Victor Hugo Cuevas, previously out on bond for an unrelated murder charge, was arrested Monday for evading police, who say Cuevas loaded the tiger into a white SUV and drove off as officers arrived. The whereabouts of the tiger is currently unknown.
Cuevas was held on a $50,000 bond in neighboring Fort Bend County, which he posted Wednesday. His attorney, Michael Elliott, held a press conference outside the jail with Cuevas by his side. They maintained that Cuevas is not the owner of the Bengal tiger, who they said was a nine-month-old male named “India.”
“(The police) saw my client go out in the yard and retrieve the tiger and they’ve assumed he’s done a whole lot of different things that he necessarily has not done and not guilty of, just like they assumed that the tiger is his,” Elliott argued. “It of course is not.”
Elliott stressed they were working to locate the animal but would not say where his client, who was last seen with the tiger, drove Sunday night with “India” inside an SUV.
“We are both very anxious and looking forward to doing everything we can do to find India,” he said. “We want to find India.”
Owning a tiger is a violation of Houston law, a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum $500 fine, but it is legal under Texas state law with certain restrictions.
A startling sight in Houston
Jose Ramos, a resident in the Houston neighborhood where the incident took place, was eating a meal Sunday night when he looked out the window and saw a tiger sitting in his front yard.
“I had to pinch myself,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Was this real?”
Ramos cautiously went outside to get a closer look. “It seemed a bit skittish,” he said. “But he was making full eye contact with me.”
An off-duty deputy who lives nearby showed up after seeing some photos of the tiger Ramos had posted on a neighborhood email forum, Ramos said.
The deputy had his weapon trained on the tiger when Cuevas came out of a nearby house, pleading with the deputy not to shoot the tiger, Ramos said. “He sounded very stressed out, very anguished by the mere fact that the deputy was aiming at the tiger and ready to shoot him.”
As police units responded, Cuevas put the tiger in a white SUV and drove off, according to Houston Police Commander Ron Borza.
Cuevas is charged with evading arrest/detention with a vehicle, according to Fort Bend County Jail records.
What to do when faced by a tiger
Carole Baskin, of Netflix’s “Tiger King” fame, praised the off-duty deputy in an interview with CNN for his response when confronting the tiger.
“I was so impressed with the deputy that showed up on the scene because he did exactly the right thing, and he showed amazing restraint in not shooting that tiger,” Baskin said.
“He kept eye contact, he backed away slowly. A tiger, if you look down, if you turn, if that neighbor had run back to his door, that triggers their instinct to kill.”
Baskin said those in the neighborhood who were near the tiger were in “extreme danger.”
“Tigers are hardwired to roam hundreds of square miles, so there’s no cage that’s going to be sufficient for them,” she said.
“The only reason that people have tigers as pets is to try to show off to others.”
How agencies are responding
The unique dilemma regarding a missing tiger has resulted in multiple government services and animal groups coordinating on what to do if the tiger is found.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service told CNN the agency is consulting with Houston Police and offering expert advice to make sure the Endangered Species Act is not violated when detaining the tiger.
A spokesperson for BARC — the city’s animal shelter and adoption facility — said animal control officers are assisting Houston Police with the investigation. Per city rules, it is illegal to keep any wild animals that are dangerous to humans in any facility other than an accredited zoo or shelter.
“In the event any such animals are found in Houston, Animal Control Officers will impound the animals and transport them to a secure location — either BARC, another shelter, or regional wildlife facility — to protect the safety of the public as well as the animals’ health,” spokesperson Lara Cottingham said in a statement.
The Black Beauty Ranch has offered to take in the new tiger once it is found, but a decision has not been made by Houston city officials, according to the Humane Society.
HPD Commander Borza said in a press conference on Monday that finding the tiger was a top concern. He added they have also been looking for bear cubs that were missing last year but have yet been located.
CNN’s Holly Yan, Carma Hassan, Keith Allen, Amir Vera and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.