County Declaws Couple’s Plan To House Tigers

County Declaws Couple’s Plan To House Tigers

By TONY MARRERO Hernando Today


Published: Dec 13, 2006



BROOKSVILLE – Tigers in Hernando County? Oh my!

That’s pretty much the reaction neighbors had to a proposal before the planning and zoning commission Monday that would have allowed a big cat preserve on Lake Lindsay Road.

The commission shot down the idea with a 4-1 vote, citing safety concerns about a facility it said isn’t compatible with the area.

Judy Watts and her fiance, Bob Jones, sought a special-use exception to allow a preserve for tigers and other large cats on their 9.9-acre parcel about two miles east of U.S. 41. The area is zoned mostly agricultural.

The plan called for five wire enclosures, with at least one tiger or other large cat in each.

Hernando County staff recommended approval of the plan.

The cats have been raised in captivity and hand-fed, Jones said. They have been taken to schools and other functions to "educate the general public on the extinction of the big cats."

Several neighbors said they would be forced to live in fear, terrified of what would happen to their children, horses or cattle if one of the animals escaped.

"There will be many nightmares and sleepless nights if this petition is approved," said Bob Musselwhite, whose property is adjacent to the parcel.

Joe Piermatteo mentioned a recent incident at Tampa‘s Lowry Park Zoo, where zoo officials had to shoot a tiger that nearly escaped after a worker left a cage unlatched, and performer Roy Horn, whose tiger nearly killed him during a performance three years ago.

"If Lowry Park can’t guarantee [safety], and Siegfried and Roy can’t guarantee it, then these people can’t guarantee it," Piermatteo said.

"I don’t want anyone taking chances with my kids’ lives," said Richard Olsen, who lives next door to the property.

Watts, who sported a tiger-print blouse, said she understood the neighbors’ "fear of the unknown."

Florida has some of the strictest rules for keeping big cats, Watts argued.

She said all injuries from big cats are to owners, handlers or other people inside the cats’ domain. Watts said no big cat has escaped a preserve and injured someone since 1990, when she said records started being kept.

"That doesn’t mean yours won’t," planning Commissioner Anna Liisa Covell retorted.

"There’s always a possibility one of these animals will escape," planning Commissioner Anthony Palmieri said.

Covell asked Watts whether she owned a gun and whether she would shoot one her tigers if it escaped.

"Yes, I will," Watts said.

Watts and Jones said they would be willing to provide a walkie-talkie or some other means of communication to neighbors to notify them if a cat escaped.

But it wasn’t enough. Neighbors were too close, commissioners said.

Two people spoke in favor of the proposal, including one unidentified woman who said it would be "perfect" to have a cat preserve at the location. Hernando County Commissioner Mary Preston was the lone supporter.


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