Police investigate sale of tigers in Wal-Mart parking lot
June 15, 2008 - 3:51PM

McALLEN - Police and federal authorities are investigating the sale of six Bengal tiger cubs in a Wal-Mart parking lot Sunday afternoon.

The animals appear to have been bound for Mexico and neither the buyer nor seller had the permits needed to legally transport the endangered species across national borders, a federal agent said.

A group from Spring Hill Wildlife Ranch in Bryan was selling the cubs - four white ones and two orange ones - in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart near Jackson Avenue and Expressway 83.

Authorities believe the Spring Hill employees were selling the tigers to a pre-arranged buyer via an intermediary, and that the animals' final destination would be in Mexico.

"The people who were picking up the tigers and taking possession of them... were Mexican nationals in a Mexico-licensed vehicle," said Special Agent Alejandro Rodriguez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said tigers have been smuggled into Mexico through the Rio Grande Valley before.

Rodriguez said some people involved in the transaction said the tigers were to be taken to a Mexico City zoo, while others said they would be going to Roma.

Under federal law, it's illegal to transport an endangered species across national borders unless both buyer and seller have what is known as a CITES permit.

Those involved in the transaction could face federal conspiracy charges if authorities determine the animals were, in fact, Mexico-bound.

Police said ranch employees were selling the white cubs for $5,500 per animal, and the orange ones for $900 per animal. The buyers' vehicle lacked air conditioning, police said, which also raised concern about the animals' safety.

Rodriguez said the cubs are healthy and would be transported to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville as authorities continue their investigation.

The orange tigers are about 10 weeks old, Rodriguez said, and the white ones are about two weeks old.

Rodriguez said it appears Spring Hill has sold tigers in the Rio Grande Valley at least two other times in the last 18 months.

Police arrested the co-owner of Spring Hill Wildlife Ranch for interfering with public duties, authorities said.

The woman, whose name police have not released, attempted to barricade herself in the truck containing the tigers after Monitor staff began photographing the animals from the parking lot. She is expected to be arraigned Monday.

Two people who had been questioned by the police about the transaction declined to comment on the case to The Monitor.

Police learned of the transaction when a McAllen Police Department patrol officer became suspicious of the truck with Mexican license plates in the Wal-Mart parking lot, police said.

When the officer approached, the group moved to the parking lot of the nearby Mervyn's department store, prompting him to follow and ultimately discover the tiger cubs.

"The basic premise of this transaction in a parking lot - it doesn't seem right," said McAllen Police Sgt. Eddie De La Rosa.

Bengal tigers can grow to 9 feet long and weight more than 550 pounds. There are about 2,000 Bengal tigers living in the wild. The cats can be found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar and Nepal.

Jerry Stones, facilities director at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, said Bengal tigers are an endangered species. There are thousands of large cats including tigers, leopards and lions owned privately - and legally -in Texas, Stones said.

He said he thinks some tiger owners may not realize the effort that goes into caring for the cats. "They buy them as babies," Stones said. "They don't realize it's going to get to be hundreds of pounds, eat an awful lot of food and become dangerous."