JACKSON, N.J. -- Nearly five years after a tiger found wandering the suburbs triggered a crackdown on a private sanctuary for big cats, animal welfare workers began removing 24 Bengal tigers for shipment to a Texas sanctuary.
The move ends a protracted battle between the cats' owner, Joan Byron-Marasek, who has become known as the "Tiger Lady," and state wildlife officials, who say the animals were being kept in deplorable conditions at the Tigers Only Preservation Society.
"I'm so glad to see this is finally coming to a resolution," said Marty McHugh, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. "This is the right thing to do."
The strange saga began in January 1999, when a loose tiger was shot and killed by authorities near Byron-Marasek's property. State officials never proved the tiger belonged to Byron-Marasek, but denied the renewal of her permit to keep the tigers.
Her appeals to overturn that decision were exhausted in November 2002.
Most of the cats had been loaded onto trucks by mid-afternoon, lured into rolling cages with meat or sedated with tranquilizer darts for the move to the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio.
Carol Asvestas, director of the Texas sanctuary, said she was appalled at the condition of the tigers, who she said were soaked in urine and caked with mud and feces. One tiger had neurological problems that would not allow it to hold its head straight. Another was severely dehydrated and has sores on its feet.
"I think it's criminal for the government to give permits to facilities like these," she said.
Byron-Marasek was at the compound when animal welfare workers arrived, but she left in a taxi around 7 a.m., crouching down so photographers could not take her picture.
The battle divided neighbors in this rapidly growing community of single-home subdivisions nestled among the scrub pines about halfway between New York and Philadelphia.
"I just don't feel they should be penned up," said neighbor Marge Richmond. "You want a pet? Get a dog."
John Poulos carried a handmade sign outside the compound that read "Let The Tigers Stay." He blamed newcomers to the community for Byron-Marasek's troubles.
New Jersey will pay $120,000 for the move, and the International Animal Welfare Fund is contributing another $120,000. McHugh said the state will try to recoup its costs from Byron-Marasek.
McHugh said Byron-Marasek had obtained a federal court hearing Wednesday to try to seek some sort of relief for the loss. A secretary for her most recent attorney, Darren Gelber, said he was no longer working for Byron-Marasek.