When the Circus Comes To Town

And the stars of the show end up dead

Reginald Parr doesn't look like he should -- not if he's supposed to be the good guy. None of his businesses -- welding, rental property maintenance, big-cat stewardship -- are particularly clean endeavors. He wears his hair long and stringy and brushed back into a thinning suggestion of the blond lion-tamer pompadour he sports in old pictures. His shirt is perpetually buttoned just far enough up to cover the claw scar on his belly, which isn't all that far.

He drives pickups and owns a bulldozer and keeps rusty travel trailers and broken cement mixers and tigers and Rottweilers on 12 acres of dark, wet and hidden land in Montgomery County. He owns another 100 acres in the area but isn't doing anything with it.

He is smart enough to know that these things will define him in the public eye as white trash, and he has too much pride in the dream of his finished "Animal Extravaganza" -- with the man-made lakes and the snow tigers on the island in the middle, with the research facility and the veterinary tools with which he will care for his own -- to let a photographer shoot it in its present condition: some cleared trees in a pile, the dozer partially dismantled and supporting a lightning-struck tree limb, marsh where the lakes will be, lots of tin. The warren of cages where his animals are penned is the best-kept facility on the property.

On the other hand, the people who killed Parr's two tigers don't much fit the good-guy mold either. There were too many of them, with too many guns, too eager to shoot down animals that might have been saved, if things had been handled differently.

No clear-cut good guys, no incontrovertible bad guys.
Still, two dead tigers.

It was all over the local news for a couple of days, Sunday and Monday, November 8 and 9, six o'clock and ten: the search for two escaped tigers in Cut and Shoot, Texas; video of four-wheeled mud runners loaded down with men and guns and what sure looked like kids and more guns; deputies and constables and officers of several stripes and a small volunteer army of locals swept up in the romance and adrenaline of an honest-to-God safari. And draped across the back fenders, the limp carcass of a dead tiger.

There was quite a scare, apparently. One tiger was killed the day it escaped, but another, the smaller female, remained out overnight, and residents kept their dogs and their kids inside. One of the news stations reported that the tigers were cornered near a local elementary school (which turned out to be a false alarm). Rumors circulated about past escapes and the shadowy figure of the tigers' owner, about whom no one seemed to know much. Convenience store sales of locally packaged emu jerky got a small spike from the influx of souvenir-hunting reporters.

The second tiger ended up getting killed, on the second afternoon, and then the news crews disappeared from sight until the next week, when heavy rains flooded much of Montgomery County, transforming it from a merely figurative backwater into a literal one. The Chronicle quoted Scott Kurtz, who fired the first shot at the second tiger, as saying, "It's too bad she had to be killed. I just reacted. I'd rather it could have come out of the woods alive. It's a beautiful animal."

I drove out there three days after the last tiger was shot and stood in the rain at the end of Reginald Parr's mud driveway until Zettler Monroe Cude Jr. wandered out to see who was there. Reginald had asked him not to talk to reporters. There would probably be an investigation. But Cude sat in my truck out of the rain and smoked a cigarette and told me a little of what happened, the gist of which was that he fucked up when he accidentally let the cats out, but there hadn't been any real reason for those tigers to die. And that there hadn't been any real intention, on the part of the folks who killed them, to do anything but.

Reginald Dwight Parr, whose friends call him Lefty, grew up in his mother's modest suburban home, just a few miles north of downtown Houston. The house featured huge picture windows looking onto the street, but to Reginald the home's exceptional characteristic was inside: an elevated span of built-in shelving dividing the space between living room and dining room, just a few feet below the gold-flaked stucco of the ceiling, on which was arranged his mother's collection of antique porcelain wildlife figurines.

There were lions and tigers and bears, and giraffes and elephants and hippopotamuses -- most every form of exotic wildlife a boy growing up in suburban Houston was never likely to see outside a zoo. One day, when he was about six years old, Parr dragged his mother away from the stove where she was making dinner and made her look up with him at the jungle parade.

"I'm going to have one of those," he told her, scanning his finger down the shelf, "and two of those, and two of those, and at least a dozen of those."

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