In mid-August, American customs agents stopped a southbound car at a checkpoint near the Mexican border. The car belonged to Jorge Hank Rhon, owner and operator of Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack. Hank’s driver was at the wheel, and in the passenger seat was the nephew of Hank’s sister Ivonne, who had been spending time in one of the family’s homes at the Coronado Cays. In the back seat of the car was a playful white Bengal tiger cub.
Asian tigers are listed as endangered by the UN’s International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which tabulates the world’s official endangered species list. The agents knew this and therefore asked the men if they had the proper American permits to possess, transport, or export the animal. When it was clear no such papers existed, the tiger was seized. Since federal authorities didn’t have the know-how to care for the tiger, it was shipped to the San Diego Zoo, where it remains, pending legal proceedings to determine who owns it.
Even though the men had told U.S. authorities that it was Hank’s tiger and that it had been born in Hank’s zoo at the Tijuana racetrack, the subsequent local newspaper and television coverage described the tiger as an orphan whose ownership was mysterious.
Hank acknowledged to his friends and acquaintances that the tiger was his. Then in mid-November in federal court, Hank’s American attorney filed papers that acknowledged Hank as owner of the animal, and the link between Hank and the tiger became public knowledge. By then officials at the San Diego Zoo had made known their plans to train the cub for an animal show — if the government decided to deprive Hank of his tiger permanently.
Last week Hank agreed to explain how the tiger had gotten him into such a fix. It started back in 1984, just before he agreed to take over operation of the track (it was a family business) and moved to Tijuana from Mexico City. Hank had been a trader in exotic animals, and he owned nine pet shops, six veterinary clinics, and a dolphin show. He sold all the animal businesses before moving north, “and a lot of people owed me a lot of money. Over the years they’ve paid me off in animals.” A man who bought one of his pet shops paid part of the bill with a rhinoceros that came from a Cuban zoo. (“There are a lot of zoos in Cuba,” Hank observes, “and now that the country is falling apart, the animals are being traded away.”) These old IOUs have helped Hank acquire leopards, cougars, panthers, and tigers. Some of the animals are on display in glass cages at Agua Caliente; others can be seen roaming the infield during weekend evening horse races.
In 1987, Hank says he acquired the white tiger cub’s mother as part of a breeding pair that came from a Brazilian zoo. The animal trainer Johnnie Lamb, who performs animal shows all over the world, needed some horses and dogs for his enterprise. “I gave him two Appaloosas, one Andalusian, and some others,” Hank recalls. “He was supposed to give me three jaguars. But instead I got the tigers, which were rare yellow ones.”
Hank didn’t know that the pair could produce a white cub until October of 1990, when the mother gave birth to a single white offspring. This tiger he keeps at his house in Tijuana. Then the adult tigers produced another litter in late June of this year, consisting of a yellow male and a white female, born in the tigers’ enclosure in the racetrack infield. He says the mother is now pregnant again.
After the cubs were born, Hank says he filed the proper paperwork with SEDUE (Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology), the Mexican equivalent of the American EPA, which licenses his Tijuana zoo. Then in early August he took a trip to the family compound near Cancun, bringing the male cub along to show his family. “My sister Ivonne was down here in Coronado,” Hank explains. “One day my secretary called me in Cancun, and he said, ‘Your sister wants to know if she can have the tiger for a while.’ I thought she was in Tijuana for the day, so I said ‘sure.’ I never thought he meant to take the tiger across the border.”
Apparently, it didn’t occur to Hank’s sister or his aides that American laws might prohibit bringing a rare tiger across international boundaries. U.S border guards are supposed to be on the lookout for smuggled animals. Hank’s driver told him the tiger was in the front seat as he passed through the gate, and the agent only asked him if he had anything to declare. When the driver answered no, Hank says the agent waived him through into the U.S.
The tiger, whose name is Morena (the San Diego Zoo calls her Blanca), spent about two weeks with Hank’s sister in Coronado. Then, on August 16, Ivonne’s nephew, who had been staying with his aunt for a few weeks, had to catch a plane from the Tijuana airport. He and Hank’s driver set out from Coronado on a dual mission: to bring the cub back to the racetrack and to drop off the nephew at the Tijuana airport. But the checkpoint stop changed their plans.
This isn’t the first time Hank had gotten into trouble with U.S. authorities. In the mid-1980s, one of his airplanes was detained for a few hours at Brown Field because of a mix-up in paperwork. In early 1991, customs investigators contacted the Reader and solicited copies of every story written about Hank Rhon.
Hank’s latest run-in with the authorities — the tiger trouble — straddles the border. He asked the Mexican consul in San Diego and the American consul in Tijuana to vouch for his documents, which he says prove that he filed with SEDUE when the tiger was born.
“I gave all the papers to everybody, and the American consul said they were legal,” Hank claims.
On this side of the border, the tiger case is being taken very seriously. The U.S. Attorney’s office has forwarded the case to John Houston, chief of its asset forfeiture unit. (This is the federal office that metes out summary punishment by seizing the cars, houses, and businesses of people suspected of violating the drug laws.) Houston didn’t respond to requests to discuss Hank’s case, and as of last week he refused to talk to Hank’s lawyer. A hearing is to be set where Hank will have to prove he did not intentionally violate U.S. laws governing endangered species.
Hank and members of his family face fines of between $5000 and $25,000 for breaking American laws protecting endangered species. He has considered just donating the tiger to the San Diego Zoo and walking away, “but they can still fine me.... If I just forget it, they can still fine me. If I claim the tiger and get it back, they can still fine me. If I claim the tiger and lose it, they can still fine me. So I might as well claim it, since they’ll probably fine me anyway.”