|Animal rights activists do not believe individuals should own tigers or other exotic pets [GALLO/GETTY]
These are not your average petting zoos.
As Mexican authorities crackdown on drug king-pins, they are having a hard time figuring out what to do with the exotic lions, tigers, monkeys and parrots confiscated from lavish ranches.
"This is an ongoing situation occurring in Mexico; when they [security forces] find private zoos and animals on different properties," said Adrian Reuter, an expert on the animal trade with the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico.
"They [drug lords] like charismatic animals that symbolise power and strength: big cats such as lions, tigers and jaguars, along with big snakes, monkeys and nice looking birds," he told Al Jazeera. "In some cases 20 or 30 animals have been found in pretty impressive facilities."
Mexican authorities seized more than 5,500 illegal animals and plants during a nationwide operation in July, the Associated Press reported.
"The traffickers see themselves as the top predators in their food chain and they want to have other top predators in their zoos," Arthur Jeon, co-editor of Global Animal magazine, told Al Jazeera. "They are probably thinking it is the law of the jungle. It is a weird, twisted way of showing how macho they are, and a bad cliché."
Mexican drug trafficking organisations earn between $15-30bn per year from their illicit shipments to the US, according to a State Department report published in 2010. Fulfilling strange, expensive desires is not difficult for increasingly wealthy gangsters.
Animals in limbo
Flush with cash, traffickers can turn their estates into miniature, militarised sets of the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet.
The animals are often left in limbo when security forces raid narco ranches, arresting suspected traffickers.
"It is very hard for the government; they are doing a good job given their resources," said Alejandra Goyenechea, a spokeswomen for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.
When exotic animals are seized, they are taken to an environmental enforcement agency to see if they are legally registered. If not, they are confiscated, and the government has to decide what to do with them, Goyenechea told Al Jazeera.
Depending on the type of animals, some are sent to zoos, captive breeding facilities or rescue centres near the site where they are seized.
"One of the problems now is that many of the animals being saved are exotic, meaning they are not native to Mexico," she said. "You cannot just go and release them into the wild. Normally they will be sent to zoos. But this is costly. You need space, you to comply with health regulations."
Among the narco notables with a love for exotic pets stood Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the cosmopolitan former leader of the Juarez cartel and tiger owner, said Howard Campbell, a professor at the University of Texas who studies the gangster lifestyle.
"The role models for these big drug lords are the hacienda [estate] owners from colonial times. They like to be the lord of the manor and they have huge ranches. They are rural people, by and large," Campbell told Al Jazeera.
"They grew up around animals and they liked that lifestyle, but now they have the money to take it to extremes. It is the pinnacle of rural ranchero lifestyle." Fuentes died in a botched plastic surgery operation in 1997, but new traffickers have followed in his footsteps.
When security forces arrested Jesus "The King" Zambada, a leader of the Sinaloa cartel, in October 2008, they confiscated more than 200 animals including monkeys, peacocks, and ostriches. They also found Ak-47 assault rifles, berettas and cocaine on his ranch in central Mexico.
Fed to tigers
Some exotic pets, especially tigers, are bred in captivity, rather than trafficked into Mexico from Asia or Africa, said Delcianna Winders, a spokeswoman with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "In the US alone, it is estimated that 5,000 tigers are held in private possession, but there is no exact count," she told Al Jazeera, adding that costs can be surprisingly low.
Winders said she has even seen ads from "disreputable roadside zoos and breeders offering tiger cubs for free". Her groups wants to see a ban on the ownership of exotic pets.
Members of the Zetas gang, one of Mexico’s most brutal and comprised of former military commandos, reportedly feed their enemies to backyard tigers. "It does not surprise me that traffickers are feeding their competitors to animals in private zoos," Jeon, from Global Animal magazine, said. "I am sure if they could organise fights between the tigers, they would."
Exotic pets have also been used in smuggling operations, in which gangsters stuffed condoms full of cocaine inside animals to transport into the US, Jeon said.
The trend of drug lords keeping exotic animals started in Colombia during the cocaine boom of the 1980s with Pablo Escobar and his senior associates, said Campbell, the drug lifestyle expert. "The Mexicans copied some of that style, but they have always had some of their own style too," he said.
Animal rights activists have applauded the Mexican government's attempts to find homes for confiscated pets. The state is under immense strain from drug violence – responsible for more than 36,000 human deaths.
"The war is a great tragedy for humans as well as animals," said PETA’s Winders.
Some of the money seized from dealers should be used to find new homes for confiscated animals, she said, worrying that animals taken from traffickers thus far might just represent the "tip of the iceberg".
While some narco pets live lavish lifestyles like their owners, others are cared for improperly, receiving the wrong food and not getting proper medical care.
Activists say government agencies need more resources to deal with confiscated animals, while the broader public should get better education on the importance of conservation.
"All sectors of society are responsible, it isn't just for authorities to tackle the problem," the World Wildlife Fund's Reuter said. "If there were no consumers, there would be no problem."
Sounds just like the drug war itself.
Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies