When wildlife authorities entered the grounds of Jon Weinhart's home in April and found scores of dead and malnourished tigers, they opened a window into what some experts describe as an underground industry in exotic pets.
Weinhart, the owner of a wildlife facility called Tiger Rescue, and his partner, Marla Smith, were charged with illegally breeding tigers and keeping a menagerie of big cats in unhealthy conditions. They were also accused of child endangerment for allegedly exposing their 8-year-old son to unsafe conditions.
The April raid at Weinhart's home in Glen Avon, Riverside County, yielded 90 tiger carcasses, including 58 frozen cubs. A raid at his Colton facility in San Bernardino in November led to the seizure of 10 tiger cubs.
Weinhart and Smith have denied any wrongdoing, defending the facility as dedicated to tiger conservation.
"There is no indication of any kind of illegal or black market activity at Tiger Rescue," said Anthony Kimbirk, Weinhart's court-appointed attorney. "If you rescue a pregnant tiger, you are going to have cubs at some point."
Experts say the demand for tigers as pets and performers has fueled a cottage industry of breeders who produce litters of the big cats for sale to private owners or for use in movies, television or commercials. Uncontrolled, the breeding creates conditions ripe for the eventual abuse of the endangered cats, they say.
"Once there are tigers in private hands, the production is going to go skyrocketing," said Richard Farinato, director of the Captive Wildlife Protection Program of the Humane Society of the United States. "The result is too many cats, too little space, and ... tigers in places where there is no way they can care for them well."
The unregulated breeding also raises the risk of genetic defects and generates animals that may eventually be slaughtered for parts or shot for sport in "canned hunts" on game ranches.
Although Weinhart was licensed to keep tigers, prosecutors said he was not permitted to breed them.
Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and coordinator of a nationally adopted Tiger Species Survival Plan, said he was unfamiliar with Weinhart's credentials.
The Tiger Species Survival Plan, which covers 89 zoos in the American Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, carefully controls captive breeding of tigers, whose bloodlines are documented back to their wild ancestors, Tilson said. Scientists in the program arrange for mates to preserve natural genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.
"The tigers that you find in the private sector will never, ever be introduced into the wild, and I doubt that they have any value for either conservation or research," he said.
Backyard breeders could mix closely related tigers, causing birth defects that can include skeletal and metabolic problems, crossed eyes and elevated infant mortality, experts say.
Conversely, breeders may mingle cats of separate subspecies. One litter of cubs seized from Tiger Rescue is believed to be a mix of Siberian tigers, the largest subspecies, and Sumatran, the most aggressive.
Although tigers of all ancestries are protected under the Endangered Species Act, mixed-breed, or "generic" tigers, are subject to less stringent regulations.
Purebred tigers cannot legally be sold through interstate commerce, but mixed breeds may be sold under some circumstances, said Tim Santel, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And while owners of purebred tigers must obtain federal permits, owners of generic tigers aren't required to do so.
Loopholes create a "second-class citizen of endangered species," vulnerable to black market sale and gruesome abuse, said Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC, which monitors illegal trade in exotic animals for the World Wildlife Fund.
In a recent survey of Chinese marketplaces throughout the U.S. and Canada, TRAFFIC consistently found traditional remedies labeled to contain tiger parts, valued for their supposed medicinal or aphrodisiac properties, he said.
Santel headed a six-year case dubbed Operation Snowplow, which found an underground ring of dealers in the Chicago area who purchased tigers, slaughtered them with semiautomatic handguns, then sold their bodies for pelts, meat and medicinal ingredients.
Though a live tiger may be purchased for less than the price of a purebred puppy, experts say, its dismembered parts can sell for a total of more than $10,000, Santel said.
"What the case illustrated was that the cats, once they were killed and parted out, were worth a lot more dead than alive," he said.
Operation Snowplow led to convictions against all 17 defendants, Santel said. However, the entire ring involved countless more dealers, brokers and customers around the country, and included many who held valid permits to keep or trade big cats, he said, suggesting that the black market tiger trade is widespread and well-entrenched.