Tips & AdviceInfamous Illegal Pets from NYC History

Infamous Illegal Pets from NYC History

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New York City has fairly strict laws regarding the kinds of animals that may legally be kept within the five boroughs. However, these regulations have not stopped some of the more colorful personalities throughout the city’s history from harboring an eclectic array of exotic critters. Most of these animals were ultimately seized by city authorities—with some attaining near-celebrity status in the process.

Ming the Tiger

By HenryJonesnyc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Perhaps the most famous of NYC’s illegal pets was Ming the tiger, a 425-pound male Bengal-Siberian mix discovered in Harlem’s Drew-Hamilton Houses in 2003. Ming was purchased by resident Antoine Yates, a self-professed animal lover, as an eight-week-old cub in 2001. With the apparent cooperation of his neighbors, Yates was able to keep Ming’s existence within the public housing complex a secret from city officials for almost three years.

The truth finally came to light after Yates was wounded during a brief tussle with Ming and his doctors tipped off authorities about Yates’ suspicious injuries. The high-stakes rescue operation that ensued captured the public’s imagination as officers drilled holes in Yates’ door to confirm the presence of the tiger, rappelled down the side of the building to shoot a tranquilizer dart through the window, and eventually succeeded in liberating Ming from the apartment. Ming spent his final years at Noah’s Lost Ark Animal Sanctuary in Ohio, where he died of natural causes in 2019. Ming’s remains were returned to New York and are interred at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.

Yates was arrested at a Philadelphia hospital on charges of reckless endangerment and possessing a wild animal and ultimately served three months in prison. He fought for the return of his former pet to the very end of Ming’s life, referring to the tiger as his “best friend.”

Goldfleck the Lion

By No photographer credited. – “Prominent People in Picture and Paragraph” New Broadway Magazine (May 1908): 244., Public Domain

Though he may not know it, Yates was far from the first to attempt keeping a member of the genus Panthera in the big city. Portrait artist and ex-princess Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy arrived in New York city in the year 1908 and settled into a fourteen-room suite at the newly-built Plaza Hotel with her already-impressive retinue of pets: a Pomeranian, cat, guinea pig, owl, bear, and two small alligators. Lwoff-Parlaghy soon found another addition to her menagerie in the form of Goldfleck, a lion cub she obtained from the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Lwoff-Parlaghy doted on Goldfleck, bringing him for walks in Central Park and allowing him to sprawl out in her suite’s massive bathtub. City living proved detrimental to the lion’s health, however, and Goldfleck died a premature death in 1912. The former princess conducted an elaborate funeral ceremony for the deceased lion before his burial at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

The Rabbit Lady of Gowanus

Photo by Aswathy N on Unsplash

Rabbits, a favorite pet among city dwellers, are highly social animals that benefit from having others of their kind around to keep them company. This was the justification used by Gowanus resident Dorota Trec in 2016 for maintaining a colony of 176 rabbits in a vacant lot in Brooklyn.

Gowanus’ rabbit “garden” began in 2012 outside the Mexico Tire Shop on Third Avenue and had grown to nearly two hundred strong by 2015. Trec, who happily claimed the title of “rabbit girl,” felt a special connection to rabbits and decided to dedicate her life to creating a rabbit haven for area residents to enjoy. Instead, concerned neighbors called the authorities to report on the inhumane conditions they faced under Trec’s care. With a severe winter storm closing in, city officials seized her rabbits in January 2015. 

Ultimately, Trec was convicted on 100 counts of animal cruelty, sentenced to forty-five days in jail, and forced to register as an animal abuser with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She was also banned from owning animals for at least five years, much to her neighbors’ relief.

Animal Bust at Billionaire’s Birthday Party

Photo by Javier Mazzeo on Unsplash

Photo by Javier Mazzeo on Unsplash

Hedge fund billionaire Philip Falcone had big plans for his birthday party in 2012, including a lavish petting zoo of exotic animals. But when animal handler Nicholas Jacinto arrived at Falcone’s $50 million townhouse on the Upper East Side with a snake, sloth, lemur, and Brazilian aardvark in tow, the festivities were quickly shut down by inspectors from the Health Department. While Falcone got off scot-free, Jacinto was ticketed for failing to obtain the proper permit to display the animals in the city.

Jacinto received a similar ticket later the same year after illegally exhibiting a pair of kangaroos named Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman at a Christmas show at Brighton Beach’s Millennium Theater. Apparently undeterred by these incidents, Jacinto continues to host exotic animal shows and events through a small business known as “Nature Nick’s Animal Adventures.”

A Knockoff Bronx Zoo

Photo by Donna Yarbrough on Unsplash

In 2018, following a tip from a concerned neighbor, police officers raided the Bronx’s Adams Houses apartment and were startled to find a possum, two pigeons, a dove, a two-foot-long eel, and a pair of whopping 80-pound snapping turtles living in a single one-bedroom apartment. These creatures were the property of brothers Richie and Willie Rodriguez, ardent animal lovers who had owned at least one of the turtles for upwards of a decade.

Both Rodriguez brothers, along with Riche’s wife Yesenia Crisostomo Diaz, were given violations for possessing illegal wild animals and charged with acting in a manner injurious to a child for exposing Richie’s six-year-old daughter to their unlicensed menagerie. Richie Rodriguez mourned the loss of his apartment petting zoo—especially the possum, which he had found injured at a nearby park and nursed back to health.

Razzi the Runaway Zebra

By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0

In November 2012, Staten Island residents were treated to a strange sight: a rogue zebra foal was trotting freely down Victory Boulevard, chaperoned only by a fugitive pony. This four-month-old zebra, ironically named Paparazzi (or “Razzi” for short), belonged to a local named Giovanni Schirripa. Schirripa blamed Casper the pony for their illicit joyride, noting that the incident was Casper’s third escape attempt.

Razzi had apparently been acquired for an Octoberfest petting zoo to be held at the headquarters of the nearby Staten Island Boys Football League. Despite Schirrippa’s assertion that he had acquired the necessary permits to allow him to keep the animal, the Health Department could not validate this claim. Schirrippa quickly relocated Razzi to a barn in New Jersey before an inspector could stop by his Staten Island residence, thus ending Razzi’s brief stint as a New Yorker.

Sophie McIntosh
Sophie McIntosh
Sophie McIntosh is a Brooklyn-based writer and dramaturg hailing from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her plays have been produced by Imaginarium Theatre Company, Platform Production Company, and in the Boston Theater Marathon. Check out more of her work at sophiemcintoshwrites.com!

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