NAPAVINE — Siberian tigers Samson and Delilah roamed from one home to another in Lewis County for almost two years before finally settling down just south of Napavine this fall.
Now their owners, plumber Paul Mason and his partner Annette Grabowski, are buying 23 acres of land on Mill Road, where they say they plan to stay for good.
The couple, originally from Pahrump, Nevada, appeared in Onalaska with their cats in the spring of 2002. They relocated to rural Chehalis shortly afterward, where they lived on Hewitt Road until their recent move to Napavine.
Samson and Delilah have occupied an 11-foot by 46-foot cage since arriving in Lewis County, but Mason has begun preparing his yard for a "compound" where the tigers can get more exercise: a 10,000-square foot swath of ground surrounded by an eight-foot high barbed-wire fence.
"I'm ready for them to get out of that cage," Mason said.
The tigers draw attention wherever they go. Neighbors in particular have questions about who or what is roaring in the night in their backyards.
Some of Mason's new neighbors are enchanted by the animals, which he believes are the only tigers living in Lewis County; others worry about the safety of having them next door.
"There's a daycare across the street. If they get out, there's no way the neighbors will know about it," said one neighbor, who declined to give her name.
"If a rapist has to be so many miles from children, why can't a man-eater have to be just as far?" she asked.
Kristy Baker owns the daycare center on Mill Road, where she cares for 13 children.
"I've had a couple of parents concerned about it," she said. "I had one parent tell her four-year-old daughter not to go outside because there's tigers. Other than that there hasn't been any problem."
Baker herself is not too afraid, and even let her 9-year-old son go visit the tigers one day.
"He thought it was awesome," she said. "I really don't see anything bad about it as long as they've got them caged up. My biggest concern will be in the summer when the kids are playing outside."
Another Mill Road resident, a Napavine business owner who also asked not to be identified, said Mason was being unfair to his neighbors, who have lived there for generations without the threat of predatory animals.
"You get out of the car at night and you can't help but think about (the tigers)," said the man. "He's putting a safety burden on everyone around him. I'd rather have an industrial park next door than tigers."
Mason tried to keep a low profile when he moved to his new home, but word spreads quickly when you have tigers: Officials from the Lewis County Sheriff's Office and the Napavine Police Department soon came to see what he had in the cage.
"They had heard rumors," Mason said.
Despite the concerns many of his neighbors have aired, he said, "None of them pressed negativity like in the last two locations."
Mason expects to make Napavine his permanent home.
"I don't ever plan on moving again," he said.
With the life expectancy of a Siberian tiger around 20 years, residents of the 600 block of Mill Road can look forward to about 15 years with Samson and Delilah, who just turned five and four, respectively.
Siberian tigers are an endangered species: only about 200 are thought to exist in the wild. More exist in captivity.
Tigers usually stop growing at around the age of five: Delilah now weighs about 500 pounds, and Samson about 700. He may continue to grow, however: his father weighed in at close to a ton.
"They're still very lovable," Mason said.
Mason bought the tigers from a farm in Arkansas for $1,000 each, with the intention of one day breeding them and selling the cubs.
Now, he explained, he is promoting abstinence for the tiger couple, because he fears new legislation will ban the purchase of tigers in Washington.
"That stupid group PAWS thinks nobody should own tigers," Mason said of the Lynnwood-based Progressive Animal Welfare Society, which has been lobbying for legislation outlawing ownership of dangerous wild animals for the past four years.
The proposed law passed the state House by a two-thirds majority last year but did not make it through the Senate: PAWS is hopeful it will be enacted during this year's legislative session, according to Jennifer Hillman, the group's legislative coordinator.
"Because there's no regulation and no law on the books, not even any registration required to deal with these animals, nobody knows where they are or how they're kept or if they're a danger to neighbors," Hillman said.
The Lewis County Sheriff's Office said there are no county regulations Mason must comply with other than keeping the tigers contained.
Mason does not have a regular veterinarian for the animals, and administers their regular shots himself.
"If I had an emergency, there's a vet in the Point Defiance Zoo that could treat them — I'm not saying he would, but he could," Mason said. "The vets around here aren't licensed to do that. They're licensed for horses and cows, not lions and tigers."
PAWS learned of Mason's tigers a couple years ago when his ex-wife called to say she feared the tigers weren't being properly cared for. Otherwise, the group has no way of keeping track of exotic animals in the state.
"We would only know about them if they made it to the media," she said, but added, "a lot of them are making it to the media because it's an issue now," following the mauling of Roy, of the Las Vegas performing group Siegfried and Roy, by one of the tigers in his act, along with the more recent death of a 10-year-old boy in North Carolina after he was mauled by his aunt's Bengal tiger.
Mason said his tigers are docile and their cage impenetrable. But before leaving Nevada, he was sued after a visitor reached in the cage when the tigers were eating and was bit in the arm by Samson.
The visitor, Roger Ganrud, said he was told he could feed the animals. He sued for more than $100,000 in medical expenses after the tiger punctured his arm.
Mason, however, said Ganrud was intoxicated when he came to see the tigers, and was never given permission to feed or touch the animals.
Ganrud's attorney, Craig Perry, said his office dropped the case because Mason did not appear to have any insurance coverage or other means of paying Ganrud's medical bills.
Insurance is hard to come by when you have tigers: Mason had to let go of his dream of traveling with the animals, showing them at malls and shopping centers, for that reason.
"I'm finding insurance is almost impossible to get for an exhibit," he said. "The crowds are going to have to come to me. And they do, on a real regular basis."
Jennifer Latson covers rural Lewis County, South Thurston County and East Grays Harbor County for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8245, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.