Racing the Clock
Horrifyingly, the child had stuck his arm through a chain-link cage housing Cheyenne, a 400-lb. Bengal tiger kept as a pet by his aunt and uncle, and the animal had bitten off his right arm just above the elbow. What happened next may have been the luckiest break of Jayton's young life. He was rushed by ambulance 25 miles to Memorial Hermann Children's Hospital in Houston, where two of the nation's top upper-extremity specialists were available to reattach his arm. Time is of critical importance for the success of such surgery, says Dr. Mark Henry, 32, who led the team of surgeons who operated on Jayton. "We were able to get blood back into the arm less than six hours after it was bitten off," says Henry.
Less forthcoming after the grisly accident were Larry and Nancy Tidwell, who refused to discuss the incident in detail except with animal-control authorities. The couple had bought their 4-year-old tiger when she was 9 days old. They kept her in a 15-by-18-ft. enclosure surrounded by a double chain-link fence with two gates. Texas law allows people to own wild animals in unincorporated parts of the state such as Harris County, where the Tidwells live. "The tiger is very passive," says a neighbor, Tracy Olivas. "I've let my daughter feed it, and it licked her face."
Just before the incident, James Tidwell—who shares custody of Jayton with his ex-wife and was caring for him for one week—sat reading in the living room while another relative watched the boy. In an instant, Jayton ran into the backyard and reached into the cage. "Anything that goes into a tiger's cage, it regards as either a toy or food," says Brian Werner of the Texas-based Tiger Missing Link Foundation, which focuses on conservation and big-cat rescues. No sooner had Cheyenne ripped off Jayton's arm than Joe Bush, James's brother-in-law, clamped the injury with his hand to stop the bleeding, while Nancy and Larry Tidwell's son Larry Wayne retrieved the boy's arm from the tiger's cage and put it in ice in a Tupperware bowl.
At the same time, Dr. Henry and his team of trauma specialists were performing their eighth operation in a 12-hour day at Memorial Hermann Hospital. "We got a call in the O.R. saying, 'Guys, you got to come down,' " says Henry. "So two of our team of four tore off our gowns and ran down to do Jayton's case." Remarkably, the child was alert and apparently not in a lot of pain as doctors prepped him for surgery. "He said, 'I'm sorry I petted the tiger,' " says attending physician Martin Blakely. "Then he said, 'Mean old tiger,' and that kind of got to me."
Dr. Henry and his colleague Dr. Fernando Levaro spent nine hours reattaching muscles and tendons, grafting blood vessels and piecing together bones in Jayton's arm with plates and screws. Although Jayton faces more surgery and at least two years of rehab, the prognosis is good. "He might not do things the way other kids do," says Henry, "but he should lead a normal life."
Meanwhile, Cheyenne will remain with the Tidwells, who might face only a fine of $500 for keeping an exotic animal without a permit. Little Jayton, for one, is happy that no further action was taken. "Before the operation, Jayton told the doctors not to hurt the tiger, that it wasn't the tiger's fault," recalls his still shaken father. The real blame, says Brian Werner, lies with people who think wild beasts can be domesticated. "It's like guns in school, or alcohol and driving," he says. "Big cats and kids don't mix."
Gabrielle Cosgriff in Channelview and Hilary Hylton in Austin