Ocean County tigers ordered to exile in Texas The "Tiger Lady" loses her latest court battle to keep two dozen big cats on her private preserve. 24 tigers face exile in Texas

Posted: November 09, 2002

Nearly four years after police sharpshooters killed a Bengal tiger roaming around an Ocean County neighborhood, a judge yesterday ordered the removal of two dozen of the big cats kept at the "Tiger Lady's" private preserve.

State officials have always maintained that the slain tiger escaped from the preserve Joan Byron-Marasek, a former performer, had run since 1977 on Route 537 in Jackson Township.

Byron-Marasek, who has denied the loose tiger was hers, denounced the decision by state Superior Court Judge Eugene Serpentelli in Ocean County that cleared the way for state wildlife officials to move her cats to a Texas animal orphanage.

"It is tantamount to taking children who are happy and healthy and loved and putting them in the home of a known child abuser and rapist," said Byron-Marasek.

In his ruling, Serpentelli said that Byron-Marasek loved her cats as parents love their children but that she had done nothing to relocate the cats herself, as another court had directed.

The state Division of Fish and Wildlife plans to move the tigers from Byron-Marasek's Tigers Only Preservation Society in about six weeks unless a higher court intervenes.

Yesterday's ruling came less than a month after Byron-Marasek's husband, Jan Marasek, 70, was mauled by one of the tigers and hospitalized for a week for head, face and arm injuries.

The drawn-out court battle began after a 430-pound Bengal tiger was found roaming loose Jan. 27, 1999, in a neighborhood near the compound, which is also near a safari park operated by Six Flags in Jackson.

After failing to hit it with tranquilizer darts, sharpshooters killed the tiger. Once all the tigers at Six Flags were accounted for, investigators zeroed in on Byron-Marasek's nearby 12-acre compound.

The state wildlife agency revoked Byron-Marasek's theatrical permit that allowed her to keep the animals after inspectors said they found the tigers living off road kill in a rat-infested compound.

The tigers in the meantime became a symbol in the fast-developing township, with old-time residents rallying behind Byron-Marasek and newcomers demanding the animals be removed.

The state never directly linked the loose tiger to Byron-Marasek, but DNA tests established that fur found on her compound's perimeter fence came from the slain cat.

In the meantime, mating in the compound has increased the number of tigers from 17 to 24.

Byron-Marasek made a number of improvements at the compound under pressure from the state; but wildlife officials made clear they never intended for the preserve to remain in operation.

In 2000, an administrative court judge ordered the tiger preserve closed, and that ruling was upheld on appeal. Byron-Marasek went through seven lawyers during her court battle.

About 600 animals, including 53 tigers, live at the Wild Animal Orphanage near San Antonio, where Byron-Marasek's tigers are to be sent. The state will pay $87,000 of the nearly $150,000 cost of transporting the tigers to New Jersey, with the orphanage picking up the balance.

Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3868 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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