Big cat court case delayed once more
By Kent Miller: firstname.lastname@example.org
The on-again off-again court confrontation between the Texas Attorney General’s Office and Zoo Dynamics owner Marcus Cook is off again.
Attorney General Greg Abbott has been trying to get his day in court with Cook, the owner of an exotic cat facility off State Highway 34 between Terrell and Kaufman, since the summer of 2003 when Abbott secured an emergency court against ZooCats Inc., Cook’s former organization.
The case had been set for trial in the 86th State District Court on Monday but Tom Kelly, Abbott’s press secretary, said late this week that Cook’s attorneys had again successfully petitioned for a continuance of the case, just as he did the last time the two sides were expected to face off in late July. Kelly said he had not received word of an exact trial date but said he expected it to be some time in January or February.
Abbott’s office has leveled serious civil charges against Cook, saying previously that “The action was taken to prevent harm to the public from exhibits put on by ZooCats Inc. … This operator has deliberately downplayed the potential danger of these animals, as well as the group’s safety record and trainer qualifications, letting children and adults touch and hold them without regard for disease or possible physical harm. This dangerous deception against the public, and the organization’s false assertions about its charitable intentions, led our legal experts to conclude that we needed to act quickly.”
Cook and Zoo Dynamics received some unwanted attention earlier this year when facility employee Don Roberts was attacked by a 300-pound Bengal tiger that escaped its enclosure. The attack left Roberts hospitalized with injuries that required more than 2,000 stitches.
State District Judge Howard Tygrett previously dissolved the order Abbott originally secured, writing at the time that “The place to establish rules and regulations for the exhibition of animals is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, health authorities or by statute, and not piecemeal through the courts.”
Abbott’s suit seeks damages for alleged violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Texas Nonprofit Corporations Act.
ZooCats and Zoo Dynamics have exhibited animals at the Mesquite Rodeo, Six Flags Over Texas, the Dallas ArtFest and various private schools. Zoo Dynamics has exhibited animals at the Terrell Heritage Jubilee in three of the last four years.
The AG’s office probably isn’t the only thing Cook needs to worry about with the recent announcement that Kaufman County officials plan to rework a 2001 ordinance governing the possession of exotic animals and could even outright ban the animals within the county.
The county’s current ordinance doesn’t prohibit ownership of exotic animals in Kaufman County but does require them to be registered.
“However, no enforcement of the ordinance has been done and no registrations have been done,” attorney Skip Trimble told county commissioners. “That being said, the county is in violation of the state’s mandate.”
The county had created the ordinance after the state Legislature approved House Bill 1362, which mandated that all Texas counties have some form of exotic animal regulations in place by December 2001.
Now, commissioners must either find a way to enforce the ordinance or create a new one.
According to Trimble, the state has drafted its law in a way that allows the county to do whatever it wants – just as long as it is doing something.
“You can require owners to register their exotic animals. You can prohibit the ownership of such animals within the county. Or you can prohibit some and allow others. The state has left that up to the county,” Trimble said. “The only requirement the state has is that the county not allow dangerous animals if not registered.”
After receiving numerous calls from county residents concerned that exotic animals may not be housed properly or may be running loose, outgoing Commissioner Ken Leonard is the one who brought issue before the court.
“Several people called asking me to take action on this issue,” Leonard said. “I’m not saying we have lions, tigers and bears running free in the county but there are a lot of people who are scared. It’s all right for people to live on the edge and own these kinds of animals,” Leonard said. “What we need to determine is if we want to force their neighbors to live on the edge of the edge.”
Commissioners will have a workshop in the coming weeks to discuss their options.
Michael Gresham of the Kaufman Herald contributed to this report.
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