LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. – The owner of an escaped tiger fatally shot by wildlife officers said Wednesday that he believes someone opened several gates, enabling the big cat to get out.
Steve Sipek (search), an actor who once played Tarzan, said the gates would have had to be opened before the 6-year-old tiger, named Bobo, could have reached the 12-foot wall surrounding his property. He did not say who might have done it.
"He was let out by somebody who is interested in causing problems," Sipek told CBS' "The Early Show." Sipek has another tiger, a panther, a cougar and lions on his five-acre compound, which is marked by a sign that reads, "Trespassers will be eaten." They did not escape.
Willie Puz, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (search), said Wednesday that Sipek's claim was being investigated. He said Sipek has licenses for the big cats, but said he could not comment on whether they could now be revoked because that is part of the investigation.
Bobo was shot and killed Tuesday when officials say it lunged at a wildlife officer who was trying to capture it.
But Sipek, who developed a soft spot for jungle beasts after playing Tarzan in B-movies decades ago, said he doubted the tiger had to be killed. He said he would have been able to coax the tiger to safety if officers had called him to the scene before shooting it.
"Murder is the word," Sipek said. "They murdered a poor helpless animal that only looked ferocious, as any tiger would, but Bobo had a heart of gold."
A dozen wildlife trackers and sheriff's deputies had searched more than 24 hours for the animal, which escaped Monday. They had kept watch Tuesday in a five-acre area of dense slash pines and palm trees, hoping to catch it.
Officers approached the tiger intending to shoot it with tranquilizers. But the tiger jumped at one officer, who fired a shotgun in self-defense, said Jorge Pino, a wildlife commission spokesman.
"Needless to say, the owner is very distraught. We're distraught," Pino said. "Our concern was to recover this tiger alive and well."
Sipek says he developed his affection for big cats after one pulled him from a fire on a set more than 30 years ago, saving his life, and he promised then he would always take care of such animals if he recovered.
He told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday that wildlife officials had told him they wouldn't try to capture Bobo until later Tuesday evening, so he went to take a shower. He said he was coming back to rejoin the search when he heard five shots and "my heart sank," knowing he hadn't protected Bobo.
"I kept my word, except I failed yesterday, trusting people," he said. He said wildlife officials were laughing after the shooting.
"It was a glorified thing for them," he said.
Puz denied the officers were laughing, saying Sipek was too far away to see the officers' demeanor, which he described as "somber."
Some nearby residents, who moved to the rural area so they could have room for their own pets, had little sympathy for Sipek, saying his big cats are dangerous.
"What I want to know is when he was in captivity, how long did he go without a feeding?" said Kim Smith, who has horses and dogs that she normally keeps outside.
"Tigers are predatorial. All of us moved out here because we're city people wanting a taste of the country. But this is a little funky."
Wildlife officials had said they did not believe the declawed pet would attack. He was never taught to hunt, and had never killed anything or lived in the wild. However, he did bite a woman working inside his cage two years ago, severely injuring her.
An expert on tiger behavior disagreed that Bobo had posed no danger.
"Tigers are wild animals and they retain hard-wired instincts and to say just because a tiger doesn't have his claws — so what? He still has his teeth and they're powerful," said Ron Tilson, conservation director at the Minnesota Zoo.
Sipek's compound sits about 10 miles from West Palm Beach, just off a main east-west thoroughfare.
"He never should have had these animals in the first place," said Andrea Newell, who grew up two doors away and was visiting family on Tuesday.
In 1985, a tame, three-legged black leopard belonging to Sipek eluded searchers for nearly three days before being found wandering near a fence on his property.