A Guy and His Pet Tiger Walked Into a Bar—Find Out What Happened Next

Chicago man charged after taking carnivorous cub for a walk.

(Design by Lauren Wade)

Mar 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Of all the things one might expect to see on a city street at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, a tiger on a leash probably isn't one of them.

That's what several people in the Chicago suburb of Lockport encountered on Feb. 16 when John Basile, owner of the Big Run Wolf Ranch, took his pet tiger cub, Shere Khan, for a casual stroll. After crossing the Ninth Street Bridge, which prompted several stunned gawkers to snap his photograph, he even brought the tiger into Uncle Ritchie's Place, a bar known for its Bloody Marys.

Uncle Ritchie is lucky he isn't now known for something else bloody. Basile's tiger had already bitten a woman once, when he brought it to the same bar in December, according to St. Louis news station KSDK. That attack was never reported.

This time, though, police did take notice. "Well, it surprised me there's a tiger in the bar," Chief of Police Terry Lemming told the station with very professional understatement. Basile has been charged with two misdemeanors—reckless conduct and possession of a dangerous animal. He is due in court on March 28.

Big Run Wolf Ranch bills itself as a "non-profit, federally licensed educational facility” that focuses on “the education and conservation of North American wildlife." It is home to 10 wolves, several of which were born at the facility, as well as a black bear, a mountain lion, and three coyotes. CBS Chicago, however, describes the facility a bit differently: It’s really “a jumble of cages.”

How Basile or the ranch acquired a tiger, an animal native to the Himalayan foothills, is a mystery. "A tiger in the U.S. can be purchased online or in person for as little as $300," Born Free USA CEO Adam Roberts said last week in a statement.

Even though tigers are an endangered species—with a wild population of fewer than 3,200 individuals—as many as 7,000 tigers live in private captivity in the U.S. alone. Most of these are crossbreeds—mixes of the six remaining subspecies of tiger—and therefore useless for conservation breeding.

While tigers are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, a loophole allows private ownership and commerce as long as transactions do not cross state lines. In addition to the federal law, each state has its own rules regarding exotic animal ownership. In Illinois, for example, only zoological parks, circuses, animal refuges, or "federally licensed exhibits" may possess tigers, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and other "dangerous animals."

Tigers and other big cats in captivity pose a danger to their owners and the people around them. "Wild animals belong in the wild and can never be tamed," Roberts said. "They are ticking time bombs and should not be confined as a pet." Born Free USA maintains a database of "exotic animal incidents," with more than 2,000 injuries, deaths, arrests, and other incidents reported.

A bill working its way through Congress could limit incidents like this in the future. Introduced by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal on July 29, 2013, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act would block people from owning and breeding tigers and other big cats, with exemptions only for wildlife sanctuaries, traveling circuses, and accredited zoos.

Don’t hold your breath for the bill’s passage, however. GovTrack.us gives it a 2 percent chance of being enacted.