LOCKPORT – John Basile acknowledged he brought a tiger into a bar last month.
But the operator of the Big Run Wolf Ranch said he was promoting his business, not behaving recklessly.
“I didn’t just open the door and say, ‘Go get ’em, tiger.’ He didn’t bound up and get on a stool so everyone said ‘Tiger’ like Norm on ‘Cheers,’ ” Basile, 57, said during an interview last week at his Big Run Wolf Ranch.
Big Run Wolf Ranch is a federally licensed educational facility that cares for 10 wolves, a bear and a mountain lion. Basile said the animals are not trained to perform, but are presented to children and groups visiting on field trips. Basile also has a traveling presentation with one wolf, a woodchuck, porcupine, coyote and skunk.
Basile has an animal exhibitor’s license and he said passing unannounced federal inspections on a regular basis is required for him to maintain it.
Last fall, Basile learned another licensed exhibitor had a Siberian tiger cub who had been born Sept. 24. Basile bought Shere Khan for $700 and picked him up Dec. 9.
“Because of the 28 years working with animals, I had wanted a big cat. I wasn’t expecting one, but this is the culmination of everything I’ve wanted,” Basile said.
Basile brought the cub to Uncle Richie’s bar to show him off soon after he got him, he said. He also recalled making one other visit with the young animal to a local tavern before talking with some other regulars at Uncle Richie’s about an upcoming event.
The event was “Wildfest.” Basile appeared along with a reptile and bat exhibitor Feb. 23 at Lockport East High School. Proceeds go to student scholarships and animal rescue programs. Basile hopes it will be an annual fundraiser.
“I go into Uncle Richie’s sometimes, watch the ballgames, and we thought [showing off] Khan would be a good way to promote Wildfest,” Basile said.
On Feb. 16, Basile said he put the tiger into a cage to bring it to the bar. He walked the tiger into the bar on a leash and kept it on the leash the entire time.
“Everyone thought it was real neat,” Basile said. “I brought some bottles of formula, a lot of people were taking pictures with their cellphones. I had two handlers with me. I didn’t put anybody at risk because I don’t need that liability.”
The owner of Uncle Richie’s declined to comment Monday on Shere Khan’s appearance at the bar. Basile said he consumed two beers while he was at Uncle Richie’s that were bought by other patrons. The 225-pound man said rumors that he was drunk are not true.
“But after a while it was getting loud and I thought Khan was getting a little cranky, so we were going to leave. Someone suggested we should promote Wildfest at Jackie’s Pub just down the street, so I thought we could do that in the parking lot, not inside,” Basile said.
Some passing drivers were staring as he walked out with Khan on a leash. A Lockport police officer stopped and said the tiger was causing a commotion, Basile said.
“I said, ‘Tell me what law I’m breaking,’ but I cooperated. I didn’t want trouble. I put the tiger in the cage and called my daughter to drive the truck back,” Basile said.
Lockport police issued two charges against Basile on Feb. 23 – possession of a dangerous animal, a Class C misdemeanor, and reckless conduct, a Class A misdemeanor.
“Since he has that exhibitor’s license there were some questions we had to review with the Will County State’s Attorney’s office before those charges were issued,” Lockport Police Chief Terry Lemming said previously regarding the time lapse between when the tiger was in the bar and when charges were filed.
If found guilty of both counts, Basile could face up to a year in jail and $4,000 in fines, but probation would be more likely for a first-time offender.
“Dangerous animals do not belong in liquor establishments,” Lemming said.
For having the “unmuzzled” animal in the bar with only a leash to secure it, Basile’s conduct was reckless, according to the filed complaint.
Basile acknowledges the tiger, like the wolves and bears he’s had for years, is legally classified as a dangerous animal, but his license allows him to possess one. He compares Khan to a young German Shepherd puppy.
“His teeth are a half-inch and he’s not using his claws. He’s still bottle-fed and will be for eight or nine months,” Basile said. “He’ll nip at a pant leg or sleeve just like a puppy.”
Khan’s father weighed 700 pounds, but Basile said the cub weighs about 45 pounds now and was less than 40 pounds when he went to Uncle Richie’s.
Shere Khan will grow to a size where he won’t be able to leave the ranch, but will only be displayed there. Basile is modifying some of his fences to create a permanent habitat for the tiger to live in.
“He is forcing the cougar to move to a smaller area,” Basile said.
Siberian tigers are an endangered species, with an estimated 450 animals left in the wild, according to National Geographic.
“They are heavily poached,” Basile said. “And I’m glad children and adults who see Shere Khan here can see a Siberian tiger instead of just hearing about it.”
Basile is scheduled to appear in court March 28. He said he does not plan to bring Shere Khan.