Jose Ramos looked up from his dinner and met a strange sight outside his Houston home last Sunday.
He grabbed his phone, snapped a few pictures of the animal sitting in his front yard and posted them in a neighborhood forum, where the shots quickly grabbed the attention of an off-duty deputy living nearby.
The deputy showed up to the home and pointed a gun at the animal as he waited for police to arrive. A woman driving by began recording the scene.
But before authorities showed, a man who police named as Victor Hugo Cuevas jumped out into the yard from a nearby house, pleading with the deputy not to kill the tiger.
Cuevas grabbed the tiger by the collar, kissed it on the forehead and took it into the house, Wes Manion, the off-duty deputy, testified in court.
“That is my tiger,” Manion testified he heard Cuevas say.
Moments later, Cuevas got into a white SUV with the animal, ignoring Manion’s commands to stop, and drove off.
That was the last time anyone saw the animal for nearly a week before being located by authorities on Saturday.
The search for India — the 9-month-old male tiger — kept some Houston residents on edge and captivated the nation’s attention.
Here’s how it all unfolded.
A tiger missing in Houston
Houston police announced Monday their search for both Cuevas, 26, and the tiger.
Cuevas was already out on bond for a murder charge in Fort Bend County, Houston Police Commander Ron Borza said during a Monday news conference. Houston police announced he was also being charged with felony evading arrest for fleeing from officers with the animal.
Cuevas was previously charged with murder for allegedly shooting and killing a man in 2017. Court documents allege he has been in multiple violations of his bond since he was first arrested that year. Separately, he was also out on bond from a different charge earlier this year in Austin County for evading arrest or detention in a vehicle, court records show.
Several hours after Borza’s news conference, police announced Cuevas was in custody. His bond was set at $50,000.
But still, no sign of the tiger.
All hands on deck
Cuevas posted bond two days after his arrest. His attorney, Michael Elliott, stood outside the jail Wednesday with Cuevas by his side and told police his client was not the owner of the tiger.
“(The police) saw my client go out in the yard and retrieve the tiger and they’ve assumed he’s done a whole lot of different things that he necessarily has not done and not guilty of, just like they assumed that the tiger is his,” he said. “It of course is not.”
In a later interview with CNN, Elliott revealed Cuevas had “cared for” the tiger on occasion.
“Clearly, you know, they do have a bond and he loved this tiger,” the attorney had said.
Owning a tiger is a violation of Houston law, but it is legal under Texas state law with certain restrictions.
As he stood outside the jail Wednesday, Elliott stressed they were working to locate the animal, but would not share where Cuevas went when he drove off with the tiger Sunday. A spokesperson for BARC — Houston’s animal shelter and adoption facility — said at the time that animal control officers were helping Houston police with the investigation.
“In the event any such animals are found in Houston, Animal Control Officers will impound the animals and transport them to a secure location — either BARC, another shelter, or regional wildlife facility — to protect the safety of the public as well as the animals’ health,” spokesperson Lara Cottingham said.
The search quickly garnered widespread attention. Carole Baskin, the founder and CEO of Big Cat Rescue who was featured in the Netflix series “Tiger King,” announced she was offering a $5,000 reward to the person who had India — provided they released the cat to a sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and worked with law enforcement to convict those involved in the buying and selling of the animal, she said in a video on Instagram.
Police fielded hundreds of calls all week with tips from the public and said they believed the tiger may have been moved to as many as eight different locations around Houston.
But still, India was missing.
A mystery owner
Cuevas was taken into custody again Friday after a Fort Bend County judge revoked his bond on the pending murder charge and set a new bond for $300,000.
But during what was supposed to be a short bond revocation hearing, more details unraveled about the animal’s disappearance.
Houston Police Officer Justin Nguien testified during the hearing that he arrived at the scene on Sunday night, but Cuevas fled before he could give him any commands. Nguien said he initiated a chase but did not try to catch up to the vehicle once the off-duty deputy told him there was a tiger inside.
Georgie “Gia” Cuevas, Victor’s wife, testified that he was an occasional caretaker of the animal, and she was home Sunday night and told Cuevas to leave and take the animal to safety after the confrontation with the off-duty deputy.
She said she did not see police chase after Cuevas and that she cooperated with authorities.
Following the hearing, Cuevas’ attorney revealed Cuevas drove the tiger to its owner on Sunday and had previously released information about that person, but police did not identify specific individuals of interest.
Cuevas first met India’s owner when he bought a dog from that person, Elliott said, and the owner later introduced Cuevas to the cat after learning that Cuevas was interested in animals.
“I think the owner is hiding under a rock right now because of the worldwide attention looking for him and India,” he said.
India is found
Finally, Houston police announced late Saturday the tiger “has been found and appears to be unharmed.”
Borza, with police, said in a Saturday night news conference Cuevas and his wife Gia are the owners of the tiger.
“I let Gia come along with us… because of the stress the tiger’s been through for the last couple of weeks. He was obviously agitated,” Borza said.
He added that the tiger “appears to be in very good health” and that Gia Cuevas informed authorities they have had the animal for nine months. She is not facing any charges at this time, Borza said, but added it’s illegal to house a tiger within Houston’s city limits.
“In no way shape or form should you have an animal like that in your household,” Borza said. “That animal can get to 600 pounds. It still had his claws, and it could do a lot of damage if he decided to.”
Authorities say they don’t know where the tiger has been or whether it was in the custody of Cuevas the entire time.
“It is still an ongoing investigation right now,” Borza said.
Elliott, the attorney, said Saturday night the animal was anonymously surrendered at a tennis club in Houston after Cuevas’ wife received a phone call from the person who had the tiger. Contradicting police accounts, he said Cuevas was “technically not the owner” but still an “integral part of the cat’s life.”
New home at a sanctuary
On Sunday, the tiger was being taken to its new home at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary about 200 miles north in Murchison, Texas.
The sanctuary, which is part of the Humane Society of the United States, houses more than 800 animals, including other tigers found in Texas like Loki, who was discovered in a cage in an abandoned home in Houston in 2019.
“We are happy to take India back home to Black Beauty, where he will be introduced into a half-acre, naturally-wooded habitat, with a pool, trees, platform and a proper nutritious diet,” the sanctuary’s senior director, Noelle Almrud, told reporters Sunday morning as the tiger paced in his transport trailer a few feet away.
The journey was expected to take about three hours, Almrud said, with a few stops along the way to check on India. The tiger hasn’t had a full examination, but Almrud said the animal looked healthy. When Inda arrives at the sanctuary, he’ll be introduced to his own den to acclimate to the environment before being put in his new habitat.
Whether India will have any interaction with other tigers is up in the air. India will be in quarantine for the first 30 days to make sure he won’t pass any illness on to other animals, Almrud said. Then he will have visual contact with other tigers, but anything beyond that will depend on the animals’ personalities.
“It’s not always easy to introduce tigers together especially as they’re older,” Almrud said, “but we’ll just play it by ear and see if he’s interested in meeting any of our other tigers.”