Funds raised for fake sanctuary
PALM BEACH–The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office on November 18, 2008 arrested Heather Southworth, 26, for allegedly unlawfully soliciting funds for an unregistered charity called Rescue: Big Cat Organization–which appears to have existed entirely in cyberspace.
The Rescue: Big Cat Organization web site, still active on December 27, 2008 but taken down soon afterward, claimed to represent a charity founded in Pennsylvania in 1985, also operating sanctuaries in New York, North Carolina, and Florida. The site included photos and stories about many purportedly rescued animals, and listed 18 supposed staff.
"Those are not real people. They are made-up names," Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Gabriella Ferraro told Jason Schultz of the Palm Beach Post.
"The commission received a tip about the charity soliciting donations in April 2008," recounted Schultz. "When the state agency investigated, it found that the location given for the sanctuary is actually the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. The commission did aerial surveys and found no big cat sanctuary anywhere in the federally managed refuge. When confronted by commission officials, Southworth admitted making it all up, the commission said."
"This would be amusing if it weren't so pitiful," Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin told ANIMAL PEOPLE. "The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission claimed officials spent eight months figuring out who Heather Southworth is and that she was running a fake big cat charity, but the fact of the matter is that they knew who she was and where she lived since July 8, 2008," when Baskin sent them all the particulars, in response to an inquiry from a USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service inspector. "It just took them five months to do anything about it," said Baskin.
On the same day, Baskin found photos of several Big Cat Rescue animals on the Rescue: Big Cat Organization web site, and wrote to Southworth demanding that they be removed.
Baskin also filed a formal complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, she said.
"Consumer Services boasts that they can charge $1,000 per day for every day that someone illegally solicits charitable contributions," Baskin noted, "but over the years a number of complaints have been filed against traveling big cat photo booths that solicit donations, and the only action the state has been known to take against these big cat exploiters is to tell them to stop. The next day they are right back at it again."
Editor, ANIMAL PEOPLE
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Clinton, WA 98236
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For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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