KAUFMAN, Texas -- For years, Kaufman County has cultivated a reputation as something of a haven for exotic wild animals and their owners, a place where elephants, monkeys and big cats might be as at home on the range as cattle, pigs and dogs.
But after a tiger mauling and the discovery of dead and mangled livestock, this East Texas gateway is reconsidering its historically relaxed approach to regulating exotic _ and some say dangerous _ animals.
While more than 70 percent of Texas counties prohibit keeping dangerous wild animals as pets, Kaufman County is among the few in the state that lets its 89,000 residents keep a giraffe or bear with the right paperwork.
But county leaders are now try to decide how to regulate their growing animal kingdom _ if not evict the county's half-dozen known exotic animals owners altogether.
The issue comes as other counties are defining just how "wild" a wild animal they're prepared to tolerate. In Kendall County, just north of San Antonio, commissioners there are in a give-and-take process of deciding whether to ban certain exotic birds or reptiles, pitting property rights against public health and safety concerns.
"I wish we could find some identity we could promote," Kaufman County commissioner Jerry Rowden said. "But I don't think it needs to be exotic wild animals."
A decision in Kaufman County could come this month.
At the very least, Rowden wants the county to stop any more exotic animals owners shooed away elsewhere from seeking refuge in Kaufman.
That includes folks like Beth Junell, who pays $1 a pound for horse meat freshly processed from the local Dallas Crown Inc. and serves it to her three servals _ small African cats that grow to about 40 pounds and are included on the state's list of dangerous wild animals.
The Junells moved to Kaufman last year after they were effectively run out of nearby Combine, a town of 1,700. They lived there just three months before neighbors _ including a nearby school _ complained and the city passed an ordinance banning servals.
"There was the thought of one of those cats being loose, jumping the fence and mauling one of those kids," said former Combine city councilman Mike Ellison. "A lot of people also have dogs in their yard. If one or two of those things got loose, there was a fear those cats would go picking them off."
Servals join bobcats, baboons and 16 other animals classified as a "dangerous wild animal" under a 2001 Texas law. Each locale decides how it will deal with such animals, though most ban them entirely. Some counties _ about 13 percent _ adopt the most liberal option allowed by the law and merely require that owners register their animals, according to a 2005 survey by Dallas attorney and animal activist Skip Trimble.
The law does not apply to zoos, research facilities and sanctuaries like Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation near Kendalia. Lynn Cuny, the center's executive director, says it inhumane to keep wild animals in a backyard refuge and wants all counties to outlaw the practice.
"Texas is a huge state with a lot of private property and not a lot of federal land," Cuny said. "There's not much in the way of regulation or enforcement. ...It's simply not morally right to be doing this to animals."
Such a ban would force Doug Terranova and dozens of exotic animals off his ranch, where his elephants and camels are visible from the road winding in front of his property. The menagerie includes the University of Houston's official cougar mascot, an elderly timberwolf that appeared in "Walker, Texas Ranger" television series and a spider monkey set to appear in an episode of "Prison Break" on the Fox network.
Some of the 60 animals on Terranova's property are owned by others who live in neighboring counties with bans. He says no animals have escaped in the 17 years he's owned the operation.
"If you tell me I can't replace my tigers or pass this down to my children, you're going to put me out of business," Terranova said.
Such concerns are not lost on those who are weighing possible changes in Kaufman County's laws restricting wild animals.
"The easiest thing to do would be just to ban everything," said Rowden, the county commissioner. But he also respects the interests of exotic animal owners who've lived in the county for decades and knows the county hasn't had any major problems yet. A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector even determined that an escaped cat most likely didn't kill the ranchers livestock.
A possible compromise might be a "grandfather clause" allowing those in the county who have such animals to keep them, but others from taking up residence and imposing breeding restrictions.
It's an issue the Beth and Cory Junell will be closely watching. The couple has spent $9,000 on a double-layered cage outside their house and thousands more on insurance. They'd like to offset the costs by breeding the Servals with domestic housecats to produce savannahs, a fashionable exotic pet the couple says can fetch upward of $5,000 for each kitten.
But what they're not going to do, they said, is just surrender their servals.
"Is the alternative to destroy whatever is out there?" said Corey Junell. "We took on the responsibility. I'm not going to put my animals down."
On the Net:
Kaufman County, http://www.kaufmancounty.net/
Animal Encounters, http://www.animalencounters.net/