dozen additional rescue requests entered my inbox."