Lions, Tigers And Bears - At Home!

The 400-pound tiger hauled out of a New York City apartment last week is one of thousands of wild animals living in homes across the country, part of a multibillion-dollar industry with little regulation.

Ming was purchased from a private animal dealer by his owner, 31-year-old Antoine Yates, authorities said. Along with the 20-month-old tiger, Yates kept a 5-foot alligator.

There are 15,000 pet tigers, lions, cougars and other "big cats" in the United States, nearly three times as many as in the wild, said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"It's become ... a national epidemic," Pacelle said. "They're sold pretty cheaply. You can buy them on the Internet."

Web sites advertise tiger cubs from $500 to $2,000 or more, depending on the breed. Dealers also peddle lion, leopard and cheetah cubs.

"There are some people who want the biggest gun or the biggest truck," Pacelle said. "Some people want the biggest, baddest pet."

Those in the industry say a properly trained animal lover can take good care of an alligator or a cheetah — and bond with it just like any other pet.

"The emotion you feel toward an animal has nothing to do with the size of the animal. It's just as easy to love a lion as it is a house cat," said Pat Hoctor, a former dealer in Indiana who puts out an industry newsletter called Animal Finders Guide.

Hoctor said he doesn't approve of how Yates kept Ming confined to only seven rooms. The space, he said, wasn't adequate for an animal that can travel up to 100 miles a day in the wild.

Authorities discovered Ming after he attacked Yates for getting between him and a kitten. Yates said he was "heartbroken" by the loss of his tiger, now living in an Ohio sanctuary.

Yates was charged with reckless endangerment and possession of a wild animal, which is banned by city law, said a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

But New York state is among 33 states that have no law banning big cats, said Pacelle.

The federal agencies that regulate wildlife said they have little or no control over wild animals in homes.

"We have no authority over people's pets," said Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health inspection service.

The USDA doesn't regulate individuals who buy the animals but does require the nation's 4,739 exotic animal dealers to obtain licenses, Rogers said.

"Captive, bred animals we're not involved with at all," said Mitch Snow, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency occasionally investigates dealers if they transport wild animals over state lines while violating state law, Snow said.

Kenneth Kraft, owner of the Bearcat Hollow Sanctuary in Racine, Minn., told the New York Daily News that he sold a tiger to Yates. Kraft did not return messages from The Associated Press.

Snow said the service is investigating Bearcat Hollow for possible violations, but he would not elaborate. Kraft was charged last week with falsifying paperwork in the purchase of a Siberian tiger that attacked a girl in 2001.

Nine people have been mauled to death by tigers and scores more attacked in the last five years, Pacelle said. Even well-trained handlers run a risk: Roy Horn of "Siegfried & Roy" was attacked Friday by one of the tigers in his Las Vegas show, and remained in critical condition.

Despite the danger, a desire to connect to the wild motivates some buyers, said Jim Breheny, associate general curator at the Bronx Zoo, who helped remove Ming from Yates' apartment in Harlem.

"People are so cut off from animals and nature this is an aberrant way to try get to close to nature," he said. "A lot of these people think that they're doing the right thing."

Hoctor, who lives on a 25-acre farm south of Terre Haute, Ind., where he now keeps llamas, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens and a few small cats, said people should take husbandry courses to properly care for animals who also live in the wild.

He noted people pursue many hazardous ventures that are commonly accepted.

"Why do people ride motorcycles?" Hoctor said. "Hell, it's a lot more dangerous than raising exotic animals."

By Amy Westfeldt