Their squawks echoed from inside the neat, ranch-style home, sounding more like parrots than tiger cubs. Then James Garretson carried Hulk into the living room, where the McCabe family waited on the couch. The kids giggled as he placed the squirming cub on nine-year-old Ariel’s lap and pushed a baby bottle into its mouth. “Hold the bottle, just like that. You got it?” She nodded.
Everyone beamed, fondling Hulk’s rough, striped fur as Garretson hovered nearby. The 12-week-old, cocker spaniel-size cat clutched the bottle in his oversize paws, sucking with wild enthusiasm. When the bottle was empty, the cub wandered onto the coffee table and swatted our photo gear.
Garretson lured him back with another bottle to give Ariel’s five-year-old brother, James, a turn. Then the rambunctious cub leaped off the sofa, grabbed me from behind, gripped my legs with surprising strength, and tore five-inch scratches into my thighs. He sank his claws in and held on. Garretson peeled him off, and all made light of it with nervous laughs. Playful. Just acting like a kitten.
We met two more tiger cubs in a back room at the Ringling Animal Care Center in Oklahoma (which has no connection to the famous circus). Outside, we watched six adult tigers lounge in their pools or stalk one another, overweight but seemingly happy and living in clean enclosures.
That was in September 2018.
I later learned that seven tigers under Garretson’s care at another facility had killed a woman in 2003. Court documents noted the cats were “extraordinarily hungry” and had reached through flimsy cattle fencing to rip Lynda Brackett’s arm off “in a feeding-like frenzy.” The 35-year-old, who worked there as a volunteer, bled to death. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined Garretson $32,560 and ordered him to never again exhibit, breed, buy, or sell animals that required U.S. federal licensing—including tigers. But by 2017 he was working at the Ringling center with new cats. The center was operating under a USDA license held by his girlfriend, Brittany Medina.