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Where’s India? How a missing tiger revealed Houston’s underground exotic animal trafficking ring

With no sign of India amid an increasingly desperate search for the missing tiger, Houston investigators believe exotic animal traffickers have likely passed the endangered cat from one person to another to conceal its whereabouts — an apparently common practice in what police said is a tight-knit local crime circuit.

The search for the 9-month-old predator highlights a little-known sector of criminal activity in the Bayou City, where investigators in the past year have seen exotic animals such as bear cubs vanish under similar circumstances.

In India’s case, one Houston Police Department commander surmises the tiger is still in the city and has been handed off a dozen times or so since the moment a pair of police officers watched the exotic feline speed away in the back of a Jeep Cherokee.

“We’ve talked to the players,” said Ron Borza, head of HPD’s Major Offenders — which leads the Animal Cruelty team. “It’s very hard to hide an animal of that size.”

The lone man publicly linked to India’s disappearance — Victor Hugo Cuevas — has remained silent on where he took the tiger Sunday after a viral video showed the cat’s escape from a home he rented in the Energy Corridor area. Cuevas, arrested Monday after he was charged with fleeing from Houston police, was freed Wednesday from the Fort Bend County jail after posting bond.

Victor Cuevas appears with his lawyer Michael Elliott after bonding out of jail, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, at the Fort Bend County Jail in Richmond. Cuevas was arrested Monday after fleeing a Houston Police Officer with a missing tiger in west Houston.Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer

Cuevas was returned to the same jail Friday, after a judge revoked his bond in a separate murder charge and raised bail to $300,000.

His lawyer, Michael Elliott, has said he, too, is looking for the tiger and that his client is not the tiger’s owner. Just before the court hearing, Elliott said Cuevas “loves this tiger very much” and cares for it from time to time.

Borza disclosed Monday that investigators were eying an exotic animal ring in connection to India’s disappearance, and that a tiger found in 2019 an abandoned garage may have ties to the same ring.

The group, he said, is small and relies on social media to advertise their animals to sell and trade. Some advertise the animals to the curious to pet for a price, Borza explained. Making a living on exotic animals is tough, he continued. He suspects that some members have stepped up their business to include the drug trade.

“We have found drug scales, large amounts of cash,” the commander, who has led Major Offenders for nine months, said. “Some people just appear to not have a job — sometimes they’re doing something illegal on the side.

“It’s usually more than just selling exotic animals,” he continued.

Elliott denied that his client was involved in a crime ring but acknowledged it was possible that people “upstream” might be.

He said he is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and turned over everything he knew to police, despite their accounts that he and Cuevas were being uncooperative. 

Cuevas told Elliott he took the cat to the owner, the lawyer said. Elliott added he gave authorities the name of the owner, but India wasn’t found. 

Cougars, bear cubs and an alligator

Animal cruelty investigators have detected at least five wild animals — including cougars and the bear cubs — in Houston that should not be. An alligator was recently seized during a raid, Borza said.

Tigers are not prevalent in Houston, he continued, but the city is no stranger to the exotic cats either.

Residents in a southwest neighborhood expressed worry in 1987 when their neighbor brought home a 2-year-old tiger. They could hear it roaring and growling at night. The city forced the owner to relocate the exotic animal.

Houston Police Commander Ronald Borza talks to reporters about the investigation into a man whose tiger was on the loose on the 1100 block of Ivy Wall Drive, on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Houston.
Houston Police Commander Ronald Borza talks to reporters about the investigation into a man whose tiger was on the loose on the 1100 block of Ivy Wall Drive, on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Houston.Godofredo A. Vásquez/Staff photographer

In 2000, a man’s pet tiger in Channelview ripped off the arm of his 4-year-old nephew. . That same year, Harris County Animal Control seized a loose tiger that a woman found on her north Houston lawn. The owner was cited for failing to register the wild animal as the cat was transferred to the city’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care Animal Shelter and then a wildlife sanctuary, Eddie Miranda, animal control spokesman, said.

Two years later, the city of Houston impounded another tiger, according to Houston Chronicle archives.

Spotty records with BARC were unable to determine the extent of a tiger problem in the city, where it is illegal to own one. A handful of tiger calls have trickled in over two decades — at least two of which were reported in the past five years, including the striped predator found stashed in 2019 in a foreclosed east Houston home.

The Houston SPCA accepted a Bengal tiger among a group of 14 exotic animals in 2000, and another in 2006 from a San Antonio area home, its officials said.

Court records have more recently expanded on the endangered species’ prevalence and the lack of oversight in the Houston area.

In 2016, local authorities and state game wardens descended on a woman’s Harris County home and found a menagerie of exotic animals, including three tiger cubs and an adult roaming the residence. The woman, Trisha Meyer, convicted later of theft, had allowed her 14-year-old daughter to be around the cats, according to court records.

The game warden saw the teen “petting and making physical contact with the tigers and the tigers making contact with her.”

The next day, county officials returned to investigate Meyer further but the tigers were gone, Miranda said. Meyer was charged with endangering a child but that case was dismissed amid a guilty plea to theft, which involved swindling a woman of cash related to the sale of a Savannah cat — another exotic feline.

She received two years deferred adjudication. Within weeks of that case’s end, the investigator behind those charges tied her again to theft for another alleged exotic cat sale. That case is ongoing.

Court records from those cases cite as one avenue for prospective pet owners to procure unusual animals. The site lists at least two people from Wisconsin and Louisiana recently seeking a tiger cub as a pet.

Tigers made headlines again that year when a tiger was found wandering a Conroe subdivision, authorities said.

Sgt. Jeff Smith, Conroe Police Department spokesman, said animal control officers picked up the 5-month-old cat. The young feline lived at a Humble property but the Tax Day Flood, he said, forced its owner, Cody Tibbitts, to flee for dry land at a friend’s Montgomery County home. The tiger escaped the yard by scaling a fence.

Tibbitts’ mother, Julie Tibbitts, laughs about the tiger now but she remembers how destructive the young cat, named Nahla, was.

“I was so aggravated at Cody for bringing a tiger home — who does that,” his mother said this week. “Nahla and Simba (his pet mountain lion) would be chewing on the couch.”

She said Tibbitts procured the tiger from a man, whose identity she did not know, who brought her to the set of a rap music video.

Tibbitts lost custody of Nahla in Conroe Municipal Court after the escape and was charged in Harris County with failure to register a dangerous animal — a charge that Meyer also faced for her tigers.

The tiger went on to live at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, while Tibbitts died in November of that year. His mother said he had an undiagnosed enlarged heart.

Keeping track of tigers

Captive tigers in the U.S. are thought to outweigh the estimated 3,500 — or fewer — tigers in the wild today.

The U.S. Humane Society shared estimates that between 5,000 to 7,000 captive tigers live in the country, with only 400 of them in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and another 800 at reputable sanctuaries.

“The remaining tigers and many other big cats are primarily at unaccredited breeding facilities, poorly run roadside zoos, traveling zoos, circuses, and private menageries where the greatest risk of fatal attacks or injuries are likely to occur — and likely a vast majority of these remaining tigers are products of the exotic animal trade,” said Lauren Loney, Texas State Director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Keeping track of how many captive tigers are in Texas is typically left to local authorities and the Department of State Health Services. Some municipalities, such as Houston, prohibit wild animal ownership, though private ownership is generally legal in Texas as long as the owners register the animal with the proper local government agency and notify the Department of State Health Services of their animal, according to state codes.

Waller County Sheriff's Office deputy Wes Manion talks about his encounter with a tiger yesterday on the 1100 block of Ivy Wall Drive on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Houston. Manion, who was off-duty at the time, arrived shortly after seeing posts by neighbors.
Waller County Sheriff’s Office deputy Wes Manion talks about his encounter with a tiger yesterday on the 1100 block of Ivy Wall Drive on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Houston. Manion, who was off-duty at the time, arrived shortly after seeing posts by neighbors.Godofredo A. Vásquez/Staff photographer

Sixty tigers are known by the agency, including 34 in Collin County and 17 in Kaufman County, north and east of Dallas, respectively, officials said.

Harris County keeps its own log of tigers and other wild animals in its jurisdiction. But, Miranda said, none of the county’s 42 registered wild animals are tigers. Previously registered tigers have since died or moved, he continued.

Anyone who fails to register their big cat could face a misdemeanor Failure to Register a Dangerous Animal charge.

The records fall short of tracking illegally-owned animals.

Animal rights activists have long disavowed the keeping of tigers as pets.

Borza warns that some captive tigers, especially those that fall prey to the exotic trade, may not obtain the nutrient-rich diet they require.

“You can’t do that in a house just living off of chicken,” he said.

Their behavior is also an issue. Young tigers may start out playful, but that changes after six months, Houston Zoo general curator Kevin Hodge said.

All carnivores play as a way of learning how to hunt and kill, and their increasing size makes them powerful, Hodge said. Tigers can take down an animal weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

Hodge said he hears of trafficked animals in Houston “on occasion.” Those are usually found at the airport, where people have been caught smuggling smaller wild animals such as turtles, parrots, snakes or lizards, he said.

Despite the size of the cats, it can be difficult to track an illegally held wild animal to a residence, Borza said. But there is one giveaway.

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“The smell,” he said. “No matter how clean that person is, there’s usually always a strong urine scent. It smells like a zoo.”

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