Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006 | 7:29 a.m.
The leopard has been snarling and pacing since you arrived. Your palm is pressed against the chain-link fence.
The leopard hits the fence at neck level, fangs first, massive paws framing its face.
"He can smell your fear," says the woman inside the cage, with the leopard.
Playing, in fact, with the leopard. Slapping its taut black flanks. Scratching it behind its flattened ears. Pulling its twitching and bristling tail. She tells you that the animal is just testing you, that you shouldn't flinch if you want to gain its respect. Relax. The woman tousles the short black hair on the back of the leopard's head.
You nod and focus on the slight, calm woman and not on her pet.
It doesn't do to forget about a leopard.
"Oh James," the woman says. "You silly cat."
'I guess I like living on the edge .'
Meet Marianne Slama and James Wilde of Pahrump: A lady and her leopard.
Depending on whom you ask, the pair is either a vanishing breed or part of a growing menace. Almost everyone will say that Slama is nuts to keep James as a pet.
James is a 3-year-old African leopard and black as crude oil, except when the light catches him and he looks like chocolate with dark spots. He's about 30 inches tall, 44 inches long (not counting a 39-inch tail) and weighs, by Slama's guess, 150 pounds. James comes fully loaded with the equipment and instincts to kill.
Slama is a 45-year-old sometime-showgirl and sometime-production manager with blond hair and deeply tanned skin. She's 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs, by her own guess, 120 pounds. She carries a wooden "no-no stick" less than a foot long in her back pocket.
If they ever fight, Slama will probably die. But so far they seem to get along. He was only a kitten when she got him in 2003 as a payment-in-trade for catsitting him and five other leopards.
Every morning, first thing, Slama unlocks her front door, pads across her concrete yard and pops into a cage with James.
"Usually I'm in a G-string and flip flops," she says. "But today since I had company, I thought I'd put my clothes on."
She says the thing with leopards is that they're unpredictable.
(Although not entirely so. Important Tip No. 1: Don't get lower than the leopard. You'll resemble prey.)
"When you walk in the cage, you never know what the cat's going to do," Slama says. "I guess I like living on the edge - it's pretty fun."
Most days she lets James roam inside her house with her for about an hour. And she likes talking about the danger, too. She has several well-loved lines about it, like: "People ask, 'Does your cat bite?' No, I say, he kills."
Which is one of the reasons she doesn't let James lick her hand or face or anything else, no matter how cute some people think that is.
"That licking thing? They lick their food. Lick, lick, chomp," Slama says. "How many licks does it take to get to the center of the Tootsie Pop? Not very many."
When James eats, after the licking, he makes loud slurping and popping sounds over his pile of chicken parts. It soon disappears, bones and all.
The Endangered Eccentric
Nevada is known for tolerating all sorts of eccentricity, a tradition that's included large and especially toothy pets. But as the state has grown, the residents of subdivisions and master-planned communities have proved disinclined to live next to carnivorous megafauna.
Big cats are illegal in Henderson. They're tightly regulated in Las Vegas and their numbers have been on the decline for decades. And Clark County is looking to tighten regulations on the 200 or so lions, tigers and oh-mys in its jurisdiction.
Nye County has an ordinance: Anyone who wants to keep a wild animal is supposed to get a permit from the sheriff. No one currently bothers to do so. However, Nye County - Pahrump in particular - is rapidly growing. While once Slama had no neighbors within shouting distance, now stucco subdivisions are sprouting up around her. An elementary school was built a mile and half away.
Amid such growth, Nye County officials are talking about tightening their wild animal regulations.
Slama says she's not worried. Even though she's not required to, she holds an Agriculture Department exhibitor's license for James and has her cages and fences regularly inspected.
"I've got to protect my rights," Slama said.
Nationally, though, she's swimming against the tide.
Groups such as the Humane Society and the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition are pushing to outlaw possession of wild animals as pets or show animals. In 2003, animal-welfare activists persuaded Congress to outlaw interstate traffic in big cats. (The Senate bill was co-sponsored by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.)
"Go to a local shelter and pick up a dog or a cat," Beth Preiss, a Humane Society spokeswoman, says. "Don't get a wild animal."
How dangerous is a pet leopard?
"There's no wisdom in at all," says Karen Killmar, associate curator of mammals San Diego Zoo. "These are animals that can very easily do great bodily harm, even kill. It's not something that they do wrong. It's just part of their nature - they're predators. They hunt and eat prey, and the human species is a prey animal."
The San Diego Zoo does not allow its keepers into a pen with a big cat in it.
When big cats attack, the results are usually dire. The danger comes not so much from their long, piercing teeth as the immense pressure their jaws inflict. Bones shatter, tissue is crushed and blood vessels are torn, says Dr. Jay Coates of University Medical Center's trauma unit. He estimates he treats maybe one victim a year, although except for the mauling of Roy Horn of "Siegfried & Roy" in 2003, he hasn't seen any victims of massive attacks.
"Those people usually don't make it to the hospital. They're usually dead," Coates said. "If a 400-pound tiger decides you're lunch, there's not a lot you're going to do about it once they get hold of you."
Instead, in the cases he sees, the damage is so much less than what the animal is capable of inflicting that he thinks the animals are playing or irritated, not hungry.
But how frequent are the attacks?
By the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition's most recent count in 2004, there were 44 attacks by big cats in the U.S. However, it estimates that there are 10,000 20,000 privately owned big cats. That means that less than one half of 1 percent of them are attacking.
If the coalition's numbers are to be believed, pet dogs are more likely at that rate to hurt people badly enough to send them to an emergency room.
Still, for safety's sake, James' locked steel cages have tops as well as sides, and Slama's 5-acre compound is ringed with tall fences topped with barbed wire. The barbed wire slants outward. In Nye County, there are no rules saying how secure a leopard pen has to be, but Slama has hers inspected by federal regulators, just to be sure. Slama says she worries much more about people sneaking in and bothering the leopard than the other way around.
"I'm not bigger than him, but I do make him think I am."
Because he knows her and because she's trained him, Slama believes that James will not attack her. More than that, she believes she's exceptional. She will not be attacked because she is fearless; because she's smarter than the cat.
"I've got my mind," Slama says. "That's my strength. I'm not bigger than him, but I do make him think I am."
It's an attitude common in fighter pilots, race car drivers and stockbrokers: It can't happen - I'm too good. And if they see someone crash or get hauled away by the IRS? They made a mistake.
"When something happens," Slama says, "it's the human's fault, not the animal's."
But Killmar says that's not necessarily the case. Just because you know a big animal doesn't mean you can predict or control a large predator.
"Something happens that will startle that animal or they pick up a scent that pushes a button in their brain. With no warning whatever, they become a totally different animal, and that's when people get seriously hurt and killed," Killmar says.
The most famous case of this unpredictability, of course, is the 2003 mauling of Horn on stage at the Mirage. Siegfried and Roy preformed this show more than 5,500 times with a variety of cats without incident. And then it went wrong.
Montecore, a 380-pound, 7-year-old white tiger, bit Horn's arm. Montecore then clamped his jaws around Horn's neck and dragged him offstage. Damage from the attack caused Horn's trachea to collapse and led to a stroke for the illusionist, who remains partially paralyzed. The pair has said that Horn fainted and Montecore was merely dragging him to safety, an idea that zoologists scorn. They note that tigers kill by biting the neck and suffocating their prey.
Is it good for the cat?
In the wild, leopards are largely solitary animals that patrol territories of several miles. James lives most of his life in a series of eight-feet tall, 24-foot-by-12-foot cages, although he does get to come into the house nearly every day, and sometimes Slama takes him out for a walk. (He likes to stalk the horse trails - see below.)
Wild leopards can live for 12 to 15 years. Captive leopards have lived for up to 23 years.
Leopards need a lot of space, things to climb, sun breaks to sleep beneath and water to splash in, Killmar says. James has at least the last three of those. Large carnivores require a diet richer than the grocery story can provide. Slama says she takes care of that. On inspection, James' coat is glossy and he seems energetic.
(For the record, in addition to the chicken, once a week James gets a zoo feed of vitamin-fortified horse meat. Important Tip No. 2: Don't feed a predator live meat, lest they get used to it.)
But Killmar also says that leopards, although mostly solitary in the wild, need contact with other members of their species.
James does not have that.
"He's got it all."
What James does have is Slama's complete and utter devotion.
As a girl, Slama used to daydream about herself as a grown-up, fashionably dressed and turning heads as she walked down the street, two lions at her sides. In 1991, she took a step toward that goal when she fell in love with an animal trainer. They moved to Pahrump and started a family of sorts: lions, chimps, servals, a cougar named Elvis. And of course, a leopard.
"Obviously I loved the cats more than the guy. It took me seven years to figure that out," she says.
At the end of the relationship, she kept her house and her first leopard, Alvin. And then Alvin fell ill with a mysterious nervous ailment that vets would later diagnose as distemper. Over seven weeks, Slama says, she spent $6,000 on spinal taps, CT scans and even a homeopathic animal healer. Nothing worked. Near the end, she was feeding the leopard through a tube and sleeping next to him. He died in her arms in 2001.
She keeps Alvin's ashes in a cognac bottle with a black leopard on its label. She also keeps his skull and his hide, the latter of which she held up and used as a puppet until her eyes welled up and she put it down and petted it.
She got James in 2003. It's made dating rough. And no one can quite measure up to James.
"I wish I could find a man like the cat," she says. "Someone to be that aggressive and that passionate and that subtle. To be able to protect me like that and love me. He's got it all."
"It's so unnatural, but it's just so wonderful."
If you see James just out of the corner of your eye, his tongue lolling out and his head thrown back as Slama pets him and mists him with a hose - at that indistinct angle, happily panting away, well, James looks like a big Labrador retriever.
And then he turns to look at you just as you look at him. He stares back at you with large blue feline eyes and slowly flicks a massive, gritty tongue over golf tee-sized teeth.
"When I'm face to face with him," Slama says, "it's so unnatural, but it's just so wonderful."
It's one point on which Slama and Killmar can agree. As much as she thinks it's unwise and unkind to keep leopards as pets, Killmar admits that sometimes she wishes she could touch one, and play with a fear older than human history.
"Maybe part of it is that they are a predator. Back before we had weapons and we were much more a prey species, these were animals that we would avoid at all costs because chances are that we wouldn't walk away from a confrontation," Killmar says. "But, now that we can interact with them and contain them, when I think about the beauty of the animals and their majesty - not to be dramatic, but they are. They're incredible animals. They're intelligent.
"They're fun to be around, you know, they really are."