LOS ANGELES — After 29 years living in the mountains of western Malibu, Allana Stepp is used to having animals of different stripes as neighbors.
She's seen a neighbor's cow wander over and rub against her car. She has come face to face with a mountain lion. And a certain bobcat hikes up her driveway every Christmas to peek in the window and say hello.
But she draws the line at tigers. And so do her neighbors, who in recent weeks have launched a campaign to prevent a nearby property owner from building a structure that could hold up to five tigers.
Irena Hauser and her sister Sophia Kryszek now own two white Bengal tigers that have starred in many print ads, TV shows and videos. Hauser said she looked for more than five years at hundreds of properties until she found what she thought was an ideal location on the Malibu-Ventura County border. "We obviously never expected this kind of response," Hauser said.
Neighbors have hired a PR firm and brought in lawyers, organized a protest and community meeting and created a Facebook page, No Tigers in Malibu.
This part of Malibu is decidedly more rural than the beachside estates and boutique stores along Pacific Coast Highway. Many residents keep their own livestock — and say they worry about safety of their animals and themselves. They note that earlier this year, a 24-year-old woman was killed while interning at Project Survival's Cat Haven in the Fresno, Calif., area when a lion attacked her. A few years ago, a Siberian tiger prowled the hills of the Simi Valley for weeks after escaping from a sanctuary.
"It's a valid concern that you don't want to be eaten by a tiger," Ventura County planning manager Brian Baca said. "But behind that thought is the presumption that the tigers are going to get away. And that's the issue that has to be demonstrated (by Hauser) — that these tigers will not get away."
Hauser's first contact with tigers came at a sanctuary in Florida when she was about 8 years old. She and her sister got to hold a baby cub. "It looked into my eyes, and I was done," she said. "I had a connection."
After about a decade-long career in aerospace engineering, Hauser decided she wanted a "different style of life" and started observing tigers at animal compounds. She and her sister learned to watch a tiger's tail or head movement for clues about what the animal was thinking. Years later, she got a tiger of her own, then another.
Hauser said her two tigers, now 11 and 3, can do all the tricks a dog learns: sit, roll over and paw a high-five. Standing atop a dirt patch in the middle of her property, Hauser outlined where she plans to install the tigers' play arena with a pool. Tunnels that shoot out from the arena would feed into the tigers' enclosures, she said. Around it all would be a chain-link fence, and around that would be another. Her proposed enclosure would have room for up to five tigers, but she said she currently has just the two. (The tigers now live at a licensed animal facility.)
The location is ideal, she said, because it is zoned to allow the keeping of wild animals with the granting of a permit. She said her sister's family plans to live on the property.
Neighbors worry the tigers will threaten their safety, disrupt the environment and lower property values. "When you look down from Google Earth and you see all this open space, you erroneously get the idea that this is just a bunch of hillbillies up here. And we're not," said resident Lisa Siderman. ". . . I know these people love their tigers, but this is just not the right place."