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A man is on the verge of losing his collection of big cats and his dream of opening a zoo near Cancun, Mexico.

Jose Juarez Gil, known as “Pepe Tiger,” has been fighting authorities trying to seize his cats for decades. The battle has included animal cruelty charges, a mauling, and even claims of national pride.

Mexican authorities are getting ready to remove Juarez Gil’s eight tigers and two jaguars, on claims that they are being kept in unsafe conditions.

Juarez Gil denies the charges and says he loves his cats. He vowed to appeal the latest seizure order, saying that he loves his cats and lets them swim and run in his refuge near Cancun’s airport.

“Do you think I am going to just leave my whole life behind?” he asked.

The story started in the 1980s, when police began placing tigers and jaguars seized from the private zoos of drug traffickers and other criminals with Juarez Gil.

A series of court appeals had allowed Juarez Gil’s ragtag refuge to continue its existence, despite the fact that authorities and US-based groups said the cats were living in bad health and poor diet conditions.

But last Monday, one of his tigers, a cat named Satan, escaped his cage and mauled a man. Juarez Gil claims the man was one of a group of intruders who came to his land to steal machinery — and the man allegedly broke the chain on Satan’s cage.

The victim received non life-threatening wounds to his head and is recovering at a Cancun hospital. Local authorities initially identified him as an employee of the cat reserve, but Juarez Gil insists he is one of the intruders.

After the attack, the Office of the Attorney General for Environmental Protection issued a statement saying that they are preparing to seize Juarez Gil’s animals.

“The definitive seizure of the animals and their subsequent transfer to a more secure and adequate reserve is in the process of being arranged, despite the legal appeals that Juarez Gil has filed,” the office said.

Juarez Gil said he confronted a group of police who came to his land and tried to shoot Satan. “They couldn’t hit him,” he said.

Juarez Gil said he lured Satan back to his cage unharmed and spent a few hours in jail before being issued a fine of about 2,300 pesos ($100), which he says he can’t afford to pay.

He believes real estate interests are trying to force him out because the lots of land around his have grown valuable. But despite the fact that he is virtually broke, Juarez Gil says he will not give up his animals, which include a rare Sumatran tiger.

And now he is characterizing his battles with authorities as a struggle for national sovereignty: Juarez Gil says he is trying to prove that Mexicans can take care of the wildlife as well as any American activist.

Mark Goff, an investigator for the Los Angeles-based group Last Chance for Animals, says the tigers should be moved to a Colorado rescue sanctuary which has experience with big cats. The disagreement is about the animals’ welfare, says Goff, not Juarez Gil’s love for the cats or questions of nationalism.

“He’s barely keeping them alive on a diet consisting of chicken guts,” said Goff.

Juarez Gil acknowledges that he feeds them whatever meat he can get donated or buy cheaply. But he claims his poor-but-happy cats swim, run and play in his ramshackle refuge near a coastal lagoon.

Out of a recent litter of five cubs fathered by Satan, four died. Juarez Gil acknowledges that, though he continues to nurse the remaining cub with a bottle.

“He’s not doing what’s best for tigers, he’s doing what’s best for Pepe.” Goff said. Juarez Gil “basically seems to be holding these tigers as a trump card” to hold authorities at bay and prevent the loss of his land.

“Four baby tigers died in the process and it’s got to stop,” Goff said.

[Source: The Associated Press via The State]