Kentucky Family Fights to Keep Full-Grown Pet Lion

Amid a backdrop of colorful swingsets, clunky cars and giggling kids, a beast with a thick mane and daunting eyes paces in his cage.

To some around this small Appalachian town, he's a frightening menace. To others, he's the local mascot, a novelty.

But to the Collins family, he's "Kitty," their beloved pet lion.

"That's my kid," said 22-year-old Melissa Collins, a married mother of three, as she pet Kitty through his 300-square-foot chain-link cage.

County officials may try to force the Collins family to find a new home for Kitty soon, though the family says it will fight the effort.

A county ordinance that would bar animals deemed "inherently dangerous" by the state is up for a vote Friday.

If it passes, Kitty would no longer be allowed to stay in this rural neighborhood, where homes are within a few yards of each other.

Pauline Hall, who lives three houses down from the Collins family, said she lives in fear of the lion.

"I think it needs to be in a different environment," Hall said. "Everybody here keeps their guns loaded."

A Kentucky regulation that went into effect in July prohibits transporting animals labeled inherently dangerous by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, such as vipers, alligators, bears, tigers and lions.

But folks like Barry and Melissa Collins, who owned dangerous animals before the rule went into effect, are allowed to keep them, said Laura Patton, a state wildlife biologist. Bringing in more dangerous animals or breeding the ones they already have is still against the rules.

The state does not have a law that specifically deals with the ownership of exotic wildlife, she said.

Large exotic cats, such as lions, tigers or leopards, make up a small number of the transport permits each year. The vast majority are for reptiles, such as anacondas, basilisks and bearded dragons.

The federal government only requires licenses for exotic animals if they are used for breeding or as an exhibition, so it was unclear how many people are keeping exotic animals as pets.

The Collinses said they were caught by surprise when the ordinance was proposed. They said they've heard a handful of complaints since they brought the lion home, but nothing serious.

"He's not bothering nobody," said Barry Collins. "Why take him from where he's happy and put him where he's not?"

When asked whether he considers his lion to be inherently dangerous, Collins insisted that any pet can behave unpredictably. He doesn't feel that Kitty is a threat to his 5- and 1-year-old boys or 3-year-old daughter.

Another neighbor, April Osborne, also defended Kitty: "I think they should be able to keep it — anything can turn on you. That thing is a big old baby."

Barry Collins purchased Kitty three years ago, when he was a 5-pound cub at a flea market. Collins said he obtained a state permit to bring the lion into Kentucky and a license to keep it in Floyd County.

But now that Kitty's purr has reached a deafening moan and his girth has exceeded 400 pounds, some Floyd County residents want him gone.

The only way to kick Kitty out of the neighborhood is with a county ordinance, said Floyd County Attorney Keith Bartley.

"I'm sure it is a big pet to the owners," Bartley said, "but the one time something goes wrong with a cat that size, someone's going to be really hurt or dead."

The Collins' also have a dozen dogs and a lizard.

They said all their pet purchases were a way to save the animals from harm or abuse.

"If I can save one I will," Melissa Collins said.

Bartley said he's working with a local veterinarian to find a zoo or a wildlife sanctuary where the lion could be placed.

"It's not just about protecting those people living in Melvin, it's also about the lion itself," said Bartley. "If they love that lion, I don't believe they'd want it to live its entire life in a dog cage on a concrete pad."

Barry Collins said that if the ordinance fails, he may put up a privacy fence that would give Kitty more space to roam. For now, he is trying to sway the vote of county officials by encouraging friends and supportive neighbors to speak up for Kitty.

"I'm going to fight it all I can," he said, adding that he would appeal the vote if the ordinance passed. "I'm going to drag it out as far as I can."