Originally created 07/01/03

Tiger's owner remains in jail



AIKEN - A Salley, S.C., woman remained in the Aiken County Detention Center on Monday, charged with neglecting to register a dangerous animal with Aiken County Animal Control.

Melanie Szegedi, 44, of the 6000 block of Wagener Road, was given 18 days by Aiken County Animal Control to produce the correct paperwork proving she had liability insurance coverage for at least $50,000 on her young Bengal and Siberian mixed tiger. She kept the animal in her home and backyard surrounded by a flimsy fence, said Animal Control Director Shirley Harden.

On Friday, Ms. Szegedi was sentenced by a Wagener magistrate to a $440 fine or 30 days in jail, Mrs. Harden said. Unable to pay the fine, Ms. Szegedi was put behind bars.

The woman's neighbors said her boyfriend is supposed to be taking care of the tiger and at least 30 dogs.

"I'm not really worried," said Tommy Cook, 49, Ms. Szegedi's next-door neighbor. "She can have what she wants, but if (the tiger) comes in my yard and attacks one of my family members, he's mine."

Ms. Szegedi had been arrested so many times in Columbiana County, Ohio, for probation violations and charges of passing bad checks that office workers and sheriff's deputies there knew her by name. But Lt. Allen Haueter, of the Columbiana County Sheriff's Office, said extraditing Ms. Szegedi to Ohio for an outstanding warrant for a probation violation isn't worth the trouble or the cost.

Ms. Szegedi's release from Aiken County's jail won't be the end of the tiger tale.

"When she gets out, if she still can't get the insurance on it, we'll turn right around and charge her again," Mrs. Harden said. And this time, the tiger, which will weigh 700 pounds when it's fully grown, will be seized.

It is legal in South Carolina to own exotic animals, and their popularity is rising. There are at least two dangerous exotic animals in Aiken County that Animal Control is aware of - Ms. Szegedi's tiger and a cougar kept outside a home in Windsor. The cougar's owner paid a premium of $1,800 with a deductible of about $3,500 for insurance, she said.

"This thing is getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Mrs. Harden said. "Someone is going to get hurt. It's going to take someone getting killed by one of them before our legislators do something."

Twelve states have laws banning exotic animals, she said.

Reach Sara Bancroft at (803) 279-6895 or sara.bancroft@augustachronicle.com.