That is the situation facing the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office after picking up Victor Hugo Cuevas, 26, after a bizarre incident involving a wayward tiger. For Cuevas, there is no good option. To quote that other Victor Hugo “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!”
The controversy first burst into public view after the posting of a bizarre videotape showing India roaming outside of a house:
A man believed to be Cuevas is shown outside the home as an off-duty Waller County deputy, who lives nearby, tells him to Cuevas to take India back inside. After the tiger is brought inside, however, another man in a white jeep appears and took India away. Despite a search for the jeep, he and India disappeared.
Both Cuevas and India would later go missing. Cuevas went to another county where he was arrested and charged with evading arrest.
It turns out that Cuevas was out on bond on a murder charge for allegedly gunning down a man in July 2017 in front of a Buffalo Wild Wings. His lawyer, Michael Elliott, insists that he was on his way to surrender to police when he was picked up.
He insists that he was just the caretaker for the nine-month old Bengal tiger and the real owner was a guy known as “D.” It appears that D may stand for Deandre and the lawyer believes that D is involved in the illegal exotic animal trade.
In the meantime, people feel that India is roaming about and Carole Baskin has appeared to declare the situation of a missing Bengal tiger roaming Houston to be dangerous.
Cuevas’ bond now is revoked. He is facing both criminal and potential tort liability for the tiger incident.
It is illegal to “keep” a wild dangerous animal in Houston. That includes a lion, tiger, ocelot, cougar, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, bobcat, lynx, serval, caracal, hyena, bear, coyote, jackal, baboon, chimpanzee, orangutan and gorilla. The punishment is a misdemeanor charge and fines of $500 to $2,000.
Notably, according to the New York Post, there were also two monkeys living with Cuevas in the house but that is not itself unlawful. There are also reports of Cuevas having a history with exotic animals.
Having India in the home would constitute “keeping” a wild animal even if Cuevas is not the owner. Moreover, he could be implicated in unlawful trade of wild animals, which is both a state and federal offense. The Lacey Act and other federal wildlife statutes could be charged for such conduct. The Lacey Act makes it a federal crime to break the wildlife laws of any state, tribe, or foreign country, in interstate commerce. However, the penalties are notably higher. If convicted of a felony, the maximum penalty is $20,000 and/or up to five years imprisonment. For a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is $10,000 and/or up to one-year imprisonment. There can also be civil penalties of up to $10,000 as well as forfeiture provisions.
Even if “D” is not found, Cuevas’ counsel (and the videotape) have confirmed that he did indeed keep a wild animal. If Cuevas called “D” after 911 was called, it could be viewed as further action in a criminal enterprise. One does not just happen to become the caretaker of a nine-month-old Bengal Tiger and most people would ask why the wild animal is being kept by its owner.
On the tort side, Cuevas is liable for any injuries caused by a wild animal in his possession. If in fact the owner took back possession, it is likely that his strict liability would end but he could still be subject to negligence claims. Under the common law, there is strict liability for injuries caused by wild animals in your possession. However, possession for roaming animals has been litigated. This was the issue in Woods-Leber v Hyatt Hotels of Puerto Rico (1997), Hyatt was found not to be strictly liable for an attack on its grounds by a rabid mongoose on a guest. It was not viewed as possessing the animal since wild animals could move freely on to the property. The same issue came up recently in the United States in the case of the woman who had her face ripped off by a neighbor’s pet chimpanzee and a case in Arizona involving a javelina. Likewise, we previously discussed his issue with an alligator attack on a Disney property. Even without a claiming of legal ownership or control, you can still possess an animal for purposes of liability.
It does not appear that the tiger bit anyone while in Cuevo’s possession. Whoever currently has possession would be subject to strict liability. However, if the tiger were to escape and injure someone, Cuevo was part of the chain of events leading to such an injury. Since his conduct was unlawful in “keeping” a tiger, he would likely be viewed as per se negligent. There would still remain questions of factual and legal causation and the role of the mysterious “D” as a superseding intervening actor.
In the end, Cuevo is facing the prior murder charge, new evading charge, possible state and federal wildlife charges, and potential civil liability. It is the type of tragic character befitting Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.