Tiger killed in Henry County was circus star who escaped from transport truck

Henry County 911 received a call of a tiger loose on I-75 near the Jodeco Road overpass on Wednesday morning, September 6 2017.

Credit: Credit: Henry County Police

Credit: Credit: Henry County Police

Henry County 911 received a call of a tiger loose on I-75 near the Jodeco Road overpass on Wednesday morning, September 6 2017.

Brittney Speck was awakened early Wednesday morning by streams of light filtering through the windows of her home, surrounded by law enforcement. Disconcerting, but not nearly as alarming as what she saw lurking in her back yard.

"It was like a full-grown zoo tiger," said the Henry County mother of three. "It was massive. It was huge."

Moments later, the female Bengal tiger - a star performer in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus - would be dead, shot by police after it jumped a chain-link fence and pounced on Speck’s woefully outmatched dachshund, Journey.

“I never heard her bark like that before,” Speck said. “It was like a hysterical … almost like a warning bark.”

Journey, who survived the attack largely unscathed, was right to be afraid. And confused.

Brittney Speck holds her dog after the canine was attacked by a tiger on the loose in Henry County. 

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What was a Bengal tiger doing in a residential area not far off I-75 North? How did the wild beast get loose, and from where?

The answer came late Wednesday when an official with Feld Entertainment, Inc., a “worldwide leader in producing and presenting live touring family entertainment experiences,” according to its website, contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to report a tiger being transported from Florida to Tennessee had gone missing.

“The truck had stopped in Georgia during the overnight hours and during that stop, the female Bengal tiger managed to escape unnoticed,” DNR spokesman Mark McKinnon said. “Feld discovered that she was missing when the truck arrived at the destination.”

Feld Entertainment said a circus presenter owned Suzy, the 6-year-old tiger. The tiger's owner, Alexander Lacey, was a big cat trainer contracted to work with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Feld spokesman Stephen Payne said.

It’s not the first time an exotic animal escaped onto a local interstate. In February 2010, a zebra from the Ringling Brothers circus got loose and galloped up the Downtown Connector during rush hour. Eight days later, DeKalb police shot and killed a bison that fell off a truck on I-20.

An autopsy of the tiger revealed a microchip that matched the number provided by Feld, which counts Disney on Ice and MonsterJam among its clients. The investigation is ongoing and “possible charges are pending,” McKinnon said.

The wayward tiger was first spotted around 6 a.m., when authorities received at least two 911 calls, one from Speck, saying they had spotted the big cat near the ramp from I-75 North to Jodeco Road, Henry police Capt. Joey Smith said.

Officers later spotted the tiger and alerted animal control officials but it was too late to save the large feline. Police aren’t equipped with tranquilizers, Smith said, and the tiger was “in close proximity to a school bus route in a densely populated area.”

“Unfortunately, it jumped a fence and went after a dog back behind one of the residences here,” Smith said. “And the officers had to use some force to put the tiger down.”

Authorities searched for a tiger after getting several calls about a big cat on the I-75 North ramp to Jodeco Road. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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The only permitted tigers in Henry County are housed at Noah’s Ark, an animal sanctuary located in Locust Grove. Altogether, there are 112 active wild animal permit holders in Georgia, McKinnon said. Acquiring such a permit isn’t easy.

Only businesses are eligible, and they must have a license with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and be covered with $40,000 liability insurance for each “inherently dangerous” animal, he said. Once a permit is secured, the animal must be housed in a facility detached from their residence.

But there are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers nationwide — more than exist in the wild — that are kept as pets, according to the wildlife advocacy group Born Free USA.