SAN DIEGO — A Bengal tiger cub smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico was in good condition Friday at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park.
The young tiger was discovered during an inspection Wednesday at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, when an 18-year-old Perris man was arrested in connection with the smuggling attempt.
Veterinary staff at the hospital said they performed a thorough health exam on the tiger cub and determined that he was in good health, overall.
“His heart and lungs sound good, his blood work looked great and, since he took a bottle from us, it’s a good sign he’ll continue to thrive,” said Dr. Jim Oosterhuis, principal veterinarian.
“I estimate the cub to be between 5 and 6 weeks old, and he weighs in at a little over 6 pounds,” Oosterhuis said. “He has teeth coming in, so he’ll be teething in the next week or two — so animal care staff will have a little chore getting him through that.”
Luis Eudoro Valencia was charged Thursday in federal court in San Diego for the alleged smuggling attempt.
According to a complaint, Valencia drove to the border crossing from Mexico in a 2017 Chevrolet Camaro with no license plates.
At the primary inspection area, Valencia and his passenger stated that they had nothing to declare from Mexico, authorities said. Due to issues with the vehicle identification number, the vehicle was referred to a secondary inspection area.
Using a flashlight, a Customs and Border Protection inspector saw an animal lying on the floor between the passenger’s legs and asked if it was a tiger. The passenger told the inspector that the animal was not a tiger but just a cat, according to an affidavit filed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Eduardo Nieves.
Officials seized the tiger cub and it was taken to the Safari Park, where a biologist confirmed it was a tiger cub.
In an interview, Valencia initially stated that he was in Tijuana on Monday and observed an individual walking a full-sized tiger on a leash. Valencia told investigators that he asked about the tiger and the individual offered to sell him a tiger cub for $300 and the defendant agreed, saying he intended to take the tiger cub home to Perris to keep as a pet.
Authorities said Valencia denied having pictures of the tiger cub on his phone, but a search of that phone revealed numerous photos of three different tiger cubs, including the cub he had in his car at the border.
A message associated with the photos was dated Aug. 18, and Valencia admitted that he started communicating with the seller of the tiger cub on that day.
Valencia said he went to Mexico on Aug. 18, met the seller, then returned to Mexico on Monday to pick up the tiger cub.
Under federal law, all species of tigers, including Bengal tigers, are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
According to the World Tiger Recovery Project, there are only 2,500 wild specimens on earth and the population of Bengal tigers is decreasing. Based on previous investigations, Nieves said the market value of a Bengal tiger cub sold in the United States is approximately $1,500.
About 20 years ago, customs agents working at San Ysidro Port of Entry intercepted an attempt to smuggle a tiger cub out of California and into Mexico. The animal, christened Blanca, wound up living out its days at San Diego Safari Park, CBP officials said.
Valencia was released after posting a $10,000 bond and was ordered to return to court Sept. 5 for a preliminary hearing.
The tiger, meanwhile, is being observed by Safari Park staff in an isolated area of their animal care center, away from other animals in accordance with San Diego Zoo Global’s protocols for new arrivals.
Guests at the Safari Park will be able to view the tiger cub at the center’s nursery window at various times throughout the day. San Diego Zoo Global officials said care and sanctuary will be provided for the cub until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials determine his permanent home.