Cops seize leopards, panthers in PC; Owner charged with license violation
Zelph Ridgeway, 49, keeps 400 snakes and 60 crocodiles at his house in northeast Port Charlotte — but that’s not the problem.
The problem is that he’s recently tried to adopt three tigers, two panthers and two leopards without getting the special licenses required to keep such dangerous animals, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Monday, FWC investigators seized the panthers and leopards and charged Ridgeway with five misdemeanor animal license and facility violations.
The animals were placed temporarily with the Seminole Wildlife Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Inc., an exotic animal refuge in Pinellas County.
The animals will be treated by a veterinarian, quarantined for about a month and housed until Ridgeway’s license problems are resolved, said FWC Sgt. Leonard Barshinger.
The FWC had seized the tigers from Ridgeway on Jan. 19. They were taken to the Octagon Wildlife Refuge in Punta Gorda.
Ridgeway said his goal was to open an exotic animal exhibit at his property at 430 Kindred Ave. The property is located in a sparsely developed subdivision northeast of U.S. 41 near Chamberlain Boulevard.
Ridgeway owns some five lots in the same block, but those lots are not contiguous with his house, which is where he keeps his animals.
He was charged with two counts each of possessing a Class 1 and Class 2 feline without the appropriate license. He was also charged with failing to maintain an authorized facility, because his property did not meet minimum size requirements.
For Class 1 cats, five acres are required. For Class 2 cats, two-and-a-half acres are required.
“I realize now I’m never going to have the animals I want here,” Ridgeway said.
Ridgeway said he’s cared for wild animals since he was a boy growing up in Indiana. He said he trapped foxes and raccoons to sell their fur, until he began raising them as pets.
Ridgeway works as a ceramic tile setter. But he stays up late each night to tend to his animals.
“The tigers are just a pleasure,” he said. “I’ll just set there and interact with them.”
Lauri Caron, director of Octagon, said the tigers had been in a North Carolina facility that shut down. They were then transferred to a Georgia facility, which offered them to Ridgeway.
She said she agreed to take in the leopards out of concern for the well-being of the animals.
Ridgeway said he planned to give the leopards to the Octagon Wildlife Refuge in exchange for providing care for his tigers.
Ridgeway said he planned to keep the two cougars as pets.
A Port Charlotte resident for the past 18 years, Ridgeway has licenses to keep Class 1 and Class 2 snakes and crocodiles. Class 1 are the most dangerous species, and Class 2 are the second-most dangerous.
To qualify for Class 1 licenses, handlers must verify they have 1,000 hours experience handling such animals.
Ridgeway said he’s held a Class 1 license for the reptiles since 1994.
He said he specializes in breeding albino reptiles.
“I have the only albino snapping turtles in existence,” he said.
The state investigators worked with the Pinellas center’s handlers to sedate the two leopards and one of the cougars before moving them.
“Shorttail,” a spotted male leopard, snarled viciously within its cage as the officers jabbed its hindquarters with a device that consisted of a large needle on the end of a control stick.
The officers expected to have an easier time with the two cougars, but one of them leapt onto the wall of its chain-link cage and bit the roof, said Lt. Steve DeLacure.
That cougar was also sedated slightly, he said.
To move the other cougar, officers merely used a “catch-pole” to lead the animal into a mobile cage.
DeLacure said seizing the animals served to both protect them and the public.
“It’s just a necessary step that we needed to take to make sure we have the appropriate facilities,” he said.
By GREG MARTIN
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