ALBION – When Kevin Libben spotted an animal on a Noble County road Tuesday, he assumed it was a deer – until it turned and he saw a long tiger’s tail.
Several heartbeats later, the incredulous Libben became a believer when he pulled over, stepped out of his truck and stared. The tiger was about 40 yards away, crouched in tall grass as if it were ready to pounce.
“I said, ‘OK, that’s enough,’ ” said Libben, 49.
Libben, who said he normally carries a gun in his truck this time of year but was weaponless Tuesday, called Albion police.
After police called Black Pine Animal Park, a “nose count” of its six Bengal tigers confirmed the worst – 18-year-old India had escaped from the exotic animal rescue park.
India, a 350- to 400-pound female that eventually returned to the park on her own, enjoyed a stroll around her pen Wednesday morning, stopping occasionally to rub her face against the thick wire fence, while park officials prepared for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a review of their emergency protocol.
The subdued scene came after a Tuesday that found Libben, a volunteer firefighter who helped officials search for the tiger, calling his wife to tease her that he was certainly having a more interesting day than she was.
Meanwhile, Lori Gagen, Black Pine’s executive director, was realizing her worst nightmare.
The only consolation Gagen found was that it was India – raised by humans and known for her sweetness, curiosity and playfulness – that had escaped. Had it been one of the park’s other tigers, Gagen said, officials would have had to shoot to kill the animal.
“I don’t think I was ever concerned for the public, knowing India,” Gagen said.
A search was launched for the tiger involving the Noble County Sheriff’s Department, Albion Police Department, Albion firefighters, Indiana conservation officers and Indiana State Police.
While Sheriff Gary Leatherman said the conspicuous presence of more than a dozen police cars prompted residents to spread word of the tiger’s escape, police did visit some homes in the immediate area to notify residents.
Leatherman was concerned about manpower because officers had planned to treat children to holiday shopping and pizza.
“You have disappointed kids or you have a tiger on the loose,” Leatherman said.
About 20 people helped in the search, which Leatherman said covered about a square-mile area including farm fields, tall grass and thick woods.
During the search, a tranquilizer dart was shot at India, but it bounced off her body and she bolted, Gagen said.
Searchers, and India, endured hours of cold temperatures and drizzle before darkness fell and a thick fog rolled in, leaving only darkness, flashlights, voices and blue images on thermal-imaging equipment, Gagen said. Those images depicted many deer and one large cat, Leatherman said.
Before 10 p.m., the search was canceled, and when searchers from Black Pine returned to the park, Gagen said they knew that if India didn’t return on her own, she would likely be shot dead come daylight.
They consoled themselves, Gagen said, by reflecting on the good life India had had at the park and how she even enjoyed a brief taste of freedom.
Gagen and the park’s founder, Karen Hoag, decided to stay at the park overnight, with Hoag on the first shift.
About midnight, India returned to the park, where a trail of meat had been laid to tempt her home. When India spotted Hoag, the cat chuffed a purr-like greeting, then meandered to her pen where a dry straw bed awaited her.
Wednesday, Gagen, whose hands bore scratches from briars during the search, pointed to tiger paw prints in frozen mud, saying she hopes to make a cast of one of the perfect prints.
Gagen said it isn’t known whether India’s escape was due to lock failure or the failure of a keeper to lock the enclosure door.
The agriculture department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will investigate the case, looking for any violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act that might have contributed to the escape, according to Jessica Milteer, public affairs specialist for the USDA.
The Animal Welfare Act applies to nearly all warm-blooded animals if they are used for activities including exhibition, commercial transport and breeding, Milteer said.
The investigation will involve review of the park’s records, an inspection of the tiger enclosure and staff interviews. If a violation is found, penalties could range from a letter of warning to license revocation, Milteer said.
Milteer said Black Pine’s last inspection June 2 uncovered no violations.