(HOUSTON) — When Maria Torres and her sister-in-law got an emergency notification on the Nextdoor app Sunday night, they had to do a double-take: it said a tiger was on the loose on a nearby Houston neighborhood.
Instead of staying in the house with their doors locked, the two women went on an impromptu safari.
“We got in the car and went to check it out,” Torres told ABC News on Monday.
When they reached Ivy Wall Drive in west Houston, they could barely believe their eyes. Torres took out her cell phone and started recording several people confronting a striped Bengal tiger, including an off-duty law enforcement officer back-peddling with his gun aimed at big cat.
“At first we thought the tiger was walking toward the guys to attack but we realized that he was just trying to go across the street to the house where they were keeping him,” Torres said. “I’m so glad he didn’t get shot but the off-duty cop was very close to doing so. How do you not realize that your pet tiger is missing?”
Victor Senties, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department, told ABC News on Monday that police are actively searching for the exotic animal and its apparent owner after they fled the scene Sunday night at a high speed just as police were arriving.
During a news conference Monday afternoon, Houston Police Commander Ron Borza said the tiger’s owner, whose name was not immediately released, had been charged with murder in November in Fort Bend County, Texas, and is free on $250,000 bail.
“My main concern right now is focusing on him and finding the tiger because what I don’t want him to do is to harm the tiger,” Borza said.
Senties said 911 calls began pouring in at about 8 p.m. Sunday from citizens reporting the strange sighting.
“Witnesses claimed they were driving by the residence and they see what they describe as a Bengal tiger sitting on the front lawn,” Senties said.
He said one of the 911 callers was an off-duty Waller County sheriff’s deputy who was in the area at the time and sprang into action.
“He somehow gets notified or gets wind of what’s going on and he ends up going to the scene, and he’s trying to maintain safety out there and keep everybody back and make sure everything’s OK,” Senties said.
Video taken by Torres and other stunned neighbors showed the apparent owner, described by Senties as a 28-year-old Hispanic man, come out of the Ivy Wall Drive house, grab the tiger by its collar and escort it back into the home.
“The owner of the tiger then takes the tiger … puts it inside his white Jeep Cherokee, gets in the car and he flees,” Senties said. “Our responding units see the vehicle fleeing and they try to initiate a vehicle pursuit but they lose sight of the vehicle.”
Borza said police are hoping to charge the owner with evading police by the end of Monday. He said the man’s name will be released when charges are filed.
He said the wanted man is leasing the residence, described in real estate ads as a 4,541-square-foot, five-bedroom, four-bathroom house.
Borza said the tiger owner also has two monkeys, but added that monkeys are legal to possess in Houston if they are under 30 pounds. He said the whereabouts of the monkeys are unclear.
He said the investigation is being handled by the police department’s Major Offenders Division, which has a unit that deals with animal cruelty cases.
Borza asked the public to be on the lookout.
“Obviously, if you see a (Jeep) Cherokee with a big tiger in it, it would be good to call us,” Borza said.
According to the City of Houston’s code of ordinances, it is illegal to house a wild animal, including tigers and lions, in a residence or a business inside the city limits.
In February 2019, police seized a 350-pound Bengal tiger found caged inside the garage of an empty Houston home. The animal’s owner, 24-year-old Brittany Garza, was arrested in May 2019 and charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty for failing to provide water, food, care and shelter for the tiger.
That tiger was sent to live at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Murchison, Texas.
At the time of her arrest, Garza told ABC station KTRK-TV that she raised the tiger she named “Rajah” from a cub and denied ever being cruel to the animal. “I feel like I lost my child, I think about him every day,” Garza told KTRK-TV.
In February of this year, a young tiger named Elsa was found in the yard in Bexar County, Texas, home, wearing a harness when she was rescued in freezing temperatures. She was also sent to the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch to live.
Lauren Loney, Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, issued a statement Monday condemning people who keep such exotic animals as pets. She said the recent cases show the need for Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety act, which would ban the possession of tigers and lions as pets.
“Yet another dangerous wild animal was apparently on the loose this weekend in Houston,” Loney said. “This inhumane treatment of animals and the public safety risks created by the surplus of tigers in Texas must end.”
ABC News’ Marilyn E. Heck contributed to this report.
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