MEXICO CITY – Cancun's "Pepe Tiger" may soon lose his big cats and his dream of opening a zoo near the sun-soaked Mexican resort city after a decades-long battle that has seen a mauling, animal cruelty charges and even claims of national sovereignty.
Mexican officials are preparing to remove the eight tigers and two jaguars kept by Jose Juarez Gil — or "Pepe Tiger" — saying they are being kept in unsafe conditions, a charge denied by Juarez Gil who says he loves the cats and lets them swim and run in his makeshift animal refuge on the road to Cancun's airport.
He vowed on Wednesday to fight their removal, saying he will appeal the latest seizure order.
"Do you think I am going to just leave my whole life behind?" asked Juarez Gil.
His surreal tale began in the 1980s, when police started turning over to him tigers and jaguars seized from the private zoos of drug traffickers and other criminals. In the following decades, shopping malls and luxury apartments sprung up around his land on the outskirts of Cancun, but he has stubbornly refused to give up his animals or his property.
Court appeals had allowed his improvised refuge to limp on, despite what authorities and U.S.-based groups said were bad health and diet conditions for the big cats.
All that changed on Monday, when one of his tigers — a cat named "Satan" — somehow escaped his cage and mauled a man. Juarez Gil claims that intruders entered his land to steal machinery and one of them apparently broke the chain on Satan's cage.
The mauled man is recovering from non life-threatening wounds to the head at a Cancun hospital. While local authorities initially identified the victim as an employee of the cat reserve or a nearby property, Juarez Gil says the injured man is one of the intruders.
Spurred by the attack, the Office of the Attorney General for Environmental Protection issued a statement late Monday, saying preparations are being made to seize the animals.
"The definitive seizure of the animals and their subsequent transfer to a more secure and adequate reserve is in the process of being arranged, despite the legal appeals that Juarez Gil has filed," the office said.
Juarez Gil said he had to confront a group of police who entered his land Monday and tried unsuccessfully to shoot Satan.
"They couldn't hit him," he said.
Juarez Gil said he quickly lured Satan back to his cage unharmed and spent a few hours in jail before being issued a fine of about 2,300 pesos ($100), which he says he doesn't have the money to pay. The restaurant where he used to display his tigers for diners and tourists was wrecked by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Largely penniless and afraid of losing his land — the lots around his have grown valuable and he fears real estate interests are trying to force him out — he won't give up his animals, which include a rare Sumatran tiger.
He says the fight is a struggle for national sovereignty, to prove Mexicans can take care of the wildlife as well as any American activist.
Mark Goff, an investigator for the Los Angeles-based group Last Chance for Animals, says the tigers should be moved to an animal rescue sanctuary in Colorado which has experience with big cats.
Goff says the disagreement is about the animals' welfare, not Pepe Tiger's love for the cats or questions of nationalism.
"He's barely keeping them alive on a diet consisting of chicken guts," said Goff. "He's not doing what's best for tigers, he's doing what's best for Pepe."
Afraid of losing his land, Goff said, Juarez Gil "basically seem to be holding these tigers as a trump card" to hold authorities at bay.
Goff says that out of a recent litter of five cubs fathered by Satan, four died. Juarez Gil acknowledges that, though he continues to nurse the remaining cub with a bottle.
"Four baby tigers died in the process and it's got to stop," Goff said.
Juarez Gil acknowledges that he feeds them whatever meat he can get donated or buy cheaply. But he claims poor-but-happy cats swim, run and play in his threadbare enclosure near a coastal lagoon.