Minnesota's shameful secret: Exotic animals kept captive as pets and for exhibits

There are an estimated 1,000 big cats living in captivity in Minnesota, animals that will never live in the wild.

There are an estimated 1,000 big cats living in captivity in Minnesota, animals that will never live in the wild.

Mayfield, New York resident Steve Salton's weakness for very large cats dates back years. It started in 2005 when Salton purchased a Siberian tiger cub from a private breeder, housing the animal on his 11-acre property 195 miles north of New York City. 

Salton was licensed to own exotic animals, provided that he exhibit them only for educational purposes. By 2011, he'd acquired more furry charges, among them three tigers, Calcutta, Logan, and Caesar, and a leopard named Shadow.

Eventually however, Mayfield Township officials decided to push back against exotic animal ownership within town limits. They took Salton to court, arguing he was in violation of zoning ordinances. According to a plea deal brokered in 2014, Salton agreed to place the cats elsewhere within a year. 

Today, those four animals are among the 100 wild cats living at the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota, about a 90-minute drive north of the Twin Cities. The nonprofit, no-kill big cat sanctuary has taken in animals from across the country that are discarded or forcibly turned over by their owners.

Wild animals that should be roaming forests, jungles, or savannas are being exploited in America in a behind-the-scenes trade that's estimated to do annual business in the tens of billions of dollars. 

"While we don't support [the fact that Salton] had big cats as pets," says Wildcat Sanctuary executive director Tammy Thies, "what we did support was the judge ruled he had to get rid of them and he sent them to a sanctuary. In this case, it stopped the broken system, which is, yeah, he had to get rid of them, but he could've sold them to a dealer-breeder. He could have given them to another backyard owner."

Minnesota has a few of its own backyard owners and dealer-breeders. Wildlife Connection in Sandstone, for instance, is one business that exhibits a variety of wild animals bred and kept in captivity. According to federal court papers, Wildlife Connection owner Lee Greenly has been cited no less than three times for "the acquisition and disposition of animals" at his facility. 

Greenly tells City Pages his 80-animal inventory has mostly been bred in captivity. He acquired his first wolf some 30 years ago from a person who no longer wanted the animal. Greenly's Animal Welfare Act violations number in the multiple dozens. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to guiding an illegal bear hunt, a violation of federal wildlife laws. Greenly had allowed a customer — Troy Gentry, one half of the country duo Montgomery Gentry — to kill a tame bear while the animal was enclosed in a pen on Greenly’s property.  

While private ownership of bears, most primates, and exotic cats like lions and tigers is prohibited in Minnesota, a DNR loophole exempts "native species" from the law.

Some of these permissible animals are lynx, wolves, bobcats, and cougars. The state clamped down on owning certain exotics like tigers and lions in 2005. However, says Thies, "It's not curbing the native species kept as pets. So you see the Canada lynx we get surrendered or the cougar we've gotten surrendered."

The process of getting licensed to own and exhibit an exotic animal is surprisingly simple. Fill out a DNR application form and pay the $16.50 fee, and any aspirant is almost there. 

"Exotic pet owners have gotten smart," Thies says. "They went out and got a license that makes them a company with a name behind it and really they're just glorified pet owners with 20 to 40 exotics that they're exhibiting, breeding, and selling."  

Based on her 15 years working on the issue, she estimates there are probably 1,000 big cats — from tigers to bobcats, cougars to lynx — living in captivity in Minnesota right now. These are animals with no conservation value, meaning they'll never be returned to the wild. Instead, they're relegated to roadside zoos or stay chained up inside an enclosure.

"I think what people don't really understand," says Thies, "is the exotic animal pet trade, which is everything from selling an animal to pet, exhibiting them, cub petting, selling them as parts, is more in raw dollars than the drug trade. A bobcat pelt might cost around $200," she says. "But a live bobcat sold to someone who wants to own it as a pet might fetch as much as $2,500.

"It's a market that's making people money."