There are no longer any B.C. versions of Joe Exotic or Doc Antle or Carole Baskin — those larger-than-life characters with their sprawling properties full of exotic cats profiled in the wildly popular Netflix docuseries Tiger King.
But things were very different a little more than a decade ago.
“There were people like Joe Exotic who claimed they were saving the species by taking the big cats to children’s birthday parties,” Sara Dubois, the chief scientific officer for the B.C. SPCA, told CBC News.
Since 2009, the B.C. government has banned private ownership, breeding and sales of about 1,200 species of exotic animals, including tigers, lions, monkeys and crocodiles. Today, you need a permit to breed or transport any of these animals in B.C., and permits are generally limited to accredited zoos and aquariums, film crews and research institutions.
They are some of the most restrictive regulations in the country, according to the B.C. SPCA.
But it took a tragedy for change to happen.
“The focus was public safety after a number of incidents where individuals were killed or hospitalized as a result of contact with these animals that were previously unregulated,” Dubois explained.
The most high-profile of those incidents was the 2007 death of 32-year-old Tanya Dumstrey-Soos, who was mauled to death when she gave one of her fiancé’s tigers a good-night pat through its cage. Her 14-year-old son and her fiancé’s 15-year-old son watched as the tiger grabbed her leg, fatally severing an artery.
The tiger, which was euthanized two days later, was one of several big cats owned by Kim Carlton on his property at Bridge Lake, near 100 Mile House.
Carlton ran an attraction called Siberian Magic Farm, “where the wonderful worlds of magic and exotic animals come together,” according to his long-defunct website. He performed magic acts with his animals and charged guests for photos with lions and tigers.
At the time of Dumstrey-Soos’ death, the SPCA had been trying to seize Carlton’s tigers for nearly two years.
“The animals were being horribly cared for. The enclosure they were in was about the size of a small living room, and there were two tigers in that enclosure,” the SPCA’s Marcie Moriarty told CBC News after the fatal mauling.
Tigers still being brought into B.C.
Looking back at that time, Dubois says the tragedy only reinforced how urgent it was to take action against private ownership of big cats.
“I’m surprised that we haven’t had more of these instances in the past,” she said.
In 2010, just a year after B.C. changed the law, Carlton also became the first person convicted of violating the new alien species regulations after two lion cubs were seized from his property.
Despite the tough restrictions in B.C., Dubois says there are still problems.
“Even though you can’t have a tiger or lion as a pet in British Columbia, they’re still being brought into the province from other provinces under a loophole for the film and television industry,” she said.
Dubois would like to see that loophole closed now that CGI (computer-generated imagery) has made real animals unnecessary for movie-making.
There are also certain wild cats that aren’t covered by B.C.’s law. That includes servals, small wild cats from the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa.
“They are sold as house cats, and we know — very much so — that they are not. They could really injure a small child,” Dubois said.
Last summer, the SPCA seized 13 servals kept in “horrific conditions” on a property near Kamloops. The SPCA said the cats were living in RV trailers with litter boxes overflowing with feces, no proper ventilation or access to water and no natural light.
Six years ago, a pet serval cat that had repeatedly escaped from a home in Sooke, B.C., was struck and killed by a pickup truck.
“These animals, once they get out, they’re not equipped to be outside in our environment,” Dubois said.
And there is still the occasional big cat that shows up in B.C. illegally, like a cheetah named Annie who escaped from her enclosure in the Kootenays and was photographed running along Highway 3A in 2015.
Annie was one of two cheetahs owned by Earl Pfeifer, who wanted to turn his Crawford Bay property into a cheetah reserve and training centre where children could take the animals for walks on leashes.
His applications for a permit were repeatedly denied, and the two cheetahs are now believed to be in Ontario.