As the sun dimmed over Houston on Sunday, a Bengal tiger with a collar around its neck jumped over a backyard fence and began to roam leisurely through the grassy front lawns along the block, alarming neighbors.
“I mean, I couldn’t believe it,” neighbor Jose Ramos told KPRC.
Bystanders took pictures and videos of the tiger while an off-duty sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene with a gun and tried to corral the animal.
The tiger appeared to live in a West Houston home rented by Victor Hugo Cuevas. But by the time the authorities arrived to question him about the tiger, Cuevas had loaded the animal into a car and driven away, according to police.
Cuevas was already known to authorities: The 26-year-old had been charged with murder in 2017 and was out on bond ahead of his upcoming trial.
After a day-long manhunt, Houston police announced Monday night they arrested Cuevas and charged him with felony evading arrest and fleeing from police.
Police, however, have not yet found the tiger.
Cuevas’s lawyer, Michael Elliott, said his client doesn’t own the tiger and did not drive away with the animal. Houston police had jumped to conclusions, he claimed.
“He is not guilty of any crimes, he hasn’t done anything wrong,” Elliot said at a news conference Monday night, referring to the tiger.
Though it is not illegal in Texas to own a tiger or wild animal, a Houston city ordinance bans the practice. In 2019, police rescued a tiger who was discovered inside a cage in an abandoned home in southeast Houston. The tiger was placed in a sanctuary outside of Dallas, according to law enforcement.
Ramos, the neighbor, first spotted the tiger at around 8 p.m. Sunday, when he noticed the big cat wandering outside a house across the street on Ivy Wall Drive. Ramos took a picture and posted it on a neighborhood blog, warning people to stay home. He then called 911 for help.
“It was very scary because this is a very family-oriented community, and you see lots of kids and [babies] strolling,” he told KHOU. “And people taking their pets, dogs and walking them. So . . . the first thing I was thought was to alert the community.”
Wes Manion, a Waller County sheriff’s deputy who lives nearby, saw the post and made his way to the street.
“We thought it was fake,” Manion told KHOU. “You always have to verify.”
Videos taken by neighbors showed Manion holding his gun and trying to get the tiger to back up.
“Last thing I wanted to do was shoot the tiger,” Manion told KHOU. “It didn’t seem super aggressive.”
Soon after, Cuevas exited his front door and approached the tiger, telling neighbors that he’d “get him.”
Manion asked angrily why Cuevas had a tiger in his house.
“We’re with the zoo,” Cuevas said, according to a video recorded by a family sitting in a nearby car.
“Get that tiger back inside,” Manion yelled, his voice booming and echoing down the block.
“I will! I am, I am,” Cuevas responded. He then grabbed the tiger’s collar and walked it to his front door, where a woman stood waiting.
Neighbors then saw Cuevas lead the tiger into a Jeep Cherokee and drive away, according to Ronald Borza, a commander with the Houston Police Department’s major offenders division.
“There was a brief pursuit and the man got away with the tiger,” Borza said at news conference on Monday.
Police searched the home, which Cuevas had been renting since late last year, the property owner told KHOU. The owner said he had no idea there was a tiger in the house, but that he suspected something was off when Cuevas wouldn’t let him in to make repairs.
Borza said authorities found an enclosure in the backyard, but evidence showed that the tiger likely spent most of its time indoors.
“Looked like he was living pretty well,” Borza said. “Looks like he’s well taken care of.”
But the police commander said there’s a reason for Houston’s ban.
“You never know when that animal is going to turn on you,” he said.
Borza added that if the big cat had done “some damage yesterday, I’m sure one of these citizens would have shot the tiger. We have plenty of neighbors out here with guns and we don’t want to see that. It’s not the animal’s fault. It’s the breeder’s fault.”
Police also received reports of two monkeys in the home, though they are not illegal in Houston.
Authorities got in touch with Elliott, the lawyer, and the two sides agreed that Cuevas would turn himself in at 8:15 p.m. Monday. But police ended up breaking the deal and arresting Cuevas at 8 p.m., Elliott said.
Elliott said he and his client were working with state and federal authorities on finding the tiger and sharing information on the animal’s owner.
“I thought they were working with us in good faith,” Elliott said. “I thought they were actually interested in solving this case rather than doing a double cross and running to the house and arresting my client before we can even finish helping them.”
Cuevas’s bail has been revoked and he is being held in Fort Bend County jail. It is unclear when he will appear in court.