MARINGÁ, Brazil — Dan slurped desperately on his pink nursing bottle and spilled milk all over the place, while his brother Tom waited to take a swim in the family pool.
It would be a typical family scene if not for the fact that Dan and Tom tip the scales at 700 pounds each, have claws that could slice a man in two and were raised along with seven other tigers sleeping in the beds of Ary Borges’ three daughters.
The big cats continue to amble about his humble home in the middle of an industrial neighborhood in the southern Brazil city of Maringá, even though experts say the situation is “crazy” and sure to eventually lead to a mauling.
Borges also has two lions, a monkey and a Chihuahua named Little inside his makeshift animal sanctuary, where man and beast live together in his spacious red-dirt compound, separated from the outside world by tall metal fences and high wooden walls.
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The Brazilian family is locked in a legal dispute for the cats, with federal wildlife officials working to take them away. While Borges has a license to raise the animals, Brazilian wildlife officials say he illegally bred the tigers, creating a public danger.
Borges says it started in 2005, when he first rescued two abused tigers from a traveling circus. He defends his right to breed the animals and says that he gives them a better home than they might find elsewhere in Brazil.
“Sadly there are so many animals dying in zoos that have no oversight. My animals are treated extremely well … we’re preserving and conserving the species,” he said. “We have a great team of veterinarians. We give them only the best, but we’re being persecuted.”
Ibama, Brazil’s environmental-protection agency that also oversees wildlife, declined repeated requests for comment. The agency is working through courts to force Borges to have the male tigers undergo vasectomies so they can’t reproduce. It also wants his caretaker license confiscated and to obtain the cats. Borges appealed, and the matter is pending before a federal court.
Borges has strong support in Maringá for his cause, and this year the City Council passed a measure that banned vasectomies on wild animals within city limits.
There have been no incidents with the tigers turning aggressive, which the Borges family attributes to cats being raised in such proximity to humans.
Ary’s daughter Nayara Borges, 20, who grew up with the tiger cubs sleeping in her bed until they became too big, says she thinks the big cats would be mistreated if taken away, “and our family would go into a severe depression.”
Her sister Uyara, 23, agreed, saying the cats are family. “At first we were scared of them, but as time went on, we saw them every day, fed them, gave them baths and water, and we started to fall in love with them,” Uyara said. She trusts the cats so much, she allows her 2-year-old daughter, Rayara, to sit atop them.
Experts question the Borges family’s efforts. “It’s crazy,” said Patty Finch, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. “It’s a very dangerous situation, especially if there are young children around — they easily trigger a tiger’s hunting instinct.”
Finch said: “You will see people sometimes get lucky for a while, but sooner or later an accident is going to happen.”
Upkeep for the tigers and lions costs about $9,000 a month. Borges pays for it by renting the tigers out for movie and commercial shoots, charging $9,000 a day, and with the money he makes running a dog kennel within his compound.
Inside a high fenced-in area where the tigers now sleep, Borges roughhoused with the animals, playfully slapping one on the flank and then leapt atop him, holding onto the animal’s fur with both fists and grinning widely as the cat growled.
“My father would die or kill himself if these tigers are taken away,” Uyara said.