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Cat Chat 39

 

Diane Gustafson will be our guest on the next Cat Chat to talk about how one person can make a big difference.

As in most cases, it takes USDA many years to act on complaints filed by the public, but after 5 years of battling for better treatment of the great cats, this facility was finally shut down…but was that the end of the abuse?  Find out more on the next Cat Chat Show.

 

 

 

For the Love of Animals

For as long as I can remember I have loved all of the big cats. Their grace and beauty mesmerized me. I especially love lions, and I am fascinated by their pride structure. Iam so entranced by them that when I found “Great Cats of Indiana Sanctuary and Rescue Facility” online, I was intrigued. This facility is located in Idaville, IN., a little over an hour from my home. I would be able to see big cats that were rescued from abusive situations. It would be nice to see them happy and well cared for to live out their days. What I found could not be farther from the truth. See more pictures of Great Cats of Indiana.

great cats of Indiana  abuse 5

Great Cats of Indiana looks like a roadside zoo posing as a sanctuary. The have approximately 3 male, and 2 female lions (one of the males, we were told, is a Barbary Lion from the Barbary Coast of Africa and one of an extinct breed of lion), 12 tigers, 7 cougars, 1 leopard, 3 bears, a pack of wolves, a bobcat and several alpacas and donkeys. The conditions these animals are left to live in were deplorable. All in cages, some smaller than others, some animals grouped in with too many others for the space. The black leopard, one of the cats left with very little shade, paced frantically back and forth on a plank, never once acknowledging our presence.
Most cages are covered in feces, urine, and some even had rotted meat, swarming with flies, that had been left from previous feedings. One that stood out specifically is home to 2 adult lions; it had the rotting remains of a pig, a mere 10 feet from where the lions were trying to sleep. All of the animals are filthy and matted to some degree. Most were sleeping in their feces, some out in the hot sun with no shade. Some had reservoirs filled with water so that the animals could keep cool. However, the water was dirty and in some cases red with rust, or who knows what. Within one tiger enclosure, the concrete floor was partially flooded with standing water that had been sitting so long it was filled with bright green algae. When we asked about it, the young guide indicated that the drain was plugged and that the water was just like it was in the cat’s natural habitat. Every enclosure was made of rotting broken wood with peeling paint, cracked and broken concrete foundations, as well as rust covered metal caging.

great cats of Indiana  abuse 4

When I left the facility, I stopped by the cage of the Barbary Lion named Chucky. His cage is nothing more than a metal box with an open front to it. He is kept apart from the other lions, and his howls echo through his enclosure. I knelt down in front of his cage, and spoke to him: “I am so sorry, baby…I am so very sorry….”. I cry now as I write this as I did when I said it to him. I vowed then to try my best to get these animals a better life.

When I returned home, I immediately got on my computer and typed out what exactly I saw there. I didn’t want to forget a single detail. I didn’t know until much later the impact my letter would have. I sent this letter first to all of our Indiana and U.S. senators and representatives, and our governor. I also sent it to the mayors of all of the surrounding cities. Since Idaville is a township, there is no governing body but White County.

After that, I would spend time everyday sending out my letter to whomever I thought should read it. I ‘Googled’ Great Cats of Indiana to see what I could find. Anyone who had anything posted about this site received my letter. I contacted some of the animal sanctuaries. All of the animal organizations such as the WWF, WSPCA, the Humane Society, and the ASPCA were contacted. The Secretary of Agriculture, the Monticello Board of Tourism (city next to Idaville), and even the Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine received a letter from me. For the next few weeks, I would try to find more and more people that should read this letter, including all of the Indianapolis and Chicago newspapers and television stations.

great cats of Indiana  abuse 3

One of the first recipients to respond to me was Carole Baskin at Big Cat Rescue. She provided me with some invaluable information such as www.sanctuarystandards.com so I could see for myself how a sanctuary should be operating. She has been and continues to be a tremendous help to me in my crusade. She also told me getting the media involved was crucial. The politicians don’t like to be seen as apathetic. After that, I then started receiving e-mails from other people I had sent it to expressing their concern. There are many out there that would like to help, but whose hands are tied.

A research assistant at CBS Chicago who was very interested in my story contacted me. He would continue to research for pertinent information until the story was shut down by CBS production because Great Cats of Indiana is not in the Chicago “market”. He passed on all of the information he had obtained to production at CBS Indianapolis. I have written them and still wait to be contacted. Needless to say this was incredibly upsetting as I thought this would have been the media break I needed.

A couple of weeks later, I received a phone call from a woman named Bridget Gross, Legislative Assistant to Senator Samuel Smith Jr. and Senator Jean Breaux. She told me she had received my letter and said she wanted to personally tell me she would be looking into this matter. Later, Bridget provided me with a copy of a USDA Formal Complaint that had been filed against Great Cats of Indiana in August 2007 with transgressions dating back six years. She now told me this was a federal matter because the owner had obtained his license through the USDA, not the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources.

great cats of Indiana 2In other words this once helpful woman was now washing her hands of the matter. This became evident in later letters of response I would receive from our senators telling me they have passed on my letter to the Secretary of Agriculture. No one at any level of government office in the state of Indiana would hear my plea. Not even the White County Prosecutor’s office, or the Indiana State Board of Health would return my e-mails. This became quite disheartening, but I continued to send my letter and write whomever I thought might make a difference.

At this point, a woman from a small Indianapolis paper contacted me. She was interested in the story and asked for all of the information I could provide. She later on spoke with the USDA Prosecuting Attorney who filed the formal complaint. She told me that a motion to go to hearing on this case was filed in October 2007. Apparently there are only three Administrative Law Judges, and one of them had been in Iraq for the past year. Now he has returned, but their docket is incredibly long. Since the animals at Great Cats of Indiana were not in any “immediate danger”, this case was towards the bottom of this docket. She told me the attorney was very upset by this, but could do nothing to expedite the hearing.

One of my many contacts, Jonathan Kraft (Keepers of the Wild), told me he has had a hand in several take downs of these pseudo sanctuaries. He was a wealth of information, and continues to be just that. One of the things he told me is that the USDA is slow to terminate these facilities because they do not want to incur the cost of housing these animals. Hearing this, I now knew what my next move would be. I needed to find homes for the animals.

I started researching animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities, and then contacting them to see if they could take at least a couple of the animals. Once again, the first to step up to the plate was Carole at Big Cat Rescue. After she told me they would take some of the cats, I was able to insert that statement into my letter to other sanctuaries. One by one, I had sanctuaries contacting me telling me they would take some of the animals. I even found someone to take in the alpacas and donkeys. I was elated! I spoke with Jonathan at Keepers of the Wild about this and he told me I had leaped a great hurdle, since most sanctuaries will tell you they are full. This proved to me that my story had touched many hearts.

At this point, there is not much I can do to accelerate the U.S. legal system, so I turn to changing our laws. The federal Animal Welfare Act sets forth only minimum requirements for animal care, and for the most part, only addresses basic husbandry issues. For example, according to the AWA, animals must be fed, watered, and sheltered yet space requirements only mandate that the animals be able to make “normal postural changes” (i.e. allow them enough room to stand up, lie down, and turn around).

great cats of Indiana abuse 1There is no requirement for grass, greenery or other natural vegetation. There are no requirements for the animals to be “let out” of their cages for exercise or to relieve themselves. Even the requirement for water is open to interpretation: “water must be provided as often as necessary for the health and comfort of the animal.” You may find that the cages are tiny, the animals look hot and dispirited, or that the animals are displaying stereotypic behavior, but none of these conditions are specifically against the law. Even when exhibitors are consistently found non-compliant during inspections, they are typically allowed time to make “improvements.” Great Cats is a classic example. Getting “real” sanctions imposed on animal abusers is exceedingly difficult. Even when horrific abuses are caught on tape it doesn’t mean an abuser will face meaningful repercussions or have their license revoked. The laws that govern these sanctuaries need to be revised.

I know I am just getting started, but all in all it has been worthwhile. I have had many fights along the way, some agree with me, some do not like my methods of action. Someone told me that there are bigger matters out there than this.

I agree there are some really pressing issues in the world right now. But I cannot help with the war in Iraq, the price of gasoline, or the economy. This, however, is something so close to home with me both literally and spiritually. I feel like I CAN make a difference with this…and you know what? I’m going to keep on pushing buttons and doing everything I can do to give these animals a peaceful, healthy existence. They deserve nothing less.

*Diane Gustafson*

 

~~~~UPDATE Spring 2010:

Approximately 16 tigers have been removed from the facility and placed with reputable sanctuaries (including Exotic Feline Rescue Center and Black Pine Animal Sanctuary), and the USDA has removed their license to exhibit.

 

~~~~UPDATE 2010:

Diane GustafsonTigers Escape Great Cats of Indiana Monticello, Indiana… It’s unclear where they were trying to go but two tigers managed to get lose from a wildlife preserve in Northwest Indiana. The owner managed to shoot and kill one of them before they got off the property but neighbors say this incident is just too close for comfort. They told Fox59 Reporter Kara Brooks they have a lot of concerns about this place where exotic animals are kept, especially after they heard gun shots. Fox59 got an up close look at the facility Wednesday. More than 25 exotic animals live on the property called “The Great Cats of Indiana” located off State Road 24 near Monticello. “It’s not very well kept anymore and with the weeds so high I don’t feel safe as safe as I did because if something is out, you can’t see it and it could be right in my back yard,” said next-door neighbor Margaret Haskell. 10/2/2010 two Bengal tigers escaped from their cages. “He {the owner} is guessing that maybe the two tigers had been wrestling, playing and just hit the corner just right to pop the board,” said conservation officer Bill Hinshaw. Officers with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said the tigers never got passed the 10 foot high perimeter fence that surrounds the animal cages but the owner feared they would because they were acting aggressive. “They were kind of jumping up on the fence,” said Hinshaw. So he shot them, killing one and injuring the other. That brought some relief to Margaret who lives next door because she had no idea. “Tigers can leap over fences and up into trees,” she said.

– ~~~UPDATE July 2011:

I have received information from a very reputable source that a total of three more tigers have been removed from Great Cats of Indiana. I have also been told that the removal of all of these animals has allowed Rob Craig (owner) to make some of the very necessary repairs on his enclosures, and he might be letting go of more animals. …If Craig can at least get his animals down to a more manageable number, maybe he can keep them clean and up to par. I do hope he gets the cougar and tiger out of the metal silo. That is an awful place to be for them. But rejoice, my friends! This is great news!!

~~~~UPDATE December 2011:

I have received news that two more tigers and a cougar have been removed from Great Cats of Indiana and taken to Exotic Feline Rescue Center to live out their days happy and healthy!

 

~~~~UPDATE #2 December 2011:

The Great Cats of Indiana website now redirects to Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge. This sanctuary is owned by Brian Werner. He and Rob Craig are friends – in the Animal Planet show “Growing Up Tiger”, Brian got the cubs for the show from Rob Craig. The two must have remained friends. From what I understand, the animals that are left are elderly and Rob has attachment to them. Hopefully since there are so few left, Rob will use this opportunity to upgrade the enclosures and give these animals the homes they deserve in their final years.

 

~~~~UPDATE May 2012

“Indiana Conservation Officers on Tuesday took possession of four tigers, plus a lion, bobcat and mountain lion that were housed at Great Cats of Indiana.

Investigators said facility director Rob Craig has permits to possess the animals, but an inspection of the Idaville facility found possible violations to the laws governing those permits.

Conservation officers conducted the inspection after an anonymous complaint that the facility was breaking state laws regulating the enclosures and other animal health and care requirements.”

 

This was the LAST of the animals in Rob Craig’s possession. He cannot obtain any more permits for any more exotic animals!

 

This has been a long, long time coming, but now…finally…justice has been served and the animals can live in peace at EFRC and BPAS

 

Carole’s Timeline of Articles and Actions

 

We sent out a number of alerts to our database, but these were in our old CapWiz program so I no longer have the links, as we use Voter Voice now.

2007  Diane Gustafson raises awareness about  http://bigcatrescue.org/great-cats-of-indiana-stirs-controversy/

2008  Great Cats of Indiana, formerly known as Cougar Valley Farms, Inc., owned by Robert B. Craig and Laura Proper came under investigation by USDA

2008 LSU Gets Mike VI from Great Cats of Indiana in 2007.  Article 2008  http://bigcatrescue.org/ready-to-roar/

2008 Rebuttal letter to press re: Great Cats of Indiana  http://bigcatrescue.org/caroles-letter-to-lori-at-neuvo-newsweekly/

2009 Diane responded to another concerned party that “15 tigers, a wolf pack, and I believe bears were rescued from that “facility”. It is disheartening to hear that Rob Craig has not changed his ways at all since removing those animals.”  She went on to describe the photos she had saying, “Please see the attached photos taken at Great Cats of Indiana. I wish I had the foresight to get more photos of the conditions and less photos of the animals. In addition to what you see in the photos were excessive feces in the enclosures, a few cats that were obviously sickly, some were agitated and of course the abundant mud in the enclosures as you can see clearly in the wolf enclosure. In addition to the poor conditions, our “guide” placed his hand on several cats, petting and stroking them. As you can see in one of the photos, he appears to have little concern about being in close proximity to the cats.”

2010  Tigers escape at Great Cats of Indiana http://bigcatrescue.org/tigers-escape-great-cats-pen/

2010  Carole’s letter to an LA Producer, “Something I am trying to track down is word from someone who works with Joe Taft at Exotic Feline Rescue Centers is that two tigers escaped 10/2/2010 from Robert Craig’s Great Cats of Indiana. Both were shot, one was killed the next day when they were found. Word has it that Joe Taft has been in contact with USDA on it and said he would take all of the bears and cats from there if they are finally shutting down Great Cats of Indiana, but he is currently enroute to Wild Animal Orphanage, which shuttered its doors last month and picking up 13 tigers there, and then going to Angola? to pick up 11 more tigers. This comes on the heels of recently rescuing all of the Russian circus tigers and the 4 Roy Boy tigers.”

2010 Nancy Taylor contacted Big Cat Rescue and asked, “I have fostered several big cats for years at “Great Cats of Indiana”. I have not been able to reach them and have started to hear that they are not caring well for the animals there. Any suggestions of whom I need to contact to investigate or help in a situation like this? Where do the cats go when the keepers can no longer care for them?” To which we responded, “Thanks for the info. I have learned that the bears and Mufasa (an older lion whom I have fostered for some years) have gone to Black Pine in Indiana and I heard that some of the tigers went to Tiger Haven, but I am not familiar with them.”

2010 Carole rebutted a puff piece done by the Herald Journal saying, “Your source lied. Weeds were not the only problem at Great Cats of Indiana. It usually takes at least 6 years of ongoing violations of the Animal Welfare Act for the USDA to take action. They finally did this year by revoking the license for Great Cats of Indiana and whatever other names they call themselves by.  http://bigcatrescue.org/tigers-escape-great-cats-pen/  At least three websites carried this information on the first page of google for Great Cats of Indiana.  I hope you will do a follow up story that shows just how bad things were there. I am sure others will be sending you photos they have taken of the dismal conditions and eye witness reports of the neglect.”

2010 in a letter from Julie Hanan, “I know you featured that place in an Advocat long ago when a visitor pleaded for help in shutting them down. I wrote and wrote and wrote while Great Cats blasted me and others who wanted them shut down, saying the place was wonderful. And, now 1 tiger is dead and another wounded because of the delay in something being done.  It makes me ill thinking about it! The only thing is, maybe now with this horrible disaster, something might be done?”

2010 In a letter to Julie Hanan, Carole Baskin reported, “Thanks, in large part, to all the times you have people write about cubs at fairs, an appellate court found that the USDA was correct in suspending the license for Great Cats of Indiana. The woo hoo part of this though is that there is finally an appellate ruling that cubs over 12 weeks old cannot be touched by the public, or walked in public on leashes.  There was a ruling (I think) on cubs under 8 weeks not being handleable by the public. I am looking for that one today.  Between the two it makes it clear that there is to be no public contact with, or walking on leashes of, cubs under 8 weeks or over 12 weeks, which means all of the breeding that is being done is for a 4 week window. I think it will be much easier to close that window now that it is clearly defined.”

2010 At a screening of The Tiger Next Door Carole Baskin asked the viewers to send letters to their lawmakers asking for a ban on private possession of big cats.

2011  Letter to Big Cat Rescue from Diane:  Just wanted to let you know I passed on your e-mail info to a reporter named Tiffanie Dinsmore with WLFI – TV 18. She might be contacting you regarding Great Cats of Indiana.

2012  Great Cats of Indiana shut down  http://bigcatrescue.org/today-at-big-cat-rescue-may-29/

 

More:  http://911animalabuse.com/great-cats-of-indiana/

Cat Chat 39

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