By Joel Hood – South Florida Sun-Sentinel
July 14, 2007
Loxahatchee Groves Bo was in a bad mood.
The 400-pound Siberian Bengal tiger stalked angrily inside his shaded iron enclosure, finding little relief from the heat. Visitors watched him pace behind pencil-thin iron bars. Bo wanted nothing to do with them; he held them back with an irritated growl.
“It’s too hot for him,” owner Steve Sipek said, entering the cage with a small bucket of severed turkey legs. “He’s a little cranky.”
It’s a mood that’s spreading around the Sipek compound as the reclusive cat lover prepares for what has become a yearly battle with state and federal officials to keep his exotic felines: two Bengal tigers, an African lioness and a black leopard.
A year ago, federal inspectors denied Sipek an exotic animal permit to legally keep his cats because his five-acre ranch did not meet standards in the Animal Welfare Act. But the former B-movie actor, known around the Groves simply as “Tarzan,” was granted a state permit that allowed him to keep the cats if he used them for educational or commercial purposes.
Sipek said he’s reapplying for another state license, but remains defiant as ever toward federal officials and what he calls their “ridiculously high standards” for animal care. He said his cats are well cared for and challenges the authority of the federal officials to make any demands for better conditions. His last federal license inspection lasted less than an hour before Sipek ran the officials off his property.
“I told them to get the hell out of here and don’t come back,” Sipek said. “They have no authority to police me in my own home. Government likes to be the boss over everything. They’re only in it to harass you.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health division last toured Sipek’s ranch in January 2006. The inspection and licensing arm of the USDA had given Sipek failing grades on two previous inspections and found conditions had improved little this time. Inspection records note that Sipek did not have a veterinarian on site or on call and that no medical records existed for the cats.
Inspectors found a section of fence was only seven-feet high, a foot lower than the minimum standards for these types of animals. They noted vertical gaps in the fencing large enough for outside animals to pass through to gain access to the enclosed tigers and lioness. They also pointed out other potential weak points in the fence.
Records show inspectors told Sipek that he did not provide a proper diet and feeding program for the cats and that his grounds were littered with dangerous debris. As with past failed inspectors, this record concludes that Sipek is not allowed to participate in USDA “regulated activities,” such as exhibiting the animals, until he obtains a federal license.
Five months later, Sipek easily passed inspection by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and received a state license.
“We’re not in it for the animal’s health,” said John West, the commission’s investigations captain. “We don’t need to see shot records or veterinarian records or anything like that. If he wants to live in a trash pile, that’s his issue.”
Sipek admits he’s frustrated by this discrepancy in state and federal standards. While the state last year said he was a good guardian for the cats, the USDA launched an investigation into his care. USDA officials would not say whether the investigation is ongoing.
“It’s a lousy situation,” Sipek said. “The USDA is not qualified to issue licenses.”
West agrees it’s a confusing and complicated permit process and said the state has ongoing discussions with the USDA to simplify it.
The Croatian-born Sipek, who starred as Tarzan in a foreign remake of the film in 1970, garnered international attention in 2004 when a 600-pound Bengal tiger he owned, Bobo, escaped from his compound and into the rural residential community of the Groves. The tiger was later shot by Fish and Wildlife officials, but soon after, Sipek received another commercial license from the state for two tiger cubs, Bo and Little Bo. Those cubs are now 2 years old and weigh 400 pounds.
USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said federal licenses trump state permits, meaning that Sipek could face legal action if the agency wanted to prosecute him for illegally owning exotic cats. Rogers would not comment on Sipek’s case specifically, but said “if he’s operating in a way that we regulate without a license, we will pursue it.”
If they do, Sipek could face fines or a court appearance. But he said he’s not worried.
“Nobody could take better care of my cats than I can,” Sipek said. “The health of the cats is all that matters. That’s all I care about and that’s all they should care about, too.”