Animal Advisory Committee Resignation by Carole Baskin
Summary of recent events leading to AAC resignation
Recently you may have seen reports on the resignation of Big Cat Rescue founder and CEO Carole Baskin as chairperson of the County’s Animal Advisory Committee. First, we would like to thank the many of you who have emailed and called to express support.
The resignation was requested by Commissioner Blair, who had appointed her and at whose discretion she served. The article says Mr. Blair had “received an abnormal amount of questions and concerns from citizens and the media” about her. It references a thick file containing allegations that of misrepresenting how we obtained our cats.
What it does not fully point out is that these “questions and concerns” were an organized effort by exotic animal owners and breeders whose activities lead to the abuse and abandonment of the cats. Some of these abuses were documented in a recent API undercover study showing the horrible conditions in which these alleged exotic animal lovers keep their animals.
Big Cat Rescue and the limited number of other genuine sanctuaries around the country can only save a limited number of cats each year, and this is only after the cats have been abused or abandoned. The way to STOP the abuse and abandonment is by changing our laws to prevent it in the first place. Within the last two years Carole has become increasingly active in Tallahassee and Washington in trying to do this.
There is a national trend toward stronger laws to protect the exotic animals. The proponents of breeding, selling and owning these animals as pets have no real arguments to support their position except selfishness and greed. They know the general population does not support the “right” to have a tiger in a back yard. So, the only way they can try to deter the legislation Carole is advocating is to try to discredit her.
This effort began a few months ago as her role in assisting with the Python Bill in Florida became prominent. Websites have been set up with false information about Big Cat Rescue, efforts have been made to generate press activity, and email campaigns have been organized by these people. Emails forwarded to us indicate that among them are a man in St. Petersburg who believes that it is appropriate to ride around town with a tiger in the back of his pickup truck, and a woman in North Carolina who has a criminal record for fraud and operates under multiple aliases and particular multiple email addresses so she can make it appear that many people are involved.
With respect to the background of Big Cat Rescue, we have always been very open about the fact that the sanctuary did not begin with the philosophies and protocols we have today; they evolved over time with experience. This is laid out very clearly on our website in the “About Us” section. We have always acknowledged that prior to 1997 cats were purchased and a limited number were intentionally bred, all of which stopped in that year.
The claims made on the various false websites and the emails are not only lies, many are absurd. They provide misinformation about the cats and allege things that do not even make any sense. For instance, they allege that it is a lie that we stopped intentionally breeding in 1997 because three binturongs, who are not cats, were born between 1998 and 1999. Why, during this time when the sanctuary was desperately under funded and struggling to feed the cats and build new cages to separate them so there could be no breeding, would we have “intentionally” bred binturongs who would simply be more mouths to feed and completely off purpose for a cat sanctuary? The young binturongs were born to a pair of binturongs who had lived together for years without breeding, were believed to be too old to breed, and surprisingly managed to do so. The notion that this was intentional is ridiculous. And each of the other “allegations” are either totally fabricated, or, like the binturongs, based on something that is then presented in a totally untruthful manner.
Unfortunately, the work we do pits us against a rough crowd who benefit from the activities that generate the abuse and abandonment of the cats that we are trying to prevent. It is a shame that a handful of them setting up bogus websites and emailing lies can influence a public official and get attention in the press. But, it is a fact of life we have to deal with, and it makes our resolve stronger to end the trade in exotic cats.
Again, many thanks to those of you who have expressed support and confidence in our work and whose efforts, visits and donations make it possible.
The following are the series of events leading up to the resignation:
Commissioner Blair’s letter dated May 22, 2006
(Carole didn’t get it until the last week in May. The following has been retyped, word for word, from the original hard copy received)
Dear Carole Baskin,
I wanted to take a moment and thank you for all of your hard work over the past year in service on the Animal Advisory Board. This community needs volunteers that are willing to serve on the various Boards and Councils to advise the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners on important decisions for this community. I am thankful for your many hours of dedication and service.
However, over the past few months I have received an abnormal amount questions and concerns from citizens and media regarding the eligibility of your participation on the Animal Advisory Board. I researched some information and although I did not find anything that would exclude you from eligibility of service the constant media contact regarding past history that involved your facility is too much for our staff to continue to handle.
Please know that this is a very difficult situation that I am in. I am going to have to ask you to resign from your position on the Animal Advisory Board immediately. I appreciate your understanding in this matter.
Again, I wanted to thank you for your time of service and all that you have done for the Animal Advisory Board.
I immediately called his office trying to set up a time to discuss this in person and was told I might be able to get 15 minutes with him between appointments on Monday June 5th at 11:30. I sent the following letter just to give him some back ground for the meeting and on Monday morning his office faxed me saying said he would not be able to speak with me by phone or in person and that I should contact them for a later appointment.
Carole Baskin’s letter dated June 4, 2006 to Commissioner Blair:
June 4, 2006
Commissioner Brian Blair
County Center 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., 2nd Floor Tampa, FL 33602 Phone: 272-5730 Fax 272-7053 BlairB@HillsboroughCounty.org
As the sanctuary has become better known and more financially stable, it has allowed me to become more active in what can really end the flow of abused and abandoned big cats, i.e. passing legislation that would end the activities that create that horrible flow.
The forces that oppose such legislation are largely people who want to own these animals as pets or use them to make a living. A recent undercover report by API shows how these people circumvent the current laws and shows the abusive conditions in which these alleged “exotic animal lovers” keep their “pets.” This can be viewed at www.api4animals.org/a3b_exotic_pets.php.
My role in promoting legislation to end this abuse has grown dramatically within the last year. Representative Poppell specifically asked me to appear with him and his cosponsor Senator Posey at the press conference announcing what became known as the “Python Bill” this past session. The bill was directed at the horrible situation in the Everglades where pet pythons released into the area are taking over and wiping out the native wildlife at an alarming rate.
The request that was made to me by both legislators was to draft amendments that would expand the bill to include all dangerous exotic wildlife. The bill made it through 4 committees and just fell short of reaching the floor this year. I testified before a number of the committees and have been told by various members that they were strongly in support and could be counted on to help when we try again next year, and chances are strong for passage next year.
The majority of our population oppose exotic animal ownership and exploitation. The small number of people who are breeders, exotic animal owners and exhibitors who are threatened by the legislation know they do not have the support of the voters, and have no good arguments in support of their position since it is based on selfishness. So, as I have become a visible leader in support of these laws, their approach has been to try to discredit me and Big Cat Rescue. Since there is no basis for that, they can only do it with lies.
Unfortunately, they got the ear of one local reporter some months ago. She made up her mind what her story was going to be before she came to us and demonstrated absolutely no interest in seeking truth, only in confirming what she had already posed. The story was then constructed to create impressions that are absolutely false. That story has then been circulated broadly by those who want to continue to abuse exotic animals.
There were two primary sources for that story that we know of. One was a man in St. Petersburg, Vernon Yates, who believes that riding around town with a tiger in the back of his pickup truck is appropriate behavior because it is, unfortunately, legal. He was sighted by a Pinellas County Commissioner in the Commissioner’s neighborhood in 2004. This lead to an appearance before the Commission where he loudly called the Commissioner a liar. His performance can still be viewed on the County site at http://www.pinellascounty.org/media/bcc022205/Results.htm (Click on #64 at the bottom of the page.) A second source was a woman in North Carolina who is an exotic pet owner who operates under multiple aliases to make it appear that many people are sending emails. She has a criminal record. Below is a copy of an email from this woman bragging about her role in helping Vernon Yates feed misinformation to the reporter. Please note that it specifically states that one purpose of effort with the reporter was to have me removed from the “commission board”, i.e. the Animal Advisory Committee.
“No Vernon didn’t I did… with Vernons information..lol…. and with all the messages we have sent out, (you and me) she is being removed from the commission board and they will be doing a TV expose’ on her next week.. the tv crew is out at Vernons now.. he keeps calling me and having me speak to the reporter on behalf of simply simian… so we are in the forefront anyway” Linda Hunnicutt
As you can see, it has been their plan to use you to remove me from the Advisory Board since back in March when they fed Chris Hawes the misinformation she relied on for her article.
As for the evolution of the practices and philosophy of the sanctuary, we not only have nothing to hide, we lay this out very clearly in the About Us section of our website, which I enclose for your reference. We have always had information about the past on the site and never hidden it. But we made it even more explicit after this story came out to demonstrate clearly that we have nothing to hide. And while I wish I had been quicker to come to the understandings it took some years to realize, the silver lining is that this past has given me greater credibility in the fight to change the laws. I have the advantage of explaining that I started out believing that the activities we are trying to stop, breeding and pet ownership, were appropriate, and learned differently with experience as I saw the abuse and abandonment that followed first hand. The reaction to the news report from people who know our sanctuary has generally been “what in the world is wrong with this reporter?”
In their efforts to discredit me, Mr. Yates and/or other exotic animal owners have filed false charges with TAOS (The Association of Sanctuaries), USDA, and others. Out of close to one million non profits in the country, we are one of only about 80 that meet the strict BBB charity standards. In each of these cases, the organizations involved found that the allegations were without merit. In some cases, their requests for documentation or proof of the charges were not responded to by those making the charges, because there of course was none. But, part of the strategy of the exotic animal owners is just to be an annoyance, as they are being to you. And they hope to impair our relationships with supporters and impair our funding without regard to the impact on the animals in our care.
Below is an email being circulated by these people to generate the emails that you no doubt will have received from this group over the weekend. Since they are urging that they be sent by Sunday June 4, I suspect they somehow know that I have a tentative appointment to see you in a tiny gap that you may have in your schedule, although I understand it may close if you run late.
Below is the email that was circulated to generate emails to you this past weekend:
From: EPOU@yahoogroups.com [mailto:EPOU@yahoogroups.com] On Behalf Of Raven Simons
Sent: Friday, June 02, 2006 5:59 PM
Subject: [EPOU] FW: FL Animal Rights activist removed from Animal Advisory
I am asking an important favor of everyone. Please write a thank you letter to Mr. Brian Blair for removing Carole Lewis Baskin (Big Cat Rescue and Humane USA) from the Hillsborough County Animal Advisory Committee. Carole is having a fit at being removed. Mr. Blair needs to show community support on this decision.
To all the bird people- This is the women that posted our names and address on her Humane USA website.
To all the pet owners- I welcome anyone to attend the meetings with us. This group called the Animal Advisory committee are nuts. They are extreme in their views.
Please feel free to forward this email to supportive individuals. We need as many letters as possible by Sunday 6/4/06. Anyone and everyone can write a letter, not just Hillsborough County people. This effects any animal owner. Counties tend to follow each other’s lead.
Animal rights activist do not have a place on an advisory committee. They have a personal agenda that is not in anyone’s best interest, including the animals.
Mr. Blair can be reached at Blairb@hillsboroughcounty.org . I am including the letter that I sent.
Dear Mr. Blair:
I am writing to thank you for removing Carole Lewis Baskin from the Hillsborough County Animal Advisory Committee.
I have been attending the Animal Advisory meetings. The committee is made up of animal rescue / animal rights individuals and local veterinarians. Ms. Baskin is the Florida director of Humane USA, an animal rights group. I feel there should be individuals representing the pet community (groomers, kennel owners, dog trainers,ect.) on this advisory committee.
The current Animal Advisory committee is outrageous in their proposals. They would like the Hillsborough County ordinances to regulate the pet population and our ownership to an extreme. Without the balance of pet industry individuals, I feel that Hillsborough County will not be a pet friendly place to live. The pet industry provides many jobs in our area and has a multimillion dollar impact on our County. The medical community has also proven that pets improve the quality of our lives.
The story on BayNews 9 about the fraudulent fund raising at Big Cat Rescue, which Ms. Baskin is the CEO, is of concern also. It makes you question her integrity.
Thank you for taking the time to address this issue.
This is also being circulated through the email list of the Phoenix Exotics, a group who promote exotic pet ownership and whose abuse was documented in the API study. Please notice that they view the entire Committee as “nuts” and feel people who are concerned about animal welfare have no place on it. You can review the credentials of the Committee, many of whom are intimately involved in trying to solve the massive problem of stray, feral and abandoned animals being faced by Animal Services and our County. Those writing to you in support of my departure of course would like a committee packed with people who make money from the animals. Will their interests be in solving the problems we are facing? You can also see how they use the Bay News 9 report, and the untrue interpretation of it.
Mr. Blair, you are a fighter both literally and figuratively, the latter in fighting for what you believe is right. And you are no stranger to the controversy that the fight generates. Your office has to deal with people calling in on both sides of issues all the time. And whatever proposals are made by the Animal Advisory Board will be no different. No matter which direction they take, they will be controversial and generate public comment. That will happen whether I am there or not.
I am sorry that my appointment has motivated these people to harass you in this way. But there is absolutely nothing in the history of the sanctuary that should create any awkwardness unless you are being lied to, which unfortunately is the modus operandi of the people who oppose the legislative work I am doing. If you were the recipient of the letter you sent me, I think the first thing you would say to whomever sent it was that one of the most basic founding principles of our nation is the right to face your accuser. You would feel you had a right to at least understand in person what is being alleged and by whom. And you would be correct. That is how I feel.
The impact on me of resigning is that these people learn that their efforts pay off and it will only encourage them to do more. And not only would that resignation not solve the problem of your receiving inquiries, it is likely exacerbate it. 1600 people wrote to the County Commission to support the relatively unemotional issue of our recent rezoning and 100 took the day off to show support. How will our thousands of supporters, the majority of whom are local, react if I resign? I cannot lie and say “personal reasons” because everyone would know it was not true. That would only support the untrue allegations about our honesty.
As noted, there are many controversial issues you have to deal with and hear from people about. Not just to be fair to me, but to be fair to you, I think it is important that we get to speak in person as soon as possible so you can decide what is the “right” side of this issue to be on. I honestly do not believe it will serve you well to become known as the Commissioner who caved in to a group of people who want to own and exploit exotic animals. I think that is likely to create far more “awkwardness” than you are experiencing now.
I will not take any action on your request until we have spoken and will continue to try to get on your calendar. I hope to do that so you have an opportunity to review this before it gets more media attention. And for your reference, I am not “having a fit”. I have not even spoken to anyone but my husband and your aide about this because I am hoping to avoid an embarrassment for you. But I am sure you can imagine my disappointment at receiving your letter. I look forward to a chance to make sure you at least understand the other and true side of whatever you are hearing.
Founder and CEO
Late on Monday June 5th Commissioner Blair spoke to me by phone but already had his mind made up and didn’t want the facts. He went so far as to say, “It doesn’t matter if you are innocent or not. It’s not about you. I just don’t want to have to deal with the controversy.”
The following is Carole’s letter of resignation dated June 6, 2006
Big Cat Rescue
12802 Easy Street
Tampa, FL 33625
June 6, 2006
Commissioner Brian Blair
County Center 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., 2nd Floor Tampa, FL 33602 Phone: 272-5730 Fax 272-7053 BlairB@HillsboroughCounty.org
Since I serve on the Animal Advisory Committee at your discretion and you have asked for my resignation, it is only proper that I respond by resigning, which I hereby do.
With respect to your letter requesting this action, and our subsequent conversation, I would like to make the following comments.
First, there is absolutely nothing about my background or that of Big Cat Rescue that would be “awkward” for you if you had taken time to determine the facts. What kind of “investigation” does not include a chance for input from the person who is the subject of it?
Your comments about my good service ring hollow when that service did not even in your mind earn me the right to be contacted for input before you made your decision. And your subsequent refusal even to tell me who has made what statements about me or the sanctuary that you claim resulted in this decision violates one of the most basic principles on which our democracy was founded, the right to face your accuser. Perhaps you live in a different America than I do.
Were the situation reversed, I would never have considered treating you with this level of discourtesy. Think about it, is this how you would want to have been treated?
At a recent hearing you made the distinction between a statesman and a politician. This is certainly not the behavior of a statesman, and even a politician treats an appointee with more courtesy than you have shown me. You could have obtained the same result with dignity for both of us by simply giving me the chance to respond to whatever rumor and innuendo you relied on for your decision before you made it. I hope if a situation like this arises for you in the future you will handle it differently.
Founder and CEO