Suburban man says his exotic animals can't escape

October 19, 2011 (RICHMOND, Ill.)

Illinois bans the ownership of large exotic animals like the ones that got loose in Ohio except at facilities licensed by the US Department of Agriculture.

Other than zoos, ABC7 found two facilities in the Chicago area licensed to have big animals. One is a non-profit education center in Lockport. It is allowed lions, tigers or bears. The other is in McHenry County. Its owner told ABC7 on Wednesday that there is no way his tigers could escape.

Behind a 10-foot tall barbed wire fence, and inside a non-descript building in McHenry County, you'll find 20 of nature's most proficient predators: White tigers.

"I've been working w/animals since I was 7 years old, started with goats," said tiger owner John Cuneo.

Cuneo estimates he has bred and raised 350 tigers during the last four decades, along with dozens of elephants, zebras and buffalo.

These days, it is just the tigers, which are trained then leased or sold to circuses and other exhibitors around the globe.

"My white tigers...are absolutely perfect. We haven't got one animal that isn't perfect," said Cuneo.

Over the years, federal inspectors have found fault with how Cuneo cares for and feeds his animals. In 2008, one tiger mauled a trainer, who survived the attack.

In 1997, the ABC 7 I-Team reported on one Cuneo's of elephants that killed a trainer during a rampage in Hawaii. In Richmond, in McHenry, County, the elephants also suffered from a tuberculosis outbreak.

"It's strictly a business thing. We don't want accidents because we don't want the repercussions of them," said Cuneo.

None of his animals have ever escaped, Cuneo said.

In Ohio, it has been a fear-filled 24 hours. While in Northern Illinois, some don't even know their neighbors.

"If you hadn't just told me, I would have never known they had 20 white tigers," said Richmond resident Albert Hirth.

"I'm a bit worried. It's a little scary, worried me a bit," said Richmond resident Palmer Holbrook.

While federal regulators license facilities like Cuneo's to breed and deal in specific animal types, they do not keep specific tabs on how many animals are there at any given time.

Illinois also doesn't keep tabs, which might make it tough to account for missing animals in situations like the ones in Ohio.

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