Exotic animals at Davie-based Vanishing Species face harsh conditions, officials say

Exotic animals at Davie-based Vanishing Species face harsh conditions, officials say

They’re cute, cuddly and young. But when they grow up, the lions and tigers at Davie-based Vanishing Species face harsh conditions, officials say. It’s not a pretty sight.

By David Fleshler South Florida Sun-Sentinel
April 4, 2009

The magazine ad shows a panther cub with huge ears and a kitten-like face, just one of the delightful animals that Vanishing Species Wildlife Inc. will bring to your child’s birthday party.

But after a short performing career, the cub may have little to look forward to. Vanishing Species, based in Davie, has drawn scathing reports from state and federal wildlife agencies for keeping adult tigers, lions and other animals in filthy conditions, feeding them rotten food and failing to provide adequate veterinary care.

Animal welfare groups say the problems extend well beyond a single company, as wildlife exhibitors relentlessly breed photogenic, money-making cubs that grow into adults that nobody wants.

“The problem is especially pronounced with big cats,” said Lisa Wathne, exotic animal specialist at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “A lot of places use tigers and lions as photo ops. They very quickly grow too big, and they’re dumped. And there’s nowhere for these animals to go. The accredited sanctuaries are full to overflowing.”

There are about 2,700 licensed animal exhibitors in the United States, ranging from major operations such as Miami Metro Zoo to small ones like Vanishing Species and its dozen or so South Florida competitors, which charge a few hundred dollars to entertain at schools, fairs and birthday parties. They value baby bears, tigers and lions because they can charge $20 or more for photos with the adorable beasts. But grown ones are in about as much demand as a 10-year-old Buick.

Mark McCarthy, owner of McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary in northwestern Palm Beach County, which has about 100 animals, including 20 big cats, said some organizations take in or breed too many animals. It can cost $6,000 a year just to feed an adult tiger, he said, and annual veterinarian bills average about $1,000.

“They’re very expensive to take care of,” he said. “You don’t want people to have big cats who can’t afford to take them to the vet.”

The trade journal Animal Finders Guide contains lots of advertisements like this one: FREE: one year old female Siberian tiger, one-year-old male black bear, five-year-old neutered and declawed black bear. All animals have been in petting zoo and are good natured.

That ad came from Brown’s Oakridge Zoo, a Smithfield, Ill., institution whose web page shows photos of children playing with baby animals. “Imagine being able to hold a lion, tiger, or bear cub,” the zoo’s Web page states. “It brings out the kid in all of us.”

Nancy Brown, the zoo’s owner, said she breeds lions, tigers, leopards and cougars, displaying the cubs in places like schools and nursing homes before trying to place the grown animals with new owners.

“Our cubs are used for educational purposes and therapeutic purposes,” she said. “They basically go to someone starting a facility or needing a replacement animal. They are all properly licensed and have proper facilities.”

What happens if no one wants these animals, given the saturation of the market? Nolan Lemon, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates wildlife exhibitors, said, “Generally they’ll all be adopted by a sanctuary.” But wildlife advocates say this is nonsense because most sanctuaries are full, and it’s expensive to properly care for a full-grown tiger or lion.

“There’s no system for tracking where these animals go,” said Beth Preiss, exotic pets director for the Humane Society of the United States. “There are very few high-quality sanctuaries. They rarely go to accredited zoos.”

Vanishing Species bred large carnivores and now has several cougars, a lion and seven tigers at its Davie compound, most in cages measuring 10 feet by 20 feet. William Trubey, a retired investigator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who inspected Vanishing Species for years, said it bred cubs for shows, a problem that’s “endemic to the exhibition business.”

On Aug. 1, 2007, after repeated warnings, Trubey said he assembled a team of inspectors and went to Vanishing Species’ property. Trubey said they found cages reeking of feces and urine, animals being fed rotten chicken that “you couldn’t stand to put it near your body, let alone smell,” and an absence of records to account for the death or sale of animals that were gone.

“There are animals living in filth, living in their own urine, their own feces,” he said. “It’s absolutely filthy. … I probably have seen only three facilities run as poorly as this one.”

Barbara Harrod, listed on documents as president or secretary-treasurer of Vanishing Species, was charged with five misdemeanor criminal violations of the captive-wildlife laws. She is due April 21 in Broward County Court. If convicted, she faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine on each count.

In a separate case, involving a complaint by the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding treatment of the animals, Harrod and her husband signed a consent order last February not admitting fault but agreeing to pay a fine of $3,750, avoid future violations and move big cats off their Davie site by July 31. The complaint accused them of feeding animals food contaminated with maggots, lying about providing veterinary care and failing to provide shelter from wind, rain and sun.

In an interview last month, Barbara Harrod blamed the federal accusations on an unfair inspector. She could not be reached for comment on the state charges, despite two phone messages. Her lawyer, Jeffrey Grossman, declined comment.

Mary Ann Rayot, a volunteer at Vanishing Species, defended the Harrods, saying they take in unwanted animals and do their best to care for them.

“The animals are well loved, and all of us work so hard,” she said. “There’s no place else for them to go. I know the animal rights people will tell you it’s not fair for them to be in cages. It’s not fair for them to be put to sleep either.”

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4535.




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