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Update: Authorities announced Saturday that the missing tiger had been recovered and "appears to be unharmed."
A Texas man who allegedly fled police with a Bengal tiger in his Jeep during an encounter with an off-duty deputy has been arrested.
Victor Hugo Ceuvas, 26, allegedly sped off with a tiger in his SUV, leading police on a short chase, after the big cat was sighted roaming a Houston home’s front yard on Mother’s Day.
Cuevas was apprehended by authorities Monday. The tiger’s current whereabouts, however, are unknown, police said.
On May 9, emergency dispatchers were flooded with calls about an unleashed tiger prowling outside a residential property in west Houston. An armed off-duty deputy later confronted the big cat outside the home.
“He drew his weapon, at which point Cuevas came out of the residence, he took the tiger back and took control of the tiger,” Jodi Silva, a public information officer for the Houston Police Department, told Oxygen.com.
Shocking cell phone video of the wild encounter showed the sheriff’s deputy pointing his gun at the tiger as the big cat slowly slunk towards him. Other images showed the big feline relaxing on a lawn next to a sidewalk prior to its daring exit. Cuevas later emerged from the home and “took control” of the tiger, police said.
“When our officers arrived, it was at that point that Cuevas took the tiger, put him into this white Jeep Grand Cherokee and then fled the scene as officers were attempting to speak with him,” Silva said.
Cuevas was actually out on bond and awaiting trial on murder charges dating back to a 2017 shooting at the time of the tiger incident.
The whereabouts of the pet tiger, however, have baffled police. The big cat hasn’t been seen since it was loaded into Cuevas' Jeep. As of Wednesday, the tiger remained “at large.”
“Our best understanding is the tiger is being housed somewhere but we’re just not aware of the location,” Silva added. “We have no information at this time to indicate that the tiger is wandering loose. We don’t think anyone is going to encounter a tiger in the morning while they’re jogging or something like that.”
No injuries have been reported related to its escape.
Animal enforcement officers are assisting local police in the search. City officials said the tiger would likely be transferred to an animal sanctuary or an accredited zoo once it’s captured.
Nevertheless, the tiger’s sighting — and its mysterious disappearance — rattled neighbors.
“It was very intense,” Luke Rodrigue told KPRC-TV. “Even though it might be tame or docile, it’s still a tiger. It’s still a wild animal. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Detectives are now investigating whether other exotic animals were housed at the property. A tiger enclosure was also found in the home’s backyard, police said. Cuevas rented and sometimes stayed there, according to his lawyer.
It’s unclear, however, if Cuevas owned the tiger. Police are now scrambling to verify the owner.
“Initially we were told it was Cuevas,” Silva said. “Cuevas is now providing different information so I think as the investigation progresses we’ll be able to determine ownership.”
Michael W. Elliot, Cuevas’ defense attorney denied his client owned the cat, or knew its current whereabouts.
“The tiger hasn’t been seen since,” Elliot told Oxygen.com. “I want to try and find this tiger.”
Elliot said the owner is a man in his mid-30s, identified only as “Deandre” or “D.”
“We know who owns it,” Elliot said. “We’re looking for Deandre because he’s the one that’s got the tiger. It’s his tiger and he’s the one that’s got it.”
The missing 9-month-old Bengal tiger is named “India,” Elliot said. The Texas lawyer, who has previously defended big cat owners, including a client who was reportedly mauled by his own tiger, described the tiger as “docile” and “pretty domesticated.”
The Texas attorney didn’t specify where Cuevas went, or what he did with the tiger, after allegedly fleeing police.
Texas doesn’t have a statewide ban on private ownership of big cats. In Houston, municipal laws prohibit tiger ownership. Prosecutors, however, said it was unlikely Cuevas will face additional felony charges related to the missing wild cat.
“You’re not allowed to possess a tiger but that’s a city ordinance,” John Donnelly, a public affairs officer for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, told Oxygen.com. “It’s like a parking ticket.”
Officials said there’s no available evidence indicating that the tiger was abused.
Animal rights groups, however, expressed outrage after news of the missing tiger grabbed headlines nationwide.
“Sadly, big-cat breeding is a bigger problem than most people realize,” Nili Asgharian, an activist with the Animal Connection of Texas, told Oxygen.com. “Tiger and big cat species suffer miserably as pets. Such species are not companion animals."
Texas, particularly, has seen a number of recent tiger seizures and city wild cat sightings.
In 2019, a man who’d wandered into an empty Houston home to smoke marijuana was astonished to find a 350-pound male tiger in a “very small cage,” police said. The tiger was relocated to Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, roughly 80 miles southeast of Dallas, according to city officials.
A month later, a 13-week-old malnourished tiger cub was found in the laundry room of a different San Antonio home. A bobcat was also rescued from the property. The purported owners, Jeremy Martinez, 25, and Cristela Coronado, 21, were arrested on animal cruelty charges.
“Nobody wants to find out there’s a tiger living next door,” Shannon Sims, director of San Antonio’s Animal Care Services, told Oxygen.com. “We were shocked to find out it was a reality. ... We don’t really know how many are out there.”
Texas laws and regulations regarding exotic animals, including cracking down on illegal breeding and smuggling, are lacking, critics said.
“I think there’s a lot more out there,” Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said in March. “This is a huge problem. We’re trying to get a state law passed that would address this.”
Approximately 3,900 tigers exist globally in the wild today. In the U.S., an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers live in captivity. However, less than 400 are housed at accredited sanctuaries. The majority are held at roadside zoos, breeding facilities, and pseudo-sanctuaries. Since 1990, at least 16 people, including four children, have been killed in hundreds of tiger attacks, according to the Humane Society. Dozens more have been viciously mauled or lost limbs.
A high percentage of such incidents, experts said, seem to occur in Texas.
“When I first saw the headlines about a tiger being loose and Houston, my first thought was, 'Well, there goes Texas again,'” Carole Baskin, founder of Florida’s Big Cat Rescue, told Oxygen.com. “It really is a big issue in Texas.”
“Most states have passed either bans or partial bans on private ownership or big cats, but Texas has let all of the different counties choose how they're going to deal with it,” she said. “And most of the counties, you know, until something like this happens, they don't have protocols in place. Law enforcement doesn't get any training on how to deal with all these tigers.”
Texas is infamous for its “canned hunts” where exotic, endangered animals like zebras, giraffes, and wildebeests are poached on sprawling ranches by hunters sometimes willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars. State laws forbid the hunting of tigers, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, bears, elephants, wolves, or rhinoceros.
Cuevas is being held without bond at a Fort Bend County detention center.
In the outstanding murder case, Cuevas is accused of fatally shooting Oseikhuemen Omobhude in his car outside a Richmond sushi restaurant, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Oxygen.com.
The victim, Oseikhuemen Omobhude, was allegedly gunned down in his Toyota. A packaged pound of marijuana was recovered from his car. Detectives later recovered 14 shell casings from the parking lot. Cuevas and a second suspected shooter allegedly fled on street racing bikes
His legal team said he opened fire in self-defense. Cuevas has pleaded not guilty. He has a bond hearing scheduled for Friday.
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