From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2008:
Closer regulation of exotic cat facilities may follow two tiger attacks in Missouri
ST. LOUIS–Kenneth and Sandra Smith, owners of the now closed Wesa-A-Geh-Ya exotic animal park in Warren County, Missouri, and Wesa-A-Geh-Ya board member Roy Elder were on September 19, 2008 charged with evidence tampering for allegedly trying to mislead the county sheriff’s department into believing that a pit bull terrier rather than a tiger attacked volunteer Jacob Barr.
“Barr, 26, had part of his leg surgically amputated following the August 3 mauling,” recounted Associated Press writer Betsy Taylor. “Elder and Sandra Smith are accused of lying to investigators. Kenneth Smith, who shot and killed the attacking animal, is accused of moving the dead tiger’s body to a different location.”
In Stone County, Missouri, only one day after the Barr attack, “Branson Zoo intern Dakoda Ramel, 16, suffered puncture wounds to the neck, head and leg after he entered a tiger enclosure,” reported Branson Daily News staff writers Chad Hunter and Donna Clevenger. “The Stone County Sheriff’s Department reported that Ramel entered the tiger pen to take photographs for a customer.”
“At that point, two other tigers joined in the attack and dragged the victim to a water pool,” said a Stone County Sheriff’s Department press release.
Responded a Branson Zoo press release, “We do not know at this time why Ramel was in the enclosure, as it is a clear violation of policy, which is both written and verbal. The only persons who saw what happened clearly stated that he slipped and fell and that the cats had not attacked in any way. It is also firmly believed he was unconscious when a female tiger approached, grabbed him by the neck, and dragged him to what she would have felt was safety.”
Ramel had worked at the zoo, formerly known as Predator World and the Branson West Reptile Garden, for about three years.
Both Wesa-A-Geh-Ya and the Branson Zoo had long histories of alleged violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including failure to maintain secure enclosures.
“A 2007 safety inspection of Branson Zoo noted three instances of animals getting out of their pens: two wolves who escaped into the community, a grizzly bear that remained on the property but was able to kill a tiger, and a fox that was hit by a car,” wrote Hunter and Clevenger.
“The Smiths moved to eastern Missouri in 1986 with a tiger and two cougars, and acquired more animals over the years,” recalled Taylor.
The business name they adopted, Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, “means ‘Cat Lady’ in Sandra Smith’s native Cherokee language,” the Smiths told visitors.
Initiatially operated as a for-profit zoo and breeding compound, Wesa-A-Geh-Yah obtained nonprofit status in 1998 and thereafter claimed to be a sanctuary. “Many of the tiger cubs that were sold to others ended up back in Warren County when the new owners couldn’t handle them,” noted St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Susan Weich.
The Smiths surrendered their USDA license to exhibit the animals in 2003, after repeated Animal Welfare Act citations, for which they were fined $13,000 and given two years on probation in 2004.
“That got the USDA off their backs,” wrote Weich. “It also stopped the Smiths from being able to collect donations from visitors who came to see their animals. Funding for the facility slipped to about $1,200 a year from $40,000 annually. Donations of meat and volunteers help to tend the animals dropped off as criticism by animal rights groups and public scrutiny of the operation increased.”
The Smiths reportedly also drew probation after convictions in May 2008 for failing to register dangerous animals with the county sheriff’s department.
“Unfortunately, Barr, of Warrenton, knew nothing about the facility’s troubled history,” continued Weich. “Barr is friends with a volunteer at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya. The two men had been camping together, and when Barr’s friend said he was going to clean the cages, Barr agreed to help.”
The Barr family sued the Smiths for damages on September 3.
“Officials in Warren County said they would consider an ordinance addressing ownership of nondomestic animals in the next month,” reported Weich. “State Representative Mike Sutherland, who has been trying to set standards for places like Wesa-A-Geh-Ya for five years, is hopeful that publicity about the mauling will help a law get passed this session.”
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya entered the summer of 2008 with “52 animals of the 84 they reported in 2004,” longtime critic Rosella Baller told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “and this does not include new animals born” since then, Baller said. Baller claimed that at least one litter of four tiger cubs was born at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya in 2007.
Sandra Smith told Sarah Whitney of the Post-Dispatch that just one tiger had been born at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya since 1998, a lone cub in 2003.
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya had 49 animals when the Smiths announced on August 5 that they would close the facility. Among the animals were 33 tigers, eight lions, four wolves, a bear, a puma, and a leopard, according to Kevin Murphy of the Kansas City Star. The last animal was a fox whom the Smiths planned to keep.
Joe Schreibvogel, director of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, took in “eight lions, the four wolves, four tigers, the bear, the cougar and the leopard,” said Murphy. Schreibvogel told Jordan Wilson of Post-Dispatch that the G.W. Exotic Animal Park already had more than 170 big cats and 1,400 animals on 16 acres.
Nineteen Wesa-A-Geh-Ya tigers were sent to the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center in Calhan, Colorado, opened in 1993, already housing 147 big cats, chiefly tigers.
Schreibvogel told Whitney that the Carnivore Preservation Trust in North Carolina had offered to take four tigers, but withdrew the offer after the Smiths refused to sign a contract stating they would never again own exotic animals.
Both Schreibvogel and the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center have also had troubled histories. Schreibvogel’s background, including controversies over the safety of his traveling animal shows, filled 15 paragraphs in the October 2002 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
The Serenity Springs Wildlife Center debuted as a breeding operation in 1993, but turned to rescue in 1995 after taking 12 big cats from a facility called the Alamo Tiger Ranch that was closed due to Animal Welfare Act violations. In June 2003 two Bengal tigers mauled the only Serenity Springs employee. Founders Nick and Karen Sculac lost their home to foreclosure in 2005, after Nick Sculac suffered a heart attack and was unable to continue his contracting firm. Karen Sculac died of pneumonia in August 2006–but Serenity Springs now has nearly twice as many animals as it reportedly did then.
Amid the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya and Branson Zoo episodes, Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida wrote “New laws,” including the 2003 federal Captive Wildlife Safety Act, “have caused such a dramatic decrease in the number of unwanted big cats that we are on the brink of no more abused and unwanted big cats.”
The long list of individual big cats in urgent need of sanctuary space is much shorter than five years ago, ANIMAL PEOPLE files indicate–but the total numbers in need of placement remain about the same, due to increasing numbers of sanctuary and roadside zoo closures. –Merritt Clifton
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