This is an article from 2007 that animal abusers like to point to as if it was some sort of investigative treasure. It was nonsense and if you take the time to check out the numbers at the end of each misleading or totally untrue statement you will see why in the numbered responses below the article.
Every once in a while those who do evil can trick the media into doing something that ultimately makes the reporter look bad, but Big Cat Rescue has had more than 1,600 favorable news stories published.
Even this reporter later published some useful stories about captive big cats. They appear after the rebuttal to the mistakes in the first story.
The Big Cat Fight
Activism, accusations lurk behind a pet project
By LEONORA LaPETER ANTON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
See the numbered responses that appear after the story.
TAMPA – Carole Baskin would like to forget that she once bred exotic big cats and sold them as house pets. 1
She would like everyone else to forget that her husband disappeared mysteriously 10 years ago, leaving her a rich woman. 2
She would rather that everyone thought of her the way she sees herself: a crusader for animal rights who believes no one should own a wild cat. Not a zoo. Not a sanctuary. Not even herself.
But to many who live and breathe exotic animals, Baskin is a hypocrite.
They point out that her own 40-acre Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Hillsborough County has 137 tigers, lions, leopards, lynx and other big cats. Her own “private collection,” they call it. 3
They heckle her at state wildlife meetings. They picket her fundraising Fur Balls. And they speculate on what happened to her late husband, Don Lewis, calling police with tips.
“Did you feed him to the tigers?” someone once asked Baskin at the grocery store. Her own stepdaughter wanted police to test the meat grinder at the sanctuary for her missing father’s DNA. 4
Baskin says she has no idea what happened to Lewis and she had nothing to do with it. She is simply focused on her mission to outlaw private ownership of big cats and arrive at a day when there is no longer a need to shelter them. A day when Big Cat Rescue closes.
“That’s our ultimate goal: to put ourselves out of business,” she says. For now, her sanctuary for big cats remains one of the largest in Florida. Baskin glides quietly between the steel enclosures at her overgrown sanctuary, nodding at the tigers and lions, cougars and leopards that lounge or pace around. Today she keeps her distance. No more “Mommy loves you,” at least not out loud. No more bobcats in her bed.
Instead, she compiles statistics on big cat attacks and writes legislators. She firmly believes that exotic cats should be left to either wax or wane in the wild. People who think they’re preserving the species in captivity (as she once did) are fooling themselves, she says.
“What drives a lot of these people to have these sanctuaries and pseudo sanctuaries and backyard collections is that they love being around that kind of animal,” Baskin says, dressed in cheetah print. 5
Her opinions and actions have inflamed many who love, breed, rescue and rehabilitate exotic animals in Florida. Some have sent out anonymous packets with letters and testimonials, to show Big Cat Rescue is simply a private collection masquerading as a rescue. They sign it “Crusaders for Animals.”
The animosity reached a peak this year after Baskin helped get a liability law passed that would require owners of tigers, chimps and other exotic animals to get insurance in case of injuries.
Baskin also took it upon herself recently to send letters to more than 1,500 people around the state informing them that they live next door to an exotic animal even though state wildlife officials decided against doing so. 21
The dispute is largely playing out on the Internet and YouTube. Baskin has compiled a wall of shame of animal owners, complete with names, dates and actions on her Big Cat Rescue Web site. Exotic animal owners fight back on other Web sites.
Vernon Yates, a man who has about 200 exotic animals in Seminole, has clashed with her repeatedly, even calling her “A.K.A. The Liar” on his own wildlife rescue Web site.
But Baskin says she’s not intimidated.
“It isn’t about me or any other individual,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It is the collective conscious of society that is evolving in such a way that keeping wild animals captive will soon be a thing of the past.” 20
Exotic animal owners say they are trying to expose her heavy-handed fundraising, and what they say is her true intent: to be the only game in town. 6
Judy Watson, former education director at Big Cat Rescue, says Baskin tells less-than-truthful stories about how she rescued some of her cats from the pet trade or abuse. Sometimes Baskin bred or bought the cats herself, Watson says. 7
One example is Shere Khan, an 800-pound Siberian tiger that was undernourished and stuck in a cage up to its belly in feces when it was rescued, according to the Big Cat Rescue Web site. 8
But the man who sold Shere Khan to Baskin in 1994 says the tiger had the run of his house in Flat Rock, Ind., even sleeping with a pillow and comforter in the living room.
“That’s baloney,” says Dennis Hill, 50, who said he sold the tiger to Baskin for $800. “She uses this creative writing and plays on people’s heartstrings. That situation never existed.”
Baskin says the stories on her Web site are all true and Hill gave her Shere Khan in that condition. But she admits that some of the animals she claims to have rescued were actually her pets. But she says she has changed. 9
Her supporters say she has worked tirelessly to make people aware that owning big cats is misguided.
“She has been a pioneer in changing people’s ways of viewing the animals from cute and cuddly balls of fur, to something they are going to be responsible for 20 to 25 years,” says Jennifer Ruszczyk, 33, a Big Cat volunteer.
– – –
All the controversy has made Baskin cautious. In person, she is quiet yet passionate, guarded yet pointed. She’ll talk about her purpose, but not her past.
She does write about it though. Her 12,000-page Web site is sprinkled with colorful stories about her childhood, the men in her life, her effort to lose weight and her infatuation with “The Secret,” a belief that positive thinking can create results. There’s even a video of her reading Wallace Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich.
Baskin says she left her Tampa home at 15 and took up with an older man, an abusive drunk. Met another man where she worked as a bookkeeper. Married him at 17, had a baby girl at 19.
And then there she was walking along a Tampa road barefoot, trying to subdue her anger. It was 1980. She had just thrown a potato at her husband. Her baby was 6 months old. And Lewis drove by. He was in his 40s with a wife, young children. 10 She was 19 and beautiful in the way that Suzanne Somers is beautiful.
He stopped the car. She got in.
“I fell in love with him immediately,” she says, smiling.
Baskin tried not to talk about Lewis, but inevitably he slipped into the conversation.
The two carried on an affair for a decade before Lewis’ wife divorced him. Though he had made millions in trucking and foreclosures, he gave Baskin a $14 engagement ring from a pawnshop.
“He looked like someone who basically came home from a 50-hour workweek on a road crew,” recalled James Moore, Lewis’ friend and a former volunteer at the sanctuary. “He Dumpster dove. You looked at him and you wanted to hand him money.”
Lewis and Baskin both loved animals even before they met. Lewis had owned swans and geese, raccoons, even prairie dogs. Baskin had bred Himalayan show cats, amassing a wall of ribbons and plaques.
Together, they got their first pet bobcat, Windsong, at an animal auction in 1992. One wasn’t enough. The way Baskin tells it, the couple found themselves at a Minnesota fur farm staring at 56 bobcat kittens in cages matted with fur and feces. They brought the cats back to a 40-acre parcel on Easy Street in northwest Hillsborough County. They had gotten the land in a foreclosure.
They called their new place Wildlife on Easy Street.
– – –
Trouble began to surface once the exotic cats came along. The couple’s relationship appeared to suffer, kind of like parents who fight about how to raise their kids. 11
Baskin wanted to change their mission from breeding and selling exotic cats to rescuing them.
By 1996, Lewis wanted to move the operation to a 200-acre farm he owned in Costa Rica. His wife didn’t. 12
Lewis told Anne McQueen, his assistant of 18 years, that he wanted a divorce. A year later, he walked into the Hillsborough courthouse and asked for a domestic violence injunction against his wife. 13
“Me and Carole got in a big fuss, she ordered me out of the house or she would kill me,” Lewis wrote in court documents. “She has a .45 (caliber) revolver and she took my .357 and hid it.”14
A judge said there was “no immediate threat of violence” and denied the request.
The last time McQueen saw Lewis, he had argued with his wife and slept in a semitrailer on the property. 15
“Don did not leave of his own free will,” says McQueen, 53, who lives in Tampa. “He loved his money more than anybody, and he would have never left his money.”
In August 1997, police found Lewis’ van at a Pasco County airport with the keys on the floorboard. He was known to fly out of the country frequently, so police first thought he had just taken a trip. But as the months passed with no sign of Lewis, police flew to Costa Rica, chasing possible sightings. They also searched the wildlife sanctuary in Hillsborough.
Police found no sign of him.
Lewis never touched his $6-million estate again – but his family fought over it. Baskin had documents showing he left her in charge of his estate. Lewis’ children were mostly left out of the will except for a previously agreed upon trust.
In 2002, five years after he disappeared, a court declared Lewis dead. Most of his estate went to Baskin. 16
– – –
In 2004, Baskin walked down the beach on Anna Maria Island toward a man dressed like a caveman. She hit him over the head with a plastic bat. He threw her over his shoulder. They exchanged vows in the surf.
The man was Howard Baskin, a semiretired banker with an MBA from Harvard Business School and a law degree.
He has brought a corporate mind-set to Big Cat Rescue, now a $1-million operation with dozens of volunteers. He had the sanctuary’s name changed to Big Cat Rescue because Wildlife on Easy Street sounded like a bar. And he brought in corporate sponsors, including a Washington lobbyist.
Big Cat Rescue’s annual Fur Ball gala raised $120,000 last month – twice what it did the year before.
The nonprofit sanctuary charges $25 a person for tours. Last year, more than 26,000 people visited and for the first time it turned a profit, of $500,000. 19
The Baskins plan to use the money to build a wall around Big Cat Rescue since the sanctuary is surrounded by a major mall, a soon-to-be condo development and Veterans Expressway.
But they say the wall likely will not fend off the attacks from other exotic animal owners intent on using Carole Baskin’s past against her.
“What will carry her … is her passion for her mission and understanding that her role unfortunately includes being the subject of these attacks,” Howard Baskin wrote in an e-mail.
– – –
At the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Chris Fox skims through two volumes on Lewis’ disappearance.
It remains a cold case.
Fox says Lewis’ trips to Latin America “gave him a very exotic image and opened him up to rumors and questions about everything from drug smuggling and animal smuggling to money laundering and who knows what else. Add in a contentious relationship with his wife.”
There have been no tips in the case for years – except one in 2005. It came, Fox says, from another exotic animal owner. A former sanctuary volunteer was now saying she had not witnessed Lewis’ will.
Susan Aronoff Bradshaw said that after Lewis disappeared, Carole Baskin asked her to testify that she was there for the will signing when she was not. 17
Bradshaw, an exotic animal owner in Plant City, said she feared angering Baskin. “Carole’s made a big name for herself and I’m a big nobody,” Bradshaw said recently.
Fox believes she is telling the truth, but the statute of limitations on the possible perjury has passed. It is also not enough to focus the investigation back on Baskin or Big Cat Rescue.
But Fox is aware of the controversy swirling around Baskin.
“The only inquiries I have received on this case in the past year,” he said, “are from people who are business adversaries of Carole Baskin and who hope she will be discovered to be responsible for his disappearance.” 18
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.
[Last modified November 10, 2007, 23:58:07]
You can post a comment here or email the reporter at LaPeter@sptimes.com
The Truth of the Matter
Any of you who know me (Carole Baskin) know that the ugly things said about me by the breeders, dealers and exotic pet owners are not true. You also have seen the way some member of the media use such unfounded gossip to sell papers and ad space. For those of you who do not know, the following is posted so that you will have a more complete understanding of the situation. The article above actually did a pretty good job of exposing the motives of those who lie in order to divert the attention away from their selfish and abusive practices.
1. Our website has always said how we started and we tell it on every tour. It is the reason that I have credibility as a witness against those who use and abuse exotic cats. I know from personal experience with them, what they do, how they do it and how they hide it. They hate that I am exposing them and by doing so putting an end to their wildlife trafficking. More here: https://bigcatrescue.org/about/our-evolution/
2. Don’s disappearance did not “leave me a rich woman” but rather nearly destroyed the wealth we had accumulated through a decade of real estate investments together. Pull the probate case filed in Hillsborough County 97-2001.
3. I donated the 45 acres (valued at over 4 million dollars), vehicles, computers, equipment and animals to the non profit charity Big Cat Rescue. I was not compensated for my 60+ hour work weeks for the first 20 years of the sanctuary’s existence. I can never sell the property or have any personal gain in it at all. No one who is accusing me of having a backyard collection (I don’t live at the sanctuary) can make the same claim.
4. The grinder was only big enough to run a chicken leg through, so the assertions made by Don’ estranged children were obviously ridiculous to the police who investigated. Some important facts that were in the Probate case 97-2001 and thus known to the police, the children of Don Lewis, the secretary and presumably the reporter are that Don had an MRI and had been diagnosed as being Bi-Polar just days before his disappearance and was scheduled to see an Alzheimer’s specialist for the week after his disappearance, because he was frequently getting lost, forgetting who he was and was endangering himself and others. All of us at the sanctuary tried to keep an eye on him to keep him safe, but he got away from us early on the morning of August 18, 1997. There were a number of people taking advantage of his weakened state, including his secretary, who were doing everything in their power to keep him from being seen by a doctor, and I believe it was because they knew if he had been declared incompetent, they could not continue to steal from him.
5. The reporter left off the second half of that sentence, but it was included in the slideshow online version, where I said that the reason these people who claim to be rescuing animals do not want the trade in wild animals to end is because they would then not have the opportunity to rescue and be around the animals they like to possess. If their motives were pure they would be helping Big Cat Rescue get laws passed that stop the suffering from happening in the first place.
6. Those who oppose laws to end the breeding and discarding often say that I want to be the only person with exotic cats, but it is clear to anyone who can read, in this article and repeatedly throughout our website, that our goal is that Big Cat Rescue will someday soon not need to exist.
7. See number 1 and more about Judy Watson, who was thrown out of Big Cat Rescue for animal abuse here: http://911animalabuse.com/sos-wildlife/
8. It is illegal to sell a tiger and if I had bought Shere Khan from Dennis Hill I would have immediately turned him in to the US Fish & Wildlife Service to be fined and jailed. Unfortunately, he cannot be jailed for saying that he broke the law, and based upon his illegal narcotics activities and possession of stolen equipment, he is no stranger to lawlessness. More here: http://911animalabuse.com/dennis-hill/
9. I never made false statements about the origin of our animals. The reporter phrased this sentence as if to say I admitted that I had made false claims in the past and that is not correct. Again, see number 1 and note that no exotic cats have been bred or purchased in many, many years.
10. Don’s daughters were all adults with their own families when we Don and I first met. His illegitimate son, by another girlfriend according to Don, may have been 16 or 17 when we met, but was often in juvenile detention and later went to jail for killing a friend. Most of Leonora’s article is just a re-wording of the tabloid article that appeared in 1997 and in the article the children’s ages were given.
11. It is true that I wanted to stop breeding and placing animals before Don came to that same conclusion, it is not true that we were fighting about it.
12. We chose not to move to Costa Rica because we could not find an experienced veterinarian there and access to appropriate food, in the quantities we needed for the cats, was not available in a land that can barely feed its people.
13. Anne McQueen, our former secretary, is not a reliable witness given the fact that she had titled $600,000.00 of our assets in her maiden name and changed Don’s $1,000,000.00 life insurance policy to make her the sole beneficiary and owner just four months before his disappearance. Don could barely read or write and as his office manager Anne could ask him to sign anything and he wouldn’t know what it was. Neither of us had reason to suspect her and I did not discover what she had done until it was too late. The probate courts made her return all but the $54,000.00 she had already spent. It is all in the Hillsborough Probate court case 97-2001.
14. The restraining order came as a result of me hauling the junk off that Don would drag home from his dumpster diving. Whenever he was in Costa Rica I would haul as much trash off the property as possible. One of the people (see number 4 above) who was taking advantage of Don called him in Costa Rica and told him what I was doing, but when Don tried to get the police to stop me they told him that there was no law against me hauling trash off the property and if he wanted to keep me away from his stuff he would need a restraining order. The only way he could get a restraining order was to say that I threatened to kill him, which never happened. I did not know about his attempt at getting a restraining order until after his disappearance. because there had never been a fight or any other reason to suspect he would have done such a thing. Anne McQueen knew that when Don was out of town I would use the time to clean up the property, and she knew why Don had tried to get the restraining order, but it did not suit her needs to be truthful to the police about it.
15. There was never a time during our marriage that I threw Don out of the house, or that he spent the night in a semi trailer. He traveled to Costa Rica regularly, but it was because he felt like a big fish in a little pond there. The fact that he was illiterate in English didn’t matter in a country where he was not expected to be able to read and write in Spanish. He wanted to invest in real estate there and we agreed that he could invest a million there. I hired an attorney to help keep him out of legal trouble, but he still made a lot of bad investments, including a $100,000.00 loan to the Costa Rican mafia known as the Helicopter Brothers. The reporter failed to mention the fact that from the beginning I have offered a $100,000.00 reward to anyone who could provide evidence resulting in Don’s recovery, dead or alive. Nor did she mention the fact that I offered to pay all of the expenses for the police to check out the leads in Costa Rica. They refused my offer because they said it would look like they only serve the rich, but they did finally go down and investigate on their own tab. They said that the security guard who works the neighborhood where one of our homes was located told them he saw Don in the weeks AFTER his disappearance. She also did not mention that the police reported that several people in Florida reported seeing Don after his disappearance as well, including a woman who said Don had shown her photos of some animals in Costa Rica while they were standing in line having film developed.
16. See number 1. Even though Don had disowned his children long before his disappearance, I had set up a trust for them that contained all of his assets at the time we married in 1991. Despite him asking me repeatedly to dissolve the trust, I did not because I never wanted anyone to say that I married him for his money. I was not required by the court to do so, but rather chose to give his children that and more, which totaled about 1.5 million dollars, so that they could manage it until Don returned. Millions more were lost to attorneys, the co conservator and court ordered mandates that required me to abandon properties that had liabilities associated with them. By the end of the ordeal, six years later, there were no assets of Don’s left to give to me or anyone else. I also agreed to re-write the insurance policy so that his children collectively received the lion’s share, 325,000.00 went to the sanctuary, Anne McQueen was given 125,000.00 in order to compel her to sign back other things she had taken and a very small portion to me. I don’t remember the exact breakdown, but you can see it for yourself in the aforementioned court case file.
17. Susan Aronoff Bradshaw was thrown out of Big Cat Rescue for endangering a lion and the public. More about that here: http://911animalabuse.com/bradshaw-susan-aronoff/
18. It is telling that the only people making claims that I was involved in my husband’s disappearance are those who stand to lose financially if I am successful in ending the trade in big cats as pets, and those who would seek to take what I have re-built since Don’s disappearance because they have likely already squandered what was given to them.
19. The reporter said that the sanctuary “turned a profit of $500,000”. First, non-profits do not show a “profit”, we show a Change in Net Assets or Surplus. Second, she fails to note that a significant part of the surplus is created by the fact that my husband and I work full time for no compensation keeping expenses low. This is in contrast to the breeders and exhibitors who urged the reporter to write this article. They make a living from the animals. Third, there are huge future requirements that need to be funded with the amounts we receive in excess of what is needed to fund current operating expenses. Last December teenagers shot paint balls at the cats through our chain link perimeter fence. And the property next to us is scheduled to contain close to 400 townhomes. We are about to start construction on a much needed ten foot high solid perimeter wall that will cost an estimated $750,000 to complete. We have obtained the necessary zoning and are in the final stages of permitting. Leonora mentions the wall, but not the amount. And that is just one major need. We need to have reserves so that if a recession or another 9-11 causes donations and tour visitors to diminish we can still feed the cats. And beyond that, we have yet to begin funding the endowment that an established non profit should have that would insure the long term ability to care for the cats, particularly beyond my lifetime.
Our financial statements are audited, our statements and IRS 990 are posted on line at https://bigcatrescue.org/finances and we are proud to have met the rigorous Sanctuary Standards that can be viewed at www.SanctuaryFederation.org
With charities such as hunger or leukemia you don’t have an industry that is trying to make sure there is never a cure found, whereas those who make money from the 20 billion dollar exotic pet trade have a real interest in stopping us. Ironically, the very people who spoke out against us in this article are in the business of rescuing animals and do not want us to succeed in ending the exotic pet trade as it will mean an end to their income and sense of personal identity. These people are opposing the cure for their own selfish reasons.
20. Letters to the editor. Below are just a few of the letters that our donors and supporters have copied us with that they sent to the editor of the St. Pete Times. You can send a letter to the editor here: http://www.sptimes.com/letters/ It isn’t necessary for you to defend us as the vast majority of the population can read between the lines and see the paper’s agenda in the way they presented this story, but it would help for you to let the editor know that you want the media to devote more attention to the plight of animals caught up in the 20 billion dollar wildlife trade and that you are committed to ending the suffering caused by industries such as the exotic pet trade, backyard breeders, roadside zoos, canned hunts and circuses. Let them know that you do not believe these majestic cats should be carted around to schools, fairs, parking lots and store fronts. While you are at it, please copy your legislators with the same information at http://www.CatLaws.com If the press and the lawmakers don’t hear from you, they won’t know that these issues matter to anyone.
Anderson Cooper has recently done two specials covering the massive illegal poaching of species from the wild in large part to supply the U.S. demand for exotic animals as pets. A few weeks ago Bo Derek and the State Department held a news conference in Miami exposing the massive illegal flow of exotic animals, second only to drugs and guns, coming through the port. 20/20 has done a heart wrenching expose’ on the horrible conditions endured by exotic animals held in private hands in the U.S. The everglades are being destroyed by pet boa constrictors who have been released and are multiplying. And the contribution of the St. Pete Times is to act like a supermarket tabloid and repeat 10 year old lies and innuendos about my wife?
Your reporter quotes Dennis Hill as disputing the conditions in which our tiger Shere Khan was kept at his facility. But the article omits to mention that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources seized animals from him citing the conditions as “horrific”, USDA has revoked his license and fined him, and he has been charged with three felony charges after selling drugs to an undercover officer and stolen goods were found on his property. This is a credible source to the St. Pete Times?
The good news is that after your reporter finished the gossip column on the front page, her discussion of exotic animal ownership did help create awareness of some of the reasons exotic animals should not be pets. She points to the injuries and to the difficulty the FWCC has in just tracking owners, let alone enforcing the laws. Your website map that allows people to click and see exactly where dangerous animals are kept in their neighborhoods is an excellent public service. Hopefully showing Mr. Yates standing by the tiny cage he uses to cart animals around for display will make some readers question if this is good life for the animal.
At the end of the “Records sparse on exotic animals in our midst” report Mr. Yates predicts that private ownership will be gone in his lifetime. Sixteen states have already passed bans on private ownership, and there is a steady, unstoppable trend of limiting or banning it both at the state and federal level. My wife has been a leader in this effort, testifying regularly in Tallahassee and Washington DC, which is why Yates and cohorts continually attack her. It is only a matter of time before Florida abandons its legacy of the 1950’s of horrible animal displays all along the tourist routes and enters this century. And no amount of personal attacks like those in your article will deter my wife from fulfilling her mission to see this happen and make Mr. Yates’ prediction come true.
Big Cat Fight – Yellow/Smear Journalism
I am saddened that the Saint Petersburg Times, a paper I used to feel was a somewhat intelligent and unbiased voice, has sunk to rehashing old information and salacious allegations to further an unknown agenda or, even worse, promote sales by splashing a degrading, personal, attack on the front page of Sunday’s paper. I had naively thought that “yellow” journalism was relegated to the tabloids or political smear campaigns. You have proved me wrong.
I am an extremely proud former volunteer of Big Cat Rescue. I dedicated two years of my life and free time, over 1,400 hours while holding down a full time job to the care of the residents at the sanctuary who had been discarded by others. This article not only attacked Carole Baskin, it unjustly and heinously attacked the extraordinarily dedicated and caring staff and volunteers of Big Cat Rescue. How dare you!
Ironically enough, at this writing, I am watching a program on Animal Planet – Animal Cops: Houston – where a part of an abandoned Caracal’s story is that it was taken to a vet to be euthanized because the family did not want him anymore. This story, in a variety of scenarios, is repeated over and over again, all across this country. Explain to me why we should be able to own any exotic, not just exotic cats, but any exotic or wild animal?
What Mrs. Baskin has done in her life is her path in life, I do not and cannot judge her. All of us have a path, some of us have a rockier path than others but we, hopefully, grow and learn and take action to correct the direction we go as she has done admirably. I believe in her and the mission of Big Cat Rescue and have done what I can to help her in any way as well as her lobbying efforts. None of us are without flaw… not one of us! Mrs. Baskin has done a miraculous turn around in a short period of time with regard to exotic animal ownership. Her efforts in being a good steward toward this earth and its exotic residents are to be admired and emulated not belittled by a story that dredges up information that is not news anymore and most of which can be found in the pages of bigcatrescue.org.
This disappointment is compounded by the fact that in knowing, months ago, that Ms. LaPeter Anton was writing a story I had tried to reach her by phone and via voice mail to offer a former volunteer’s point of view. She apparently felt no need to get my opinion as her agenda (axe to grind) was perceptibly predetermined.
I hope to never see such a useless and disparaging article again on your pages.
“The big cat fight”, Nov 11, 2007
To the Editor:
I have been a volunteer at Big Cat Rescue for almost two years. I would describe Carole Baskin as a casual acquaintance. I cannot comment on her personal life or on her past.
What I can comment on is what I have experienced in my time at the sanctuary.
First of all, I find there is a great deal of transparency at Big Cat Rescue. No topic is off-limits, and no attempt is made to downplay mistakes of the past.
More importantly, I am consistently amazed by the dedication of the staff and the other volunteers towards improving the lives of exotic animals in captivity and helping their cousins in the wild. Big Cat Rescue is an organization made up of many individuals who are committed to these goals.
To anyone who might have concerns after reading the Times’ coverage, I encourage you to visit Big Cat Rescue and see first-hand the work being done there.
Sincerely, Patricia Massard
Subject: Big Cat Fight
In reading the article, “The Big Cat Fight” by Leonora LaPeter Anton, in the Sunday’s St. Petersburg’s Times dated November 11, 2007, I was struck by one salient point that seemed to go unacknowledged by the reporter who wrote the article. That point being that Carole Baskin, though she may have started her involvement with exotic cats and animals as a neophyte owner/breeder, she very quickly and with apparent great conscious, realized the plight of the big cats and that their best interests could never be served by any breeding or pet trade business.
Further, the reporter through the allegations and accusations levied by others who are in the business of the commercial exploitation of big cats, asserted that Baskin wants to be “the only game in town.” The question that comes to mind is: What game is that? Baskin states her goal as being to eliminate the exploitation and abuse of big cats and exotic animals so that the mistreatment inherent in this type of environment is no longer a threat to the quality of life of any exotic animal, that through circumstances have to be housed and cared for in a controlled environment. Either knowingly or unknowingly, the article by Ms. Anton is actually being employed as a bully pulpit by those who are the focus of Baskin’s efforts and current legislation to eliminate and prevent the further exploitation and monetary gain through ownership and breeding of big cats. It is their game and their money that is being threatened.
Anton’s article however does provide a revealing look at those who are the main offenders and prime examples of the need for efforts similar to Baskin’s in eliminating exotic animal ownership.
Ms. LaPeter Anton, I read your article in the St Pete Times and was very disappointed that you did not use the opportunity to speak more about the plight of the animals that are suffering in so many ways as a result of the booming illegal exotic trade. Surely you put more worth in the imminent peril of our planet than the tabloid-esque article you chose to use the space for?
I have been a volunteer at BCR for just 8 months now but I have learned so much in that short time. I have always loved animals and have been involved with several domestic pet rescue organizations but never wild animals until now. As an animal lover, I have always had numerous pets and at one time I myself considered purchasing a Serval at a cat show in Gainesville, Fl. I simply thought it would be wonderful to love and care for a cat from Africa.
The only reason I did not buy the cat was because I was a poor student at the time and could not afford it. I now know that I have made other mistakes; I have had numerous photos taken with wild animals at Zoos over the years, never thinking that these animals were being used or would be hurt in any way once they had outgrown their photo op stage. In the past, I have visited every Zoo possible and now I know that some of those same facilities are involved in canned hunts and surplus dumping and are the reason so many captivity raised animals have to find sanctuary when they get older and are no longer valuable to the Zoo or Circus. Like Carole Baskin, I too would have found a way to purchase all the animals at the fur farm in order to save them, thinking that I would find good homes for them later. I commend people like Carole Baskin for realizing their mistakes, learning from them and then educating others like myself. If everyone who made a mistake actually learned something from it, did not make an excuses for it, and then used that knowledge to make changes and educate others, the world would be a better place. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s what we do then that counts.
I am appalled and outraged that the Times has lowered itself to print rumors and innuendo denigrating Carole Baskin and the remarkable people at Big Cat Rescue. These people are among the few that truly care enough to give their time, money and sacrifice to care for God’s creatures that should be given the dignity they so richly deserve. The comments of the detractors are so patently tainted with jealousy and ill feeling that the Times should be ashamed to even quote them.
I am absolutely furious with the “tabloid” journalism in the Times, I had thought that this newspaper was above this type of printed garbage. I thought I was reading the Times – not the Inquirer. Shame on you.
Joel & Marie Schoubert
As volunteers and totally devoted to all “God’s Creatures”, to “Big Cat Rescue”, “Founder Carole of BCR” and “Our wonderful BCR Family and Team” we would like to thank you from the bottom of our heart for all your kind worlds and support. Nothing will ever stop us from continuing our mission! We are so surprised to read such “national enquiry type article” in the St Pete Times! We would have expected a more educated approach to this issue. We might have to think twice now before reading the Times in the future…
Again thank you so much for your compassion Bonnie!
Joel & Marie Schoubert Volunteers at Big Cat Rescue (and “proud of it”)
Beth Kamhi and Coleen Kremer
In the past 10 months, the education department at Big Cat Rescue has hosted private group tours for 4,652 people. This is above and beyond the more than 20,000 visitors who attended the daily public tours thus far in 2007. Students have visited us from 43 schools, including those from Pasco, Pinellas, Hernando, Hardee, Polk, Duval, Citrus and Hillsborough counties.
Tours provide the primary revenue source to maintain the nearly 150 animals on our property. The public, including the immediate community of Citrus Park, have been consistently supportive of our mission, and we seek to give back to the community whenever possible. As such, the education department has hosted 19 free tours for a total of 357 people so far this year. The bulk of these visitors were children or adults who are cognitively, physically and emotionally challenged. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sponsored visits by the Children’s Home for the last couple years. We also provided free services to other agencies that care for children who have been abandoned, abused or neglected. Please visit our sanctuary so that you can educate yourself and others about how to help stop the exploitation of these amazing creatures.
Beth Kamhi and Coleen Kremer, education directors, Big Cat Rescue, Tampa
Bringing real change
Sunday’s cover story on Carole Baskin and Big Cat Rescue certainly had the elements of compelling drama: a cause, conflict, greed, lies, adultery, reinvention, mystery, rumor and innuendo. But isn’t that all just a sideshow?
It seems that the main attraction is that the Baskins, together, have enough clout and savvy to force real change in the mostly seedy world of exotic cats. It is no surprise that some in that world are fighting to keep things the way they are.
Keith Craig, Tampa
Posted on the St. Pete Times site:
by Brian 11/13/07 09:26 AM
Sadly, for someone to want to save something, they usually need first hand experience. So, Zoo’s will always need to keep big cats. However, I agree they should be banned from private ownership.
by Kathy 11/12/07 07:49 PM
Big Cat Rescue is my current tithe. I have no plans on changing that. In fact, if I had more money, I would give more money to Big Cat Rescue. It’s not about Carole; it’s about the cats. Shame on you current breeders; you could learn from Carole.
by Laura 11/12/07 07:30 PM
For all the “Exotic Pet Owners” who find Baskin offensive, how do you currently justify owning and economically benefiting from an exotic pet? It appears as though ownership of something exotic does not have the animal’s best interest as a priority.
by Don 11/12/07 02:50 PM
It used to be Newspapers /TV News dealt in Facts, now every report has an agenda. It is a real shame
by Kenneth 11/12/07 10:00 AM
Anyone whose been out to Big Cat Rescue can see the good these people are doing in terms of education, policy making, and animal care. Shame on anyone who would drag this woman’s name through the mud.
by Donald_Yates 11/11/07 10:35 PM
Those against Big Cat Rescue’s attempts to end the private ownership of exotic animals think they should be able to imprison these magnificent animals in small cages for their own selfish pleasure. Just like slavery, certain things are morally wrong
by Mack 11/11/07 10:01 PM
Since when has the St. Pete Times lowered themselves to the level of tabloid journalism? Shouldn’t the newspaper be objective, instead of furthering the cause of those with an obvious personal agenda against Big Cat Rescue?
by Chad 11/11/07 11:33 AM
Sometimes people evolve. Shameful, I know. To have gone from breeding to rescuing, and from there to public outreach is obviously not genuine. No, rather it’s the plot of some animal hoarding succubus determined to fool us all. Sarcasm, anyone?
by Pat 11/11/07 08:36 AM
It sounds like some people have a very personal grudge against Baskin. I think Big Cat Rescue does a great job in educating people about wild animals lives’ in captivity and informing people how they can get involved to help these animals.
by alan 11/11/07 08:07 AM
yes if we keep on destroying the land ,,, the big cats are no more, and were destroyin every day,,,,
by James 11/11/07 07:20 AM
I gotta say, I dreamed of owning a Big Cat one day. They are beautiful magnificent animals, but as i grew up I undertood that these are not ‘owning’ pets. I totally support the outlaw on Big Cats, maybe not for zoos. I have no opinion on the case.
Letters to the Editor published 11/17/07
21. In late 2007 the FWC reversed their decision and announced that by early 2008 they would post the location of dangerous exotic animals on the Internet. Big Cat Rescue provided the geo mapping for all of the known locations (many are just P.O. boxes and out of state addresses in the FWC records.) Those map points have been provided to FWC and posted online here: https://bigcatrescue.org/map-of-big-cat-owners/
Pioneer: Pioneers are the people with arrows in their backs.
Now that you know the truth, would you like to help us end the trade in exotic cats?
Slideshow and audio
There is a slideshow and audio at the following link that contrasts the perspectives of Carole Baskin and Vernon Yates:
OTHER ARTICLES BY THIS REPORTER THAT ACTUALLY DO PROVIDE USEFUL INFORMATION ON CAPTIVE EXOTIC ANIMALS
Records sparse on exotic animals in our midst
In Florida, about 500 private owners have about 13,500 of the most dangerous animals.
By LEONORA LaPETER ANTON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
Here in Florida, land of more alligator and shark attacks than anywhere else in the world, it should come as no surprise that it’s a jungle out there.
From sleepy farm towns near Lake Okeechobee to the palm tree-lined downtowns around Tampa Bay, thousands of wild animals live and die in backyard cages largely hidden from view.
Although 22 states ban private ownership of lions, tigers and other exotic wildlife, Florida remains a haven for menageries. State records show about 4,500 people or businesses hold licenses to own everything from bears to boa constrictors.
Research labs breed thousands of primates for experiments. Circus workers return every winter with lions and bears. And large and small rescue operations started years ago in undeveloped areas now find themselves surrounded by single-family homes.
“There are so many sanctuaries out there and they’re not sanctuaries, they’re peoples’ private collections,” says Vernon Yates, who keeps about 200 animals on 3 acres in Seminole.
Wildlife owners must submit annual counts of their animals, but state wildlife officials acknowledge they have no idea exactly how many exotic animals inhabit the state.
“In an ideal world, it would be better to have inventories on what is possessed on a daily basis, but that’s not realistic,” said Capt. Linda Harrison of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency that monitors captive wildlife. “Especially with the frequency and amount of change. What’s important is to know where all these facilities are located.”
A St. Petersburg Times review of files for owners of Class 1 and Class 2 animals — the 66 animals that “pose the most threat to human safety” in the words of Harrison — was fraught with difficulty. Some files were missing; others were lacking the latest inventories; injury and escape data were not computerized.
As for the missing files and inventories, Harrison had no answer. “Some files we weren’t able to locate,” she said. “I can’t answer why they weren’t there.”
Based on the available inventories, the Times found that about 13,500 Class 1 and Class 2 animals are concentrated in the hands of 500 private owners. (This does not include animals in accredited zoos, aquariums, theme parks and the thousands of less-regulated Class 3 animals.)
The most popular of the more dangerous animals: crocodiles (560), tigers (456) and cougars (401).
* * *
In 1967, a tourist driving into Florida couldn’t go but a few miles without running into a roadside animal attraction: a couple of crocodiles in a pen, a pair of boxing chimps, a Bengal tiger in a cage by a souvenir stand.
Some were so decrepit that even the tourists complained. State lawmakers responded by requiring inspections. Then in 1974, after several gruesome animal attacks, the state banned owning certain wild animals as pets. Today, the most dangerous wildlife can only be owned for commercial use.
The largest quantities of exotic animals in Florida — a combined 8,042 macaques and 1,321 baboons — are being bred for research at places like Primate Products of Immokalee and Miami, Worldwide Primates Inc. of Miami and the Mannheimer Foundation in Homestead.
But many more are owned by everyday people.
There’s the Clearwater woman who has sold encounters with her chimpanzee on Craigslist and a retired 80-year-old St. Petersburg preacher with pet emus and an ostrich in his back yard.
And then there’s Richard Greenberg, who keeps three orangutans, three tigers, two chimps and a leopard in multistory cages in his back yard in St. Petersburg behind an electronic gate. Two of his orangutans, Bernie and Maggie, are the stars of a TV ad for his Clearwater auto parts store.
Still, experts say it is inevitable that one day many animals will disappear from private hands as it gets harder and more costly to keep them. Recent efforts for stricter laws have included requiring exotic animal owners to get insurance for potential injuries. Wildlife owners, however, defeated an attempt to make them notify their neighbors of their existence.
Many have watched some of those neighbors creep closer.
“The (animal) activists like to point out that I live in a densely populated area of Pinellas County, but this area was very rural 26 years ago,” says Gini Valbuena, who owns two chimpanzees at her home in Clearwater. “I didn’t move into this congestion, it moved into me.”
Other exotic animal owners believe animal activists are trying to scare the public with exaggerated statistics and misdirected perceptions. No one in Florida has died from a tiger mauling since 2001, they say, and most of those injured are trainers or owners who choose to live with the risk.
Some say they simply want to live with their animals — free from prying eyes and more government intrusion — but fear a state that has long welcomed wildlife owners may be turning its back on them.
“I thought I would not see it in my lifetime,” said Yates, a wildlife trapper, “but I think it’s coming — any form of private ownership will be gone.”
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and editorial assistant Emily Rieman contributed to this story.
[Last modified November 11, 2007, 01:36:14]
Map shows where the dangerous animals are
This online map shows how many people are harboring dangerous exotic animals in the Tampabay area:
(Now Big Cat Rescue maps the entire state here https://bigcatrescue.org/map This was not included in the original article)
Even less-dangerous exotic animals can cause injuries
By LEONORA LAPETER ANTON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
In the past five years, captive wildlife have injured at least 124 people in Florida, according to state officials. Eighty-four incidents involved people who owned or trained the animals. Those designated the most dangerous — lions, tigers, elephants, crocodiles, cougars — were responsible for a third of them. Most people got hurt by less dangerous animals such as raccoons, marmosets and dolphins. Venomous reptiles caused 34 injuries.
The last death involving a captive wild animal in Florida was in 2001 when a tiger named Tie killed a 49-year-old volunteer at Savage Kingdom, a tiger breeding facility in Sumter County.
Nationally, 10 people have been killed by captive big cats since 2001. Congress is considering Haley’s Act, which would ban all contact between big cats and the public. Two years ago Haley Hilderbrand, 17, was killed by a Siberian tiger while having her senior class picture taken at an animal sanctuary in Kansas.
Here are some Tampa Bay area wildlife injuries, not including those at zoos and theme parks:
Dec. 30, 2006: A 14-foot Burmese python named Cloe bit an 18-year-old animal handler at the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, wrapping itself around her arm as it tried to drag her into its cage.
Oct. 3, 2006: An albino monocle cobra bit an employee of Southeast Reptile Exchange while he was preparing the animal for transport.
Sept. 12, 2006: A tiger named Rula bit its handler in the upper arm and face after the handler stumbled in the tiger’s muddy enclosure in Balm in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
April 13, 2006: Gizmo, a Capuchin monkey, bit a 78-year-old woman trying to feed it.
Feb. 27, 2006: A cougar at a Dade City facility bit someone who reached in to pet the big cat.
Feb. 9, 2006: A marmoset living in a St. Petersburg home bit a visitor on the right thumb.
Nov. 17, 2005: A 2-year-old ring-tailed lemur named Fonzie scratched a 34-year-old woman as the owner tried to pull the animal away with its leash at a Gulfport business.
Aug. 16, 2005: A ring-tailed lemur living in St. Petersburg bit a 35-year-old woman who tried to kiss it through its cage. The woman required surgery to her mouth.
Feb. 12, 2005: An infant tiger bit a 42-year-old Oldsmar woman on the hand during a photo event.
Oct. 28, 2004: A dusky pygmy rattlesnake bit a 48-year-old Holiday man who had a rodent in his hand. The man was not licensed to have the snake.
Dec. 7, 2003: A cougar in Brooksville bit an appliance delivery man who stuck his hand in the animal’s cage.
Nov. 12, 2002: A coral cobra bit its Tampa owner while it was being fed.
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
[Last modified November 11, 2007, 01:36:56]
Even though it is painful to have people make such untrue accusations about my personal life and motivations, I am grateful that the St. Pete Times has exposed the dirty animal underworld that exists in Florida. Online polls show that 76% of the public would approve a ban of exotic animals as pets. (6,518 random online surfers were polled as of 11/11/07) As more people find out about animals living in cramped concrete cells, or filthy backyard cages, they will do something to end the trade and misery.
This video shows facilities that are currently licensed and approved by the USDA and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission that have been operating at this level or worse for more than 10 years and yet are still open to the public. These images are typical of those who allow cameras in but there are many worse ones who do not.
The following is a partial listing (531) of incidents in the U.S. involving captive exotic cats since 1990. The U.S. incidents have resulted in the deaths of 20 humans, 15 adults and 5 children, the additional mauling of 174 more adults and children, 143 escapes, the killing of 84 big cats, and 113 confiscations. There have also been 150 big cat incidents outside the U.S. that have resulted in the deaths of 57 humans and the mauling of 85 humans by captive big cats. These figures only represent the headlines that Big Cat Rescue has been able to track. Because there is no reporting agency that keeps such records the actual numbers are certainly much higher. https://bigcatrescue.org/big-cat-attacks/
The U.S. represents less than 5% of the entire global population, but up through 2006 79% of ALL captive cat incidents occurred in the U.S. (Now that the US is clamping down on the exotic pet trade, the reports in 2007 show a decline in U.S. incidents compared to the rest of the world) Likewise, Florida represents less than 6% of the U.S. population while 11% of all U.S. incidents occur in Florida. Florida boasts the most comprehensive sets of regulations allowing private ownership of exotic cats while ranking #1 in the highest numbers of big cat killings, maulings and escapes. To view photos of fatal injuries from cases reported in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine click https://bigcatrescue.org/laws/AMJForensicFeline.pdf