First, the tiger attacked the boy. Then came the lion. They bit him and dragged him, and when it was over, 10-year-old Russell LaLa would be paralyzed for life in Morrison County. Cynthia Gamble's 550-pound pet tiger Tango mauled her to death in her Pine County barnyard. In Mower County, a tiger burst through a gate at an animal park and snatched 7-year-old Emily Hartman in its jaws, inflicting serious injuries.
"You can believe they're just like a big teddy bear, but they're not. There's no margin for error with a predator that big," said Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel, who remembers the horror that night when Russell was attacked at an auto business south of Little Falls in 2005. "From a safety perspective, those cats and any large predator is a time bomb. If you mishandle [one] or are negligent, it's only a matter of time until somebody gets hurt or killed."
It's been eight years since a state wildcat law was enacted to stop the mounting threat to public safety in Minnesota. No violent attacks have occurred since Gamble's death in 2006. Far fewer cases of private ownership are being reported to authorities. And at Minnesota's only accredited wildcat sanctuary, calls for help from owners, law officers and veterinarians have plummeted.
The law stopped short of an outright ban, but it did prohibit Minnesotans from buying big cats after Jan. 1, 2005, and existing owners from breeding their cats. Those existing owners had to abide by new regulations that range from meeting minimal U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements to fortifying fencing, displaying warning signs and registering their animals.
Nobody's prepared to say that Minnesota's dark days of big cat attacks have ended, because anyone ignoring the law might be harboring lions, tigers, panthers, mountain lions, lynx and other "exotic" wildcats at farms and private residences.
Nevertheless, it appears that the trend in Minnesota has reversed, said Tammy Thies, who runs the Wildcat Sanctuary in Pine County not far from where Gamble was killed.
"Where there is awareness of the law, it's really decreased private ownership. I don't know how many animals we would have if we didn't have a law in place," Thies said on a frigid morning when a male lion barked a warning at visitors and two massive tigers that belonged to Gamble playfully stalked each other behind tall electric fences.
The sanctuary, down a dirt road in the woods, isn't a zoo but more of a retirement home for wildcats that have become public threats or suffered abuse.
Thies and her crew care for 110 cats of various breeds on the 40-acre site. Each one has a name, and they have plenty of space to run and play. Big cats in captivity have life spans of about 20 years. About 30 have died over the years at the sanctuary, and they're commemorated with dignity.
But wildcats aren't pets, Thies said, and any of them could charge a human at any time. Workers practice emergency drills, are trained to use firearms, and their daily work includes rounds to check fences and locks. They also follow safety protocol that includes never going inside big cats' habitat.
By comparison, many lions and tigers in private ownership in Minnesota before the new law took effect were found barely restrained in barns and cages, and were being shown to people in zoo-like style.
"People mistakenly assume they can raise a cat and prevent it from being dangerous," Thies said. "We like to put human emotions on animals. We need to look at things from their perspective."
'They can't be trusted'
The attack on the Morrison County boy came when the tiger escaped its cage. After the owner pulled the tiger off the boy, the lion then charged, dragging him along a fence. He suffered permanent head and spinal injuries.
"It was a disturbing scene, no doubt about it," said Wetzel, on duty that night. "We were certainly heavily armed when we went in there. For whatever reason, the cats were agitated. These things are wild animals whether they've lived in a cage all their lives or not. They can't be trusted."
The two attacking cats were destroyed.
"I don't know of any other ownership of exotic animals in my county," said Wetzel, who personally favors a ban on ownership. "I do think the legislation succeeded in making it more difficult and more onerous to own them."
Statewide, no other sheriffs have reported recent problems with wildcats, said Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association. "I think some of the cat owners and others have stepped up to the plate and done a much better job policing themselves," he said.
The author of the legislation, former state Sen. Don Betzold of Fridley, said last week he wanted a stronger law.
"We should have banned private ownership of some of these exotics like lions and tigers," he said. "I can't think of any reason why anybody should own them, but we did put a limit on the breeding and so forth."
Exemptions to the law include game farms, which are permitted to keep such native cats as cougars, bobcats and lynx for selling or pelting. They register with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Fewer than a dozen of those farms might exist in the state, Thies said.
She said the law is working because it discourages people who want to own big cats as a novelty. Owners think big cats somehow define their personalities, she said, as do owners of poisonous snakes and dangerous monkeys.
Holly Henry, who handles communications at the sanctuary, said Minnesota's law will be more effective when all states stop breeding and interstate sales. Nine states, including Wisconsin, have no laws to track or manage captive exotic cats, she said.
Nationwide, a Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act seeks to end breeding and private possession to ensure public safety. Actress Tippi Hedren, a Minnesota native, has accompanied Thies to the U.S. House to lobby for its passage.
"This is a national problem that everyone needs to work together to fix," Thies said.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles