A cougar’s tale: Pet to prisoner - East Valley Tribune: News

A cougar’s tale: Pet to prisoner

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Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003 10:56 pm | Updated: 1:20 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Maya purrs like the 10-month-old kitten she is. She's been declawed, has her shots and even has had her canines removed.

Yet the pretty cat is unadoptable. Instead, she'll spend the rest of her 20-plus years locked up at Scottsdale's Wildlife Rehabilitation and Educational Foundation.

Her crime: She was born a cougar, or mountain lion, in South Carolina and purchased via the Internet for $300 by Michelle Gierke, 31, of Phoenix.

Gierke's crime: She brought Maya to Arizona, where housing wild animals is a criminal offense that comes with a $375 fine. Gierke, who paid the fine in Scottsdale Justice Court in mid-June, could not be reached for comment.

Maya is not the only exotic animal to take up permanent residence at the Scottsdale facility that houses wolves — including one that until recently resided in a Chandler apartment — coyotes, bobcats, a handful of mountain lions and even a bear. All are former pets.

And the foundation’s director, Linda Searles, said she's fearful she'll be housing even more animals in the future.

"It's so easy to buy these animals over the Internet," she said.

An Internet search yielded dozens of sites dedicated to the exotic pet trade, including several in Maricopa County. The average price for a big cat is about $300, plus shipping, usually via a common carrier such as a major airline.

Jim Dougherty and his wife run DonaMae Cattery. Dougherty wouldn't give a specific location for his business, but said it's in Maricopa County. He deals with Bengals, a breed of cat that is considered domestic. He also said he houses African servals, a wild cat that reaches about 40 pounds when fully grown.

Dougherty said he has a permit to own the servals.

His Web site says the servals aren't for sale because it is illegal to sell them in Arizona and several other states, but the cats are prominently displayed, enticing the site's visitors to "check them out." Dougherty said he'd like to see the law changed. "I believe in the rights of individuals to own whatever they want and I have nothing against it."

He said he has only one complaint with retailers: "They don't tell people what they are getting into."

It's what comes after the $300 price that usually results in the exotic animals winding up at the Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Educational Foundation or a similar facility.

"People don't realize a big cat will eat hundreds of dollars worth of meat a month," Searles said, "Plus housing is a real issue." In Maya's case, she outgrew the bedroom she was housed in for six months.

If owners get past the expense of diet and shelter, another obstacle is the unwillingness of veterinarians to treat wild animals. Because of a lack of veterinary services and inadequate diet, many of the cats suffer from kidney and metabolic bone disease, Searles said.

"In the case of wolves, people don't realize that the animal might be good with your family, who the animal considers his pack, but may attack others who visit who he considers a threat," she said, pointing to a white arctic wolf, a former pet now confined to captivity alongside his penmate, a timber wolf, also a former pet.

Many people who own exotic pets are turned in by their neighbors, which is what happened to Gierke, said Ray Kohls, head of the law enforcement section of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

"When the cat was too big for her bedroom, the owner started to walk her. Her neighbors saw her walking the cat on a leash down the street and called us," Kohls said.

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