After 29 years living in the mountains of western Malibu, Allana Stepp is used to having animals of different stripes as neighbors.
She’s seen a neighbor’s cow wander over and rub against her car. She has come face to face with a mountain lion. And a certain bobcat hikes up her driveway every Christmas to peek in the kitchen window and say hello.
But she draws the line at tigers.
And so do her neighbors, who in recent weeks have launched a campaign to prevent a nearby property owner from building a structure that could hold up to five tigers.
Irena Hauser and her sister Sophia Kryszek now own two white Bengal tigers that have starred in many print ads, TV shows and videos (including one by rapper 50 Cent). Hauser said she looked for more than five years at hundreds of properties until she found what she thought was an ideal location on the Malibu-Ventura County border.
“We obviously never expected this kind of response,” Hauser said.
Neighbors have hired a PR firm and brought in lawyers, organized a protest and community meeting and even created a Facebook page, No Tigers in Malibu.
This part of Malibu is decidedly more rural than the beachside estates and boutique stores along Pacific Coast Highway.
Many residents keep their own livestock — and say they worry about the safety of their animals and themselves.
They note that earlier this year, a 24-year-old woman was killed while interning at Project Survival’s Cat Haven in the Fresno area when a 4-year-old male lion named Cous Cous attacked her. A few years ago, a Siberian tiger prowled the hills of the Simi Valley for weeks after escaping from a Moorpark animal sanctuary.
“It’s a valid concern that you don’t want to be eaten by a tiger,” Ventura County Planning Manager Brian Baca said. “But behind that thought is the presumption that the tigers are going to get away. And that’s really the issue that has to be demonstrated [by Hauser] — that these tigers will not get away.”
Hauser’s first contact with tigers came at an animal sanctuary in Florida when she was about 8 years old. She and her sister got to hold a baby cub. “It looked into my eyes, and I was done,” she said. “I had a connection.”
After about a decade-long career in aerospace engineering, Hauser decided she wanted a “different style of life” and started observing tigers at animal compounds. She and her sister learned to watch a tiger’s tail or head movement for clues about what the animal was thinking. Years later, she got a tiger of her own, then another.
Hauser said her two tigers, now 11 and 3, have done shoots for everything from a European edition of Vogue to videos for Facebook. The tigers can do all the tricks a dog learns: sit, roll over and paw a high-five. The younger tiger makes a “oahaaaww” noise that Hauser calls her “complain” sound.
“She likes to complain, so we call her a typical girl,” Hauser said.
Standing atop an uneven dirt patch in the middle of her property, Hauser outlined with sweeping arms where she plans to install the tigers’ play arena with a pool. Tunnels that shoot out from the arena would feed into the tigers’ enclosures, she said. Around it all would be a chain-link fence, and around that would be another. Her proposed enclosure would have room for up to five tigers, but she said she currently has just the two.
The tigers now live at a licensed animal facility. Hauser, who would say only that the property is somewhere in Southern California, said she has gotten a number of angry emails and worried that giving more details could compromise the safety of the animals.
The western Malibu location is ideal, she said, because it is zoned to allow the keeping of wild animals with the granting of a permit. She said her sister’s family plans to live on the property.
But at the moment, the site was just dirt, a sagging cactus, and a scraggly tree. Hauser’s Doberman panting and a bird chirping were the only sounds.
“As you see, there’s nothing around here,” she said. “You almost don’t realize that there’s anybody here.”
Other residents in western Malibu don’t see it that way.
Neighbors worry the tigers will threaten their safety, disrupt the environment and lower property values. The area, known as Deer Creek, is teeming with livestock that residents fear would be easy tiger prey.
“When you look down from Google Earth and you see all this open space, you erroneously get the idea that this is just a bunch of hillbillies up here. And we’re not,” said resident Lisa Siderman. “So when [our lifestyle] is threatened by some crazy idea — I know these people love their tigers, but this is just not the right place.”
Daniel Bercu’s goats graze quietly in a pen less than half a mile from the proposed tiger site. On a recent weekday, Bercu rumbled up the dirt road in a pickup to his home, where his two huskies and three of his neighbors were waiting.
Russ and Judy Purtell, their daughter Janet Ann and their sheepdog Lucy had come by to shear Bercu’s five sheep. Bercu’s sheep whined. He unhitched the barn gate, letting Lucy loose.
After a 15-minute game of cat and mouse, Lucy broke downhill toward the sheep, two of which ran into a stall. Then Purtell chuckled as he considered yet another argument against the tigers.
“These sheep are dinner,” he said, “if the tigers ever get out.”