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Tiger sanctuary has residents growling

MINEOLA - A shampoo and set costs $8 at Racheal's Style Shop.

Or, for a free hair curl, picture a hungry tiger padding along the main street in this small East Texas town.

Tigers are a buzzword in Mineola.

Big cats are the talk at downtown businesses like Kitchen's, the landmark hardware store and deli.

Striped felines are the subject of reader letters published in the weekly Mineola Monitor.

Alarm bells began sounding several months ago after a New Jersey multimillionaire recently featured in The New York Times purchased 140 acres outside town and revealed plans to create a habitat for tigers on his land, which adjoins property owned by several residents and is near two housing subdivisions.

The neighbors' greatest fear?

"Tigers eating my grandkids and great-grandkids," Frank Trent, 73, said.

Retiree Diane Pitkin moved to this area five years ago to enjoy nature's beauty and the tranquility of rural life.

"We can't outrun a tiger," Pitkin said, voicing safety concerns for herself, her husband and their herd of 60 goats.

Another neighbor, Gary Bright, is worried, too.

"What if a tiger escapes? They do, even at zoos," Bright said. "What would be the cost?"

'Not neighborly'

The 37-year-old global entrepreneur and head of a private equity fund reportedly paid $1.3 million for the property off Farm Road 1801.

After Trent learned of Parmar's plans to put tigers near him, he fired off a descriptive letter to the local newspaper. "Think eight-hundred pound pit bull with PMS," he wrote. "If you see one [tiger] on your property and shoot him, he will most likely kill you anyway as they are practically bullet proof."

Trent said he and more than 300 others signed petitions opposing the big-cat compound. They were delivered to the county judge and sheriff.

"The Bible states that, 'We should do our neighbor no harm as he lives by him for his safety,' " one petition read. "It is not neighborly to purchase land in an existing inhabited neighborhood for the purpose of raising dangerous animals without so much as discussing it with all those likely to be adversely affected by the act."

Trent said God and the law are on his side. According to a 2001 county order, a person may not own, keep or have custody over nondomestic animals such as big cats, gorillas, or bears unless the animals lived in Wood County before Jan. 1, 2002.

'Very safe habitat'

"Texas has more tigers now than India," said Brian Werner, co-founder of the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, a Tyler-area sanctuary for abused, neglected and unwanted tigers and other big cats.

More than 20 tigers are housed at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary near Boyd, 35 miles north of Fort Worth.

Bill Rathburn, a former Dallas police chief and a friend of Parmar, has kept big cats on his land outside Mineola for many years.

He said no one has complained about his five pet tigers, which are housed in large wire cages covering 20,000 square feet.

Raja, a 14-year-old Siberian tiger, is the oldest and largest. The others are Shahzada, Rani, Kumar and Berani.

"They're monstrous," City Council member E.F. "Bo" Whitus said. He spread his arms wide in a gesture of measurement. "I can't describe how big they are."

County Judge Bryan Jeanes said the law is clear -- no more big cats in the county.

"The county intends to enforce the order," Jeanes said. "Mr. Parmar has not contacted us or yet made any application."

Parmar, who was born in India, said he still hopes to one day build a 35-acre tiger habitat on his property. He described the estimated $24 million project as a "high-class version" of the Tiger Creek refuge.

"My idea is to create a very safe habitat for maybe five to seven tigers," Parmar said. "I may put a bed and breakfast there where people can stay and see the tigers. They are magnificent animals. Very few people see them up close. The entire focus is on safety and human education. I would have a professional company run it."

'A big business'

"This has nothing to do with me being some crazy guy with 200 pet tigers running around behind a barbed-wire fence."

Parmer said it will be at least one year before he completes design plans and presents his concept to the county for consideration.

"This can be a big business. It could bring business to Mineola," Parmar said. "We're not planning to do anything illegal."

Rathburn, who supports the venture, said: "Whatever Paul does he will do first-class. It'll be a showplace, I'm sure."

Others feel Wood County already has five tigers too many.

"We've got a real nice zoo in Tyler," said Jim Nicholson, whose property adjoins Parmar's spread. "They've got tigers. Even a white one. I'll buy him [Parmar] a membership and buy Rathburn one, too. They can see all the tigers they want."