Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey performs with tigers at one of the final Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shows in May. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
It was still dark as Billy Farley turned his delivery truck off Interstate 75 onto the Jodeco Road exit south of Atlanta. His headlights caught a figure striding down the ramp toward the highway.
“At first, I thought maybe there was a huge, very, very large dog,” Farley recalled. “As I got up on it, I realized it was a tiger.”
In disbelief, Farley hit his brakes and called 911. His was one of at least three such calls on that Wednesday morning last month, records show, and the more than dozen police officers who rushed to the area indeed found an exotic predator. They tried using their vehicles to herd the cat up the off-ramp, but it jumped a guard rail and retreated into an adjacent neighborhood. They watched it slink around houses, lie down among bushes, slip behind a dumpster.
Finally, after the tiger attacked a dachshund in a backyard around 6 a.m., police fatally shot it.
Federal officials estimate that at least 5,000 tigers are kept in the United States, many unknown to authorities. Yet this one, Georgia officials would discover, was one of the most famous. Suzy, a 6-year-old Siberian who starred in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before it folded in May, had escaped from a convoy of trucks carrying her and 14 feline castmates — seven tigers, six lions and one leopard — from Florida to Memphis International Airport. Her handlers had not noticed her absence.
The frenzied pre-dawn hours in McDonough, Ga., marked the end of Suzy’s life and a bizarre coda to Ringling’s 146-year reign. They also were the start of a chaotic, week-long saga that occupied public safety officials in three states and remains under investigation by Georgia and federal wildlife authorities. Interviews and records, obtained by public records requests from The Washington Post and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, fill in the details.
The circus had two traveling units, each with a set of big cats. One group, owned by Ringling’s parent company, was retired to a Tennessee sanctuary in May. Suzy was part of a troupe imported from Europe by British trainer Alexander Lacey, who wanted his animals to continue performing in a German circus. This required a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because the Endangered Species Act generally prohibits the export of tigers. Over opposition from animal advocates, the agency in mid-August approved the 689-page application, which described the cats’ custom-built steel cages as compliant with international air transport regulations.
On Sept. 5, as Hurricane Irma churned toward Florida, the convoy of flatbed trailers left from the cats’ temporary home at the state fairgrounds in Tampa. It stopped in Georgia around midnight, according to an internal email sent the next day from Stephen Adams, a law enforcement officer with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The department says it is still investigating how Suzy managed to break out and whether to file charges.
Whatever the explanation, some five hours later that morning, Suzy was alarming residents in McDonough.
“There’s a tiger in the front yard,” one woman told 911.
“There’s a what, ma’am?” the dispatcher responded.
“A full-sized tiger,” she said, repeating for emphasis: “Full. Sized. Creature.”
Farley waited out the standoff inside his truck, which he’d parked by the Hardees restaurant that was awaiting his food delivery. “For about five to 10 minutes, the tiger was sitting there in the woods, looking at me,” he said. “It’s a good thing I didn’t get out of the truck to start unloading, because the tiger would have been on me.”
Meanwhile, Henry County officials were scrambling to contain an unfamiliar threat, emails and police radio records show. Zoo Atlanta told them it had no animals missing but would try to deploy an emergency response team. Noah’s Ark, a local animal sanctuary, offered to come with a tranquilizer. But Suzy attacked the dog before it arrived, and officers, advised by DNR to “do what need to do,” took aim.
Suzy, a 6-year-old circus tiger, was fatally shot by police after escaping a truck near Atlanta. (Henry County Police Department/PETA)
A state ranger at the scene later reported that he covered Suzy’s carcass in a blanket and drove it to the county animal control office, where staff found an unregistered microchip. For several hours, state and federal agriculture officials sought to trace the chip.
Before they could make a match, they heard from Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company. The former circus stars had arrived at the Memphis airport for a FedEx flight to Cologne, and handlers realized they were one tiger short.
Suzy’s escape wasn’t the only problem facing Lacey. Fish and Wildlife inspectors at the airport would not allow the cats on the plane, saying their enclosures needed fortifying “to prevent escape” while airborne, according to a subsequent Arkansas incident report. A Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman declined to comment last week, citing “pending litigation” over the matter.
That’s when Arkansas rice farmer Craig Keller, a licensed commercial pilot, received a phone call from a friend who works for FedEx. The friend knew Keller had machinery and buildings on the 2,000 acres he owns about an hour northwest of the airport. Could Lacey shelter his menagerie there while welders used the equipment to fix the enclosures?
“I said, ‘What will I have to do?'” Keller said. “He said, ‘Absolutely nothing. You’ll never know they’re there.’”
But Keller wanted to make sure the whole thing was legal, so he called a state politician he knows. That politician, he recounted, reached the director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the agency responsible for issuing permits for wild animals. What happened next is disputed.
The farmer says he told a Feld executive traveling with Lacey to call the director and that the executive later assured him all regulatory papers were in order; a commission spokesman says another senior official tried without success to reach Keller and that the agency only knew several exotic cats might be headed toward the state line.
Instead, five trucks arrived at Keller’s property near the town of Weiner on the evening of Sept. 6. The cats were set up in his new steel warehouse, and there began what he recalls as a wonderful few days.
The animals stayed in their cages the whole time, with Lacey doting on them, Keller said. “He brought in a box of steaks, some rib-eyes and filets and T-bones, and I thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to fire the grill up.’ And he said, ‘No, we’ll eat sandwiches. These are for my cats,'” Keller said. “He took better care of them than I would say 50 percent of people take care of their children.”
Lacey was one of the last to find out about Suzy’s shooting, and “it broke his heart,” Keller said. A crew member attributed her escape to a contract driver who had failed to latch a trailer, according to the farmer, who had some of his own thoughts on the incident. “You know, when you have lions and tigers, it might not hurt to take a head count,” he said.
To animal-protection advocates, the tiger’s death was a bitter bookend to years of campaigns that helped lead to Ringling’s closure, as well as an example of the perils of America’s large tiger population. Feld did not have valid permits to transport the cats in Georgia, Tennessee or Arkansas, according to state records.
“It suggests sheer negligence,” said Delcianna Winders, a PETA Foundation vice president. “Cats are dangerous, and cats can escape, and that’s part of why people shouldn’t be keeping dangerous wild animals. But to apparently not have even realized that the cat had escaped is just mind-blowing.”
On Sept. 9, three nights after the entourage had settled into Keller’s warehouse, the Poinsett County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous call about tigers and lions at an area farm.
Deputies and a sergeant with the state game and fish commission got there around 11 p.m., as detailed in an account that commission officer Brad Young emailed the next day. Peering in an open door to the warehouse, they spotted cages of exotic cats “in plain view,” Young wrote.
A lion that was one of 14 big cats, all former Ringling circus stars, found by authorities on an Arkansas farmer’s property. (Arkansas Game and Fish Commission)
Lacey explained they were planning to fly out on Sept. 12, a commission incident report said. Thomas Albert, Feld’s vice president of government relations, first insisted that “all pertinent permits” were in hand but then conceded otherwise after searching his computer, according to the report.
Albert “said that they had nowhere else to go because they could not travel back to Florida due to Hurricane Irma,” the report said, and he showed the officers the repaired enclosures. Young wasn’t fully reassured, noting the several nearby residences with young children. “Our number one goal right now is ensure the safety of the citizens in Poinsett County,” he wrote in his email.
So the commission stationed officers at the site from that night until the morning of the 12th. One reported people arriving on ATVs and wanting to take photos of the animals.
Actually, Keller said, only a few neighbors stopped by, and they never got close to the cats “There wasn’t anything anonymous about it, you know, when you see all these 18-wheelers coming down the road,” he said.
On the morning of Sept. 12, a commission “tiger detail” escorted the cats to the state line. It was met there by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers, who escorted the convoy to the Memphis airport.
In emails that day, Arkansas officials seemed relieved. “Have they left the building?” communications chief Keith Stephens wrote.
Lacey and the cats flew out hours later. With the exception of Suzy, a Feld spokesman said, they arrived in Germany “happy and healthy.”