Cougars find new home after Florida facility loses license

Martin E. Comas
Sentinel Staff Writer

December 27, 2006

LADY LAKE — The ponies, goats and sheep at Uncle Donald’s Farm have unlikely company now — a pair of cougars.

The exotic cats, Mercury and Marti, were donated to the north Lake County attraction by Savage Kingdom, a wild-animal ranch in Center Hill with a checkered past. It was forced to get rid of almost two dozen big felines recently after federal authorities revoked its license.

“It’s not easy,” said Robert Baudy, 83, Savage Kingdom’s owner, who has bred, raised and trained wild cats for more than 50 years.

“It’s killing me losing these cats,” he said. “But on the other end, I’ve got to stop because I’m not getting any younger.”

Besides donating the male and female cougars to Uncle Donald’s Farm, Baudy gave seven tigers — including a pregnant white tiger — to Jim Fowler’s Life in the Wild, a 1,000-acre animal-friendly safari and theme park under construction in Bonifay.

Expected to be completed in 2008, the park is being developed by Fowler, a wildlife educator and longtime host of the television show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and developer Barbara Farris.

Farris described it as an ecological park with large open areas for the animals to roam. Visitors will be able get close to the animals while riding in caged vehicles.

Baudy said he also has given six tigers and leopards to other facilities, including Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in north Georgia and other zoos.

“I place them with people who know what they are doing,” he said.

About five cats remain unadopted, and several people have shown an interest, according to a Savage Kingdom worker who would not provide more information.

“His cats are well-fed and cared for,” said Donna Morris, owner of Uncle Donald’s Farm, who called Baudy a highly respected breeder. “They are beautiful animals, and he’s been a top breeder. He’s kept his blood line very, very clean.”

The 50-acre Lake County attraction features more than 300 animals, most farm animals. It also has a refuge for injured or orphaned animals that would not be able to survive in the wild.

Visitors can take farm tours, hay rides or feed many of the animals.

Morris said that Mercury and Marti have received plenty of attention, especially from children, since coming to Uncle Donald’s Farm at the end of November.

Last July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture permanently revoked Baudy’s federal permits after a 318-pound tiger burst through a rusted chain-link fence and killed a volunteer animal handler in July 2001.

The federal investigation showed the tiger was put in an unsafe cage and the volunteer who was attacked, Vincent Lowe, 49, was inadequately trained to handle big cats and did not follow several precautions.

The cat had been moved into the smaller, faulty cage, and soon became agitated and lunged at the sides of the structure before breaking through and attacking Lowe, according to reports.

The department order revoking Savage Kingdom’s Animal Welfare Act license was signed by an administrative law judge in Washington, D.C., on July 6. The license is required to exhibit and breed certain animals, such as Baudy’s big cats.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation later cleared Baudy of any criminal wrongdoing in the 2001 attack. It stated, however, that Lowe made several errors leading to the attack. Tests from that state investigation also showed Lowe had traces of marijuana in his system.

In another incident at Savage Kingdom, a cougar strangled itself in January with a rope after workers lassoed the thrashing animal to keep it from escaping the facility. The cat had slipped out of its stall through a divider door that had not been properly secured. When a worker noticed the cat escaped and was heading toward an open field, she tried to lasso it with the rope.

Morris of Uncle Donald’s Farm said accidents do happen when people keep predatory animals. That’s why it’s important to have experienced, professional workers feeding them and cleaning their cages.

“Accidents do happen, but in almost all cases, it’s the human’s fault,” she said. “The guy [Lowe] should have been better supervised. The only thing predictable about animals is that they are unpredictable.”

Morris doesn’t have volunteers to help her care for the dangerous animals.

“I have people who come to me and say: ‘Wow, I love big cats, can I help?’ ” she said. “But I don’t take volunteers. You just don’t make mistakes with those animals; otherwise someone is going to get hurt.”

A native of France, Baudy settled in Sumter County in the early 1970s after displaying his animals in shows abroad for more than 20 years.

He says he has bred 28 species of cats in captivity, including panthers, jaguars, cougars and a white Siberian tiger. His forearms and hands are covered with jagged scars showing when he got careless around nervous cats.

Baudy said he and other workers at Savage Kingdom will continue caring for the several cows, horses and sheep on his 40-acre property after the last cats have been placed in new homes. The cats can’t be let loose in native areas, such as Asia or Africa, because they will starve.

Martin E. Comas can be reached at mcomas@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5927

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/custom/tourism/orl-bigcats2706dec27,0,4153202.story? coll=orl-business-headlines-tourism

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