By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The neighbor's constantly barking dog may not be so bad after all. Montgomery County is suddenly wrestling a bigger pet problem: 10,000-pound pachyderms.
And camels. And two apes, a black bear, llamas, a bobcat, a Bengal tiger and a puma, along with other large exotic cats.
Those are only the registered animals; authorities are unsure how many other beasts belong to residents in the artificial jungle out there, in the more remote areas of the county to the north of Houston. While sightings can provide a delightful break in the monotony of daily life, they also can be deadly, at least to the animals involved.
In November 1998 the hamlet of Cut and Shoot organized a posse that killed two Siberian tigers that had slipped away from their pen ["When the Circus Came to Town," by Brad Tyer, February 11, 1999]. That scare -- the only known victims were a mauled hog and dog -- apparently wasn't enough to excite the populace into pushing for tougher regulations.
The real push turned to shove last month, after Robin Walker's brush with an Asian elephant.
Walker points to the evidence: huge prints compressing his backyard. "There it was," he says. "That big 'bulldozer' was in my backyard, and it knocked my door off its hinges with its trunk."
At the time, Walker was in bed, recovering from a December heart attack. His wife, Deborah, was cleaning the kitchen when she saw the elephant in the window. Her screams awoke Walker, who says he went outside for a confrontation.
"What else could I do?" he asks. "I didn't want that thing ramming through my house."
The elephant followed him to the wooden fence on his property line. When another elephant lifted up its head and roared, the stray elephant ran through the fence like it was "a matchbox," he says. While the animal didn't injure him, its trainer did, Walker insists.
He says he yelled at the trainer to get control of his elephants, for chrissakes. Walker later told police that the two argued and the elephant handler struck him with a long pole capped by a blade, a tool of the animal-training trade. No charges were filed.
Walker knows a trespassing trunk when he sees one, however. He identified the pachyderm perp. It was Jean, one of six elephants that he says have harassed his family infrequently over several years. He has had enough of the bully herd. Walker wants action.
When Walker moved into his east Montgomery County house in 1985, neighbor Bill Swain already had 11 years on the neighboring spread. And so did his collection of creatures. Swain owns Trunks & Humps, a business that provides elephants and other exotic animals for live performances and movie shoots around the country.
Swain's wife is a trapeze artist, and he's a circus veteran and animal trainer. He says Jean and the other members of the herd are tame; downright good neighbors, in fact. Swain disputes much of Walker's history of life in eastern Cut and Shoot. He says none of the animals have caused problems in nearly two decades of performances, and there was only one other brief escape from their home.
"I know it's difficult living next to a guy with elephants," Swain says. "But they and the rest of the animals are harmless."
Walker says he cannot allow young children who visit to play in the front yard, for fear that a llama might bite their fingers off. His lawn chairs have been good only for growing mold, he says, because people are afraid to sit within the field of fire of a spitting camel.
Those problems pale in comparison to another complaint: odors. An adult elephant consumes about 300 pounds of feed daily. While a lot of that gets digested, what comes out the other end is raising a big stink among neighbors. Walker says he has seen, and smelled, eight-foot-high mounds of manure.
Sheila Mitchell's nose also knows. The area resident scoffs at sightseers trying to catch safari-like glimpses of the herd. "You know people come around here thinking it's real neat living next to elephants. Well, it ain't real neat. It stinks. It ain't neat that my house smells like manure. I'm embarrassed to have people over."
Cut and Shoot City Council showed it gives a shit about the elephant excrement problem. Councilmembers advised Swain to take out a newspaper ad offering people the dung as free fertilizer. And the municipality, under an exemption from an ordinance, allows Swain to have only two elephants.
That puts the veteran trainer on the tusks of a dilemma. Three members of the herd are visitors of sorts; he says he is caring for them while a Dallas-area relative who owns them recovers from an illness. But the other three are part of Swain's own family. Selling elephants, he explains, involves a lot of time and paperwork, because the Asian ones are considered endangered.
"By the end of the month, I'll get them down to three," he says. Asked by Mayor Lang Thompson if he would comply with the city's limit, Swain replied, "I'd be lying if I said I would."
Swain did tell the council he would build a chain-link fence to hold the elephants, to comply with orders from inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If owners register animals with the USDA, their pens and pets are subject to annual inspections, but they can then avoid county registrations.
If they sign their pets up with the county, they must post warning signs and notify officials of all births. Either way, they are required to keep their animals in secure enclosures. But the overlapping federal-county authority, coupled with municipal ordinances, adds to the difficulties of monitoring the animals, says Tim Holifield, Precinct 3 constable and animal control supervisor for Montgomery County. County commissioners are reviewing a proposal by Holifield to force owners to register on both federal and county levels.
Reginald Parr, the owner of the two tigers killed in 1998, had registered them with the USDA. While also a resident of the Cut and Shoot area, he is not associated with Swain or his business. The tigers reportedly escaped when an attendant entered their enclosure to feed them. Swain told authorities the elephant got loose when a large fallen tree limb insulated the animal from an electrically charged barrier.
Meanwhile, the county's Carriage Hill Community Improvement Association wants a judge to decide if a 70-pound puma, called Shasta the kitty by her owners, should be removed from that Montgomery County subdivision as a danger to neighbors.
In Cut and Shoot, Swain has made good on one of his promises to officials. He rebuilt the wooden fence next to Walker's property and fortified it with a new chain-link fence. Both fences have been expanded to form barriers between the animals and adjacent Texas 105. But six elephants were seen on those stomping grounds last week.
Walker says Cut and Shoot should enforce its ordinance against elephant overloads. He recoils at the laughter he hears from others about his woes with the herd next door.
"It ain't funny that I've got a zoo living next to me," he says. "If I wanted to live next to a zoo, I would have moved to Hermann Park."