There were deep rumbling sounds outside, as though from the depths of a cave. Do you want to see her? Paula Tholen asked.
She opened her back door, and there in the center of a tall chainlink cage was a genuine African black-maned lioness. Lying behind the mobile home, she looked as comfortable as lions ever seem in the films, lying in the veldt.
"Put your hand up, and she'll lick it," said Paula. "Just be sure to lay it flat. She gets scared of strangers sometimes, and I'm afraid someday, she'll grab one and pull."
The lion saw the hand but did not lick it. Instead, she crashed snarling into the side of the cage. Paula laughed.
"Oh, she won't get you!" Paula said.
Which is basically what she and her husband, Fred, have been trying to tell their neighbors for months now. Get that thing out of Manvel, their neighbors tell them, and Paula and Fred are fighting to keep their baby.
Inside, at her kitchen table, the legs of it all chewed up, Paula flipped through the "brag book" that she takes with her everywhere. Look, she said, pointing to a photo, here's the lion about a year ago with a pacifier. "And these are her giving me a kiss. She still does that, 'cept it's a lot bigger now." And Paula pointed to a photo in which the 150-pound lion was sitting on her lap, apparently taking a bite of her skull.
"She's not my biological child, but she is my child," Paula said. "I've pulled her teeth and wiped her little butt. I hate to say this, but my love for her is stronger than it ever was for my daughters. They know it. They're jealous."
One of these days, Manvel is going to be a hell of a bedroom community, the mayor believes. Before that happens, though, they'll have to build houses in Manvel, and before that happens, the city will have to provide water and sewer services. Manvel is just beginning to work on that.
It remains a scattering of settlers, 3,800 people on 29 square miles, little mobile homes on the prairie a half-hour's drive south of Houston. Manvel is a peaceful place not because the people are any better there, but because there are so few of them. People come to Manvel because they want to be left alone, one resident said, and this is why Fred and Paula Tholen came here last July, and probably it is why everyone was watching when they did.
When she gave directions, Paula Tholen said their mobile home would be the only one on Brier Crest with a For Sale sign out front. A stocky woman, 36 years old, she answered the door in her paramedic's uniform, the front of which was stained.
"Please excuse my clothes," she said. "I had a guy get sick on me. I think it was spaghetti."
Then she sat down. Her husband arrived a moment later from the refinery, a big, earnest man who began ranting about how unfair this whole thing was. Paula told him he was interrupting, and she began at the beginning.
"I was one of these kids who turned over rocks and never stopped," she explained.
In Texas City, she was the kind of kid who snatched up snakes without knowing what kind of snakes they were. They were never poisonous. Once, she even grabbed a porcupine without a puncture. She was lucky. "If I could catch it," she explained, "it was mine."
Paula was 15 and Fred was 18 when they married. Paula soon had two babies and a vast collection of snakes, and before coming inside, Fred would always peep in the window to ensure all the reptiles were safely in their cages. Quite often, they weren't. Paula would have to go looking for them, she recalled, "and sure enough, every time I'd find them under the baby getting warm."
They were Burmese pythons, but they were well-fed, she said, and no threat to her daughters. The children were simply more creatures in a teeming zoo. Over the years, as the children grew, the house in Texas City became a home to tarantulas and scorpions, iguanas, monitor lizards and giant frogs. Some people need people contact, said Paula, but she's always preferred the company of animals.
"I could go on Gilligan's Island and be perfectly happy," she said.
It was about a year ago, after her daughters had moved out, that Paula began thinking maybe she had room in her zoo for the king of the jungle. What do you want for Christmas? Fred asked her. "I know you been wanting a tanning bed."
"Yes," she answered, "but I also want a lion."
Fred wasn't surprised. A lion seemed to him the natural progression in beast ownership, "like starting out with a Volkswagen, and in 15 years, you get a Lexus." Others have bought lions as a symbol of toughness, the progression, say, from a pit bull or a rottweiler. But for Paula, owning a lion would be the ultimate expression of her wild personality, a symbol of her spiritual oneness with the animal world.
They found an exotic animal dealer in Spring, who found a man in Tennessee, who had a cat with a fresh litter. For $1,600, the lion cub arrived via airmail. Fred and Paula picked it up at Hobby Airport. The cat was only three days old, "a tiny little thing," said Paula, "eyes not opened, not walking -- probably weighed two pounds."
Paula had planned to name her "Sasha," from the movie Born Free, but when she got a look at the cub, she knew the name could only be "Nila," after a character in The Lion King. Paula and Fred were told that Nila had to be fed every two hours. With bottles of puppy formula, Paula began taking her to work. The lion required much more care than all her reptiles, and Paula soon gave away the rest of her zoo. She tried to do everything for the lion the mother might have done, and more. When the cub needed to urinate, Paula would stimulate her with a washcloth. She taught Nila how to use the litter box, and she wiped her when she was done. Eventually, Nila was spayed, and after she began shredding the couch, she was declawed. About the time she started chewing on the table, Fred and Paula decided it was time to look for another place.
For a long time, Fred had wanted to live far enough away from Texas City that he wouldn't have to smell the refineries, but near enough to work in them. Manvel was the obvious choice. They called up City Hall and asked if there were any laws against lions. Three times they were told no such laws existed, and so the Tholens decided this was the place for them. In July, they left their four-bedroom house with a pool in Texas City for a double-wide on three acres in Manvel. Right from the start, folks couldn't understand them.
"I don't think I'd move from a brick house to a trailer for a lion," said the mayor of Manvel, Merl Bradley.
"This lion thing has been quite the talk in here," said the lady at Country Video. She wouldn't give her name, but she was happy to have an excuse to tell a wonderful story.
It happened about 40 years ago, she said, to an uncle in Ohio. His job was to travel to Africa and collect wild animals for zoos, and one of these wild animals, a lion cub, she said, he brought home and raised as a pet. Well, this uncle was an alcoholic, see, and one evening, without taking his pet for the evening constitutional, he passed out cold. He was still asleep in the morning when the lion began licking him, discovered his good taste and devoured him whole for breakfast.
All of him?
"Ah hah," said the woman. "'Specially the soft parts."
And you cleaned it up?
"Ah hah. It was gross."
The word in Manvel is that lions are bad. Bad! Any man on the street, if you can find one, will tell you that a full-grown lion is a 600-pound mass of muscle and bone, fang and claw. Without its fangs, it can still crush your skull; without its claws, it can break your arm.
Tales of terror abound: Last September in Crystal Beach, a 400-pound lion was set free during a burglary. It ran wildly through the streets until, poised to attack, it was shot by police. Another lion, being led on a leash through a Houston flea market in the 1980s, closed its jaws around the head of an eight-year-old girl, permanently injuring her. It seems the lion threat is very real.
"A big cat is a big cat is a big cat, and I don't care whose, a big cat always sees a small child as prey," said Charlie Currer. "Go to a zoo and watch a big cat and how he focuses in on a child -- that little, flitting, quivering, running around thing. They can't resist it. It's the same as if you put a little butterfly in front of your house cat."
Currer is one of the wild animal experts consulted during the current crisis by the town fathers of Manvel. One of three USDA animal care inspectors in Texas, he licenses breeders, dealers and exhibitors of exotic animals -- anyone who makes money on them. But neither he nor anyone, really, is responsible for monitoring the owners of pet lions. From the reports of breeders and dealers, he only knows that the number of pet lions is increasing. Houston has a law prohibiting big-cat ownership, but Currer said 20 tigers entered the Houston area in 1995. About 15 of these were pets "and ended up in apartments and who knows where," he said.
The only state law governing big cats requires they be kept in cages that meet the approval of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. That law will disappear in September, when the department returns to overseeing the fishermen and hunters who support it. Cities and counties will have to govern their own lions and tigers then, said Currer, "and if there are no city or county laws, nothing will govern them."
Neighbors speculate that Fred and Paula probably thought they were moving to Timbuktu, instead of "this heavily populated area." It was Roger Love who saw the Tholens arrive last July, that horse trailer clanking along behind them. He told his wife, Patti, who told her friend, Shirley Rogers, who told her friend, Pam Weekley. Before long, the word was out. "Lion in Manvel!!!" the petition read.
It didn't matter that Fred and Paula had spent more than $5,000 on the cage -- a tall, 20-by-30-foot enclosure of chainlink fencing, the poles buried in five feet of cement. Some neighbors worried that Nila would jump out of the cage; others were concerned that children would put their hands through it. Fred took charge of security. He covered the top with more chainlink fencing and had a wooden fence built around the whole of it. But nothing helped. The neighbors knew that what went into a cage can always come out.
Up the street and around the corner from the Tholens, Roger and Patti Love have two children, two horses, a cat, a rabbit and three dogs. Their yard is surrounded by a fence, and on the fence, the sign says "Beware of Dog." Big difference, said Roger Love, between a dog and a lion. If the dogs get out, "I slap them upside the head." You can't do that with a lion.
"It's sad enough that you have to teach your children to beware of drugs and violence," he said, "but you shouldn't have to teach them what to do when they're playing out back and see a lion."
Shirley Rogers wanted to know where that lion will be in a natural disaster -- in a hurricane, tornado or flood. Paula says Nila will be safely with her, lounging inside the mobile home, perhaps, or tucked away in a motel room. That's just what the neighbors fear: the lion leaping through a window, pulling away from a rope, racing after a child. "I'm sure if the lion is used to red, bloody meat, it's not going to show a preference," said Pam Weekley. And Bill Garton said, "If I wanted to live in a damn zoo, I'd move down to Hermann Park."
Garton began thinking about his 30.06 -- the one that killed the pit bull that came after his chickens -- and what might happen to a lion crouched out in his pasture. Boom! Just like on an African safari, but right there in Manvel, without spending a dime. A lot of men began dreaming of big game, and Dan Rogers said, "I'm afraid of the damn bullets as much as I am the damn lion."
It wasn't long before Patti Love began circulating a petition asking "you, as our duly elected officials, to take whatever steps necessary to protect the neighborhoods and the young children." This was signed by 66 people, and faced with the largest protest in his two-and-a-half-year tenure, Mayor Merl Bradley was forced to reconsider his ruling philosophy of letting people live as they wanted to live.
"A lion getting out," he said, "is not like a cow getting out, you know."
On the afternoon Mayor Merl came visiting, Fred had left one of the two locks on the cage unclasped. That chainlink fencing may be extra thick, Bradley observed, but it's on the outside, the wrong side, of the poles. This thing will never hold a lion, the mayor pronounced, and a few days after he left, an ordinance was passed concerning "dangerous animals." Fred and Paula soon received a certified letter:
"I regret to inform you that due to action taken by the City Council on August 1, 1996, you will have ninety (90) days from the receipt of this letter to remove your Black Mane Lion from within the city of Manvel, Texas."
It didn't seem fair to Fred. The city was making a crime out of what wasn't a crime before. But it made perfect sense to Merl. How can you know you don't like lions until you see one?
"There was no law against murder until someone was murdered. Isn't that right?" the mayor said.
Fred and Paula planted their For Sale sign. They also hired a lawyer. In November, a judge agreed to allow them to keep their lion in Manvel until a trial on February 17. It was just a little victory, but news of it spread rapidly among big-cat lovers. Paula soon received a call of congratulations from actress Tippi Hedren and her daughter, Melanie Griffith, who run a lion ranch out in California.
After Fred began receiving death threats for the lion, he strung an electrical wire across the top of the wooden fence and installed a 24-hour video-surveillance system. This is their refuge in Manvel. One of the so-called lion experts told the town there's a 99 percent chance pet lion ownership will end in tragedy -- the owner mauled, the lion destroyed -- but Fred and Paula don't seem worried. When Nila's baby fangs became loose, Paula pulled them and asked a jeweler to put them on a necklace. She and Fred have gone in for tattoos on their arms. Hers is simply a picture of Nila. His reads "The Lion King."
Not long ago, Paula and Fred became grandparents. Sometimes, their daughter leaves the child with them on the condition they not take the baby into the cage. Paula humors her with a promise, but as soon as her daughter is gone, Paula goes straightaway into the cage to introduce one baby to the other.
Nila licked the pregnant belly and now sniffs the baby. She eats five pounds of brisket a day and seems happy enough. There's still room in her cage to leap a few times, and her jumbo-size doghouse has five fans for the summer, a 1,500-watt heater for the winter and a radio that's never off. "KIKK all the time," says Fred. In the morning, he tries to read the paper as Nila tries to sit in his lap. At night, Paula grabs a pillow and sleeps on the doghouse roof. This is their life in the cage.
"It's not any different from having an ex-husband and fighting for custody," Paula says. "I'll fight tooth and nail for her."
She'll max out her credit cards, live on the run, whatever it takes. Several weeks ago, she ran an ad in the Alvin Sun that read, "Help Us Keep Our Lion." After that, Sarah Black, a longtime Manvellian, knocked on her door. She looked around, met the cat and became a friend.
"I don't see a problem here," said Sarah Black. "We've got more serious problems than a little lion in the back yard. I mean, if people want to get excited about killing their kids, we got all these chemical waste dumps around here."
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This was a train of thought that appealed to Fred. What about driving, he said. That's the most dangerous thing he knew, and everyone does it. And have you ever been to a bullfight? A bull can do a lot of damage, "and we have bulls all over out here."
Sarah knew someone who raised gamecocks. "Ever been chased by a gamecock?" she asked. "Now there's a dangerous animal."
So it went for wild dogs and crazed teenagers, too. Manvel was beginning to seem a very frightening place, until Paula Tholen spoke. No, she said, she can't promise her lion will never harm anyone. Life doesn't come with guarantees.
"Only the guy upstairs can guarantee something," she said, "and that's that we're all going to die.