As Luis Eudoro Valencia, then 18, tried to cross into California from Mexico, a U.S. customs inspector noticed something suspicious lying on the passenger side floor of his Chevy Camaro. Court documents show that Eriberto Paniagua, then 21, who was sitting in the passenger seat, told customs that the creature was “just a cat.”
Later identified by veterinarians with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, this was indeed not a cat. As it turned out, Valencia was smuggling a four-to-five week-old Bengal tiger into California. The tiger was in “good health overall” and would begin teething in just a few weeks. The tiger was named Moka and is now on display at the zoo.
About 6 months after the initial arrest, Luis Valencia has been sentenced to six months in prison for trying to smuggle an endangered species into the U.S. The Endangered Species Act bans the import of tigers without a permit, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora prohibits the sale of tigers or their parts across borders.
Although it’s a federal crime to import tigers without the proper paperwork, states allow possession of them.
Supposedly, Valencia’s lawyer argued that he had “a lapse of judgment” and wanted to keep the tiger as a pet at his home in Perris, California. Valencia told a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent that he saw a man with an adult tiger in Tijuana on a Monday and bought the cub from him for $300 that same day, court documents show.
He later changed his story after investigators found messages on his cellphone from a few days earlier that included photos of the seized cub, a different baby tiger, and an adult tiger. Prosecutors argued that he also sent messages bragging about earning thousands of dollars from selling monkeys, jaguars, and lions.