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The Tracker School gets involved in escaped tiger case

by Dan Hirshberg

Tom Brown, Jr., along with Tracker School Director Kevin Reeve, was called in by the Jackson Township (N.J.) police department on Jan. 27 to help ensure that an escaped Bengal tiger did not elude them.

It was suspected at the time that the tiger had either escaped from a nearby theme park, Great Adventure, or from a nearby private tiger preserve. Members of the Jackson Township police department, several of whom had been trained by Brown, asked for Brown's assistance in the event the animal eluded them and disappeared into nearby woods.

"I have all the confidence in the world about the abilities of the men I trained," Brown says of the Jackson police officers. "I didn't really need to be there."

Unfortunately, Brown and Reeve arrived at the scene moments after the tiger was shot. It was confirmed through foot prints and blood that the tiger had been hit. Brown and Reeve tracked the tiger through thick vegetation, across a stream, and finally to where the tiger lay dead.

Brown, who does not carry any sort of firearm when he tracks, was backed up by officers of the police department, including Anthony Senatore, a graduate of Brown's school.

The tiger was beautiful," says Brown. "I wish the ending had somehow been different."

Brown, along with other officials, was hoping to capture the tiger alive. However, once the tiger was close to escaping from the "containment" area, the decision was made by law enforcement officials to shoot it so that it did not pose a threat to the public.

A few days later, Reeve returned to the scene along with school instructors Dan Stanchfield, Ruth Ann Colby-Martin, and Tom McElroy, as well as caretaker Brian Gooding and adjunct instructor Jon Young. They "back-tracked" the animal to within 1,000 feet of the private preserve to help officials determine the origination of the tiger.

While the authorities have not officially charged (as of March 8) the owner of the preserve with allowing the tiger to escape, they are requiring her to make extensive improvements to her compound which currently houses 17 tigers.

The case, as well as the Tracker School, received massive media coverage, including a piece in the New York Times national Week in Review section.

The nitty-gritty of back-tracking a tiger by our "team" is reported in full detail
(The following report was filed with the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game & Wildlife by Kevin Reeve, Tracker School Director, who led a "back-tracking" expedition in the case of an escaped tiger in Jackson Township, N.J.)

On February 1, 1999 The Tracker School was contacted by Tony Senatore of the Jackson Township Police Department to back-track the tiger shot on 1/28/99 on Wright-Debow Road. In response to the request, a tracking team was dispatched. The team included the following trackers: Kevin Reeve, Director Tom Brown, Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School, Jon Young, adjunct staff and master tracker, and school instructors Dan Stanchfield, Ruth Ann Colby-Martin, and Tom McElroy, as well as Brian Gooding, a caretaker at the school.

We arrived at police headquarters at 12:15 p.m. We met with Detective Senatore and three State Department of Fish, Game & Wildlife Officers. After meeting for a few minutes and going over maps, we proceeded to the field to get our first took at the tracks. We started at the place the tiger was first seen at 654 Wright-Debow Road. Gary, Wayne, and Walt showed us a known track. We spent approximately 1.5 hours here marking all the tracks we could find, and doing extensive track measurements. We measured track length and width. We measured stride, straddle, pitch and trail width. We spent a great deal of time here getting to know the animal, studying its behaviors, what it was paying attention to, sensing from the tracks the animal's state of mind. From a rather extensive study of the tracks, it was apparent to us that we were not tracking a wild cat. Jon and I have tracked mountain lions before and these tracks did not reflect the typical behaviors of a wild feline. Rather than approaching this area with the stealth of a hunter, the cat moved around it with a combination of puppy like curiosity and some discomfort. It was clear that as it approached and moved around this house it was uncomfortable with its surroundings, that it seemed to be looking for something familiar.

After a thorough familiarization period, we broke into two teams. Gary, myself, Ruth Ann, Dan, and Brian went over to Berwyn Street to cut for sign. Jon and Tom went with Wayne and Walt to the greenhouse area to begin backtracking. The greenhouse had previously been identified as a place where tracks were found.

Jon and Tom found quite a number of tracks around the greenhouses. There is one string of tracks several hundred feet long. This particular string of tracks was right next to a fence. From studying the animal's behavior we concluded that the tiger was used to walking near a fence and that the fence made him comfortable, perhaps even secure. These tracks were backtracked to where the tiger emerged from the woods, northeast of the property. When the trail went down into the briars, this team decided to move further west and cut for sign.

In an effort to cut down on the amount of tracking required, Jon, Tom, Walt, and Wayne moved down Wright-Debow road to the northeast to where a stream ran under the road. With the direction of travel at the nursery indicating that the cat had come from the west and moved to the east, we felt moving further to the east was a logical step in determining the point of origin. The plan was for the team to walk the stream from north to south looking for logical crossing points for a cat of this size. As Jon and Wayne got into the stream and walked south, they encountered intense green briars. The green briars formed an almost impenetrable wall that prevented them from staying in the stream. Finally they had to move to the side of the briars, Jon taking the west bank and Wayne the east. Tom and Walt had to circle to the west and attempt to hook up with them further down the stream due to the fact that only Jon and Wayne had waders. After moving along in this manner for over an hour and covering only a few hundred yards it became apparent that in order for a tiger to get through the briars, it would have had to follow a deer trail. Finally, Wayne encountered what he thought might be a track. Jon began working a deer trail, moving now west to east towards Wayne and also encountered the tiger's tracks on the west side of the stream. The tracks indicated a west to east direction of travel. Jon also found a flattened area near the trail where the tiger had laid down to rest for a long period. The elbow and hip marks of the cat were there, just as would be found in a mountain lion lay only much larger. It was in this area that Jon found a hair, orange in color that appeared to be a tiger hair. This hair was turned over to Gary. Jon also found where the tiger approached the stream, placed one foot down into the water, found the ground giving way and backed up. The tiger then moved to the side where it found a log and crossed far enough on the log and jumped across the stream. It moved forward to where Wayne had picked up the tracks. Jon and Wayne then turned west and moved towards where the rest of us were tracking. They met Tom who directed them out of the briars and onto the dirt road that runs from the end of Berwyn Street to the east-southeast.

In the meantime, Kevin had traveled with Gary, Ruth Ann, Dan, and Brian to the dirt road that runs from the end of Berwyn street into the woods to the southeast. We planned to cut north to south looking for an indication that the tiger had come from further west. They began by cutting for sign along the edge of Berwyn. Dan and Ruth Ann went north from Berwyn towards Woodbury road. Brian and Kevin began working from the dirt road towards Alyson. Brian began working the edge of the road, and Kevin began scanning the area about I 0 ft in from the road. Kevin almost immediately noticed a track and marked it.

Utilizing the stride measurements gathered at the house on Wright-Debow, he identified seven other tracks coming from the woods and onto the dirt road. At this point, Brian returned from his scan along the edge of the road walking with one of the residents of the houses on Berwyn. This neighbor, who did not identify herself, told us that this area had been a madhouse on Friday. She described a fleet of news vans and media folks that parked along the edge of Berwyn, and that they had hiked back into the woods looking for the tiger compound. She also said the police and state officials had been in there on Friday too, looking for evidence. This explained why the area was so tracked up with human prints, and why we were unable to locate more than seven tracks. The tiger had emerged from the woods onto the dirt road by walking under a briar bush that was waist high. This exit was not particularly open to humans, but the tiger had no problem negotiating it, so the tracks were not destroyed. Right next to this area was a well-trampled trail that bad many human footprints on it. The two trails merged about 20 feet back into the woods. Brian located within the sixth print, a hair consistent with hair found between the toes of felines. It was turned over to Gary as evidence. These seven tracks indicate a cat with no apprehension about being seen as it crossed an open area. A wild cat will almost always move cautiously and apprehensively across an opening like this. The apprehension that was present in the tracks found at 654 Wright-Debow is not present in these tracks.

Brian and Ruth Ann also tracked further west on the dirt road that starts at the end of Berwyn Road. They identified a probable track several hundred yards west of Berwyn. This road is traveled frequently by partiers, and the tracks were pretty well destroyed by traffic, so this print was a single print and no others were confirmed in the area. This however is another piece of the puzzle.


By looking at the map of where the tracks we located were and the direction of travel they indicated, we have four points in a line that indicate the tiger moving in a northwest to southeast direction. The first track we were able to conclusively identify was coming out of the woods approximately 100 yards behind the tiger compound at the end of Berwyn Rd. We had a probable, but not conclusive track further down the dirt road that runs from Berwyn to the SE. We had a series of tracks and a bedding area further east-southeast from there where an additional hair was located. We have further tracks to the northeast of this near the greenhouse. We have tracks around the house at 969 Wright-Debow Rd. Finally, we have the tiger shot approximately 100 yards southeast of this sighting. It is our conclusion as professional trackers that the tiger shot at the end of Wright-Debow road came from the woods bordered by Berwyn, Alyson and Woodbury roads.

From True Tracks, Spring 1999, published by the Tracker School.
There's more articles from True Tracks on the Tracker Trail website.