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Downtown Aquarium has new plan to win OK for tigers

Feb. 17, 2004, 9:36AM

Fertitta applies for zoo accreditation as critics blast idea
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Tilman Fertitta's plan to glitz up his Downtown Aquarium eatery by adding white tigers faces legal obstacles, but the restaurateur already has a plan that may help him avoid them.

Fertitta has applied for accreditation of the aquarium as a public zoo, which would allow him to exhibit the tigers under the city's exotic animal ordinance.

According to the ordinance, it is "unlawful for any person to be in possession of a wild animal within the city." But there are exceptions to the rule, including one that allows wild animals to be kept at a public zoo that is accredited by a nationally recognized zoological association.

Meanwhile, an animal rights activist says the display of the tigers is unethical and serves no purpose beyond "fetish" entertainment.
"What this gentleman (Fertitta) is trying to do is undignified," said Anthony Marr, a wildlife preservationist who is in Houston as part of a nationwide tour promoting compassion for animals. "It is plainly a commercial enterprise. There does not seem to be a single thought for the well-being of these animals or the future of the species."

Fertitta has applied for accreditation from the American Zoological Association, according to Jeff Cantwell, senior vice president of development for Landry's Restaurants Inc. Landry's has received that accreditation for a similar exhibit at a restaurant in Denver.

"We feel like this is a zoo facility," Cantwell said of the establishment.

"This is about entertainment and education. It's no different from the Houston Zoo in that respect."

Fertitta already has ordered the three tigers, which he said he was hoping to have in place by the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July. Because the application process is lengthy, however, it may be early fall before it is complete.

"The timing of this is a concern, but we just want it to be done correctly," Cantwell said.

City Controller Annise Parker, who was largely responsible for drafting the city's exotic animal ordinance, sent a memo to Mayor Bill White and City Council members opposing the idea.

"While I am confident that great care would be taken to ensure the safety of the public, the city cannot turn a blind eye to the double standard it would be creating by allowing Mr. Fertitta to follow through on his plans," it reads. " I believe it is simply wrong to say no to residents, while at the same time saying yes to a proposal that appears to be in direct violation of the law."

The city's Legal Department is studying the matter.

But many suspect that Fertitta's plan will come to fruition. Fertitta, president and CEO of Landry's Restaurants, is a wildly successful businessman, a prominent fixture in Houston's social and philanthropic scenes and a big campaign contributor.

"He's very well-connected," Councilman Mark Goldberg said. "He's aggressive. And he's successful because he is driven."

Goldberg said that if the tiger display were able to draw more people downtown, the city should look into making an exception to the rule.

"We have an ordinance that was created without keeping in mind that we are trying to attract tourists and businesses downtown," Goldberg said.

Fertitta and his aquarium have been the subjects of controversy before. Under political and public pressure, he jettisoned a plan to erect a 200-foot-high observation tower at the restaurant. And just last week, council members bristled upon learning that a city contract for downtown establishments paid for peripheral security for the restaurant.

Councilwoman Ada Edwards said the city's exotic animal ordinance is clear.

"I don't see how he can get around it," she said. "We made it for a reason. I don't see why an exception should be made. I wouldn't be inclined to do it."

Having said that, Edwards added that she does not doubt that Fertitta has gotten the go-ahead from somebody to continue pursing the tiger exhibit.

"It wouldn't surprise me if he got it, although I would be disappointed," she said.

Even if Fertitta is able to work around the exotic animals ordinance, there is another city law that prohibits animals -- with the exception of seeing-eye dogs and fish in tanks -- in establishments that serve food.

Fertitta has responded that the tigers would not be housed in the restaurant but on the first floor of the establishment in a professionally designed enclosure.

Regardless, Marr, the animal rights activist, said it is unethical to keep endangered and exotic animals in captivity.

"Although people have a fascination for it, there are several negative ramifications," said Marr, who is scheduled to address City Council during its public session today.

“Captive bred white tigers are mostly products of deliberate inbreeding to bring out the recessive white gene,” said Marr, “and the color comes with a range of genetic defects. Even so, the white color shows up only 25% of the time. The other 75% are genetically defective orange tigers which are just sold to canned hunt ranches for whatever.”

Cantwell contends that the tigers Fertitta has "on order" were already born in captivity and not bred for the Houston aquarium.

Jim Prappas, associate director of animal husbandry for Landry's Restaurants Inc. maintains that the aquarium is focused on education, research and conservation of the tigers.

"There's always going to be someone ... saying they think these should not be displayed," Prappas said. "We are never going to get away from that kind of opposition."

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