LIFESTYLE

Exotic animals, symbols of macho power for cartel honchos, end up discarded

What could be more macho than buying a lion or tiger or leopard for a pet?

In Mexico, exotic animals are the pet of choice for cartel leaders who buy big cats to show off their power.

But after two months, animal rescue workers say, the narco-traffickers end up having buyer’s remorse. They come to realize the reality of living alongside a dangerous and destructive predator.

“Big cats are seen as status symbols, particularly within the organized crime community,” said Eduardo Serio, the founder of the Black Jaguar White Lion Foundation in Mexico City, the world’s largest rescue center for big cats with more than 260 predatory felines on its 140-acre grounds. “But seriously? Who wants a lion for a pet? They’re the most beautiful animals on the planet, but they’re extremely dangerous.”

The foundation has exotic animals from circuses and zoos that have closed. But some of the animals come from cartel leaders who didn't realize how much trouble it would be to own them.

 “You can get a lion for $1,000, but the novelty is quickly outweighed by the reality of living with a dangerous animal,” Serio told Fox News Latino. “Having a lot of money gives a person a great opportunity to show the world how stupid they are.”

“You can get a lion for $1,000 ... Having a lot of money gives a person a great opportunity to show the world how stupid they are.”

- Eduardo Serio, founder of the Black Panther White Lion Foundation

Serio sees himself as a father to the 260 cats on his ranch in the hills above Mexico City, and refers to himself as the "Papa Bear."

“People don’t have the knowledge to care for a tiger," he said. "They give them toys, which they tend to eat rather than play with, so when they arrive here we generally have to perform surgery to remove squeaky balls from their stomachs.”

Since its founding in 2013, the center has become a social media phenomenon, with 6 million followers on Instagram alone, due to the extraordinary videos of Serio playing with the foundation's big cats as if they were harmless puppies. Celebrities have also helped make it popular spot – Khloé Kardashian, Debra Messing and Paris Hilton, among others, have trekked to Mexico City to take photos with Serio’s exotic animals.

 

But it’s not without its critics.

It has been slammed by animal-rights groups that accuse it of being more of a backyard breeding program than a sanctuary.

“Overall, I’d say that Black Jaguar White Tiger is nothing more than an ego project from a well-meaning, but seemingly delusional man…” wrote 911 Animal Abuse. “Sadly, like so many animal hoarders, he can’t see the harm he’s doing. This situation is only going to get worse, I’m afraid, especially with the lack of laws in Mexico regarding exotic animals as pets.”

Serio takes pride in bottle-feeding the cats.

“You have to remember that most of my kids have known me all their lives,” he told FNL. “There’s always a risk, but I’m happy to take it.”

The sight of Serio playing with the animals is extraordinary. Standing in the center of a grassy compound, surrounded by top predators pacing impatiently in their enclosures, he raises his arms to signal that the door to their pens be opened.

Eduardo knows each cat by name, and, as the portal to the first cage opens, he calls to a 600-pound male lion named Han (after Han Solo from the "Star Wars" movies), who bounds out of his confinement at a sprint to tackle "Papa Bear" to the ground.

“They’re jumpy and angry at me, because I haven’t been around for the last 10 days,” he explained as he wrestled to keep the male’s jaws away from his neck and face.

Eduardo established the center in 2013 when a friend in possession of a black panther cub was thinking of selling it to a pet store.

“I went crazy and convinced her to give Cielo to me,” he told FNL. “I came back to Mexico City. Three months later they sent me a tigress, then a leopard, then a lioness and 260 big felines later – here we are.”

The foundation has the backing of Mexico’s environmental protection governmental agencies, and it is currently planning to expand its operation from 140 to more than 300 acres, he says. Some have criticized it because it does not meet the standards of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which requires the sanctuary to meet stringent criteria.

Eduardo says there is no limit to the amount of big cats he will rescue, and prides himself on the fact that the Black Jaguar White Lion Foundation has never refused an animal.

“If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” he said. “I can’t complain about the world going to hell if I’m not doing my part ... I sold my watches, my cars, my art collection to save these animals.”

Apart from his personal resources, the foundation relies upon donations from its 8 million social media followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“I have always said that I built my foundation with my heart, my iPhone and Instagram,” he says. “Without those three, none of it would exist.”

Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance writer based in Mexico.