Traveling show thrills some, troubles others
Hanna Lucas (right) and her sister, Breanna, Michigan City, spent 8 minutes playing with 10-week-old Indochinese tiger cubs Destiny and Karma on Thursday night at Marquette Mall. Here, they feed Karma, a female cub. Photo by Alicia Ebaugh
By Alicia Ebaugh
Published: Saturday, December 11, 2010 5:10 PM CST
MICHIGAN CITY — A traveling wild animal show featured this weekend at Marquette Mall says it’s bringing a powerful educational message to the public about why exotic animals shouldn’t be kept as pets.
But the show, which has traveled under at least two different names this year, is connected with an Oklahoma animal park that was fined $25,000 by the USDA in 2006 for repeatedly failing to provide adequate veterinary care, safe enclosures, clean food and shelter.
Beth Corley, animal care specialist with Big Cat Rescue Entertainment, said her show is a separate entity from the G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, although the money Big Cat Rescue Entertainment raises through charging the public between $15 and $25 for photos and playtime goes to support the park. They also get the baby big cats they take on tour from the park.
“We bring all these different animals with us so youngsters can see what they are like and how fast they grow,” said Corley, pointing out four tigers and other exotics such as ring-tailed lemurs, a spider monkey, kinkajou and baby kangaroo lined up in cages next to a 4 1/2-month-old tiger the public was not allowed to play with. “You can see even at such a young age that tigers aren’t cuddly kittens anymore.”
The animals are kept inside metal cages set directly on the mall floor from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are given time to rest and blankets and toys to play with, and are fed veterinarian-prescribed formula.
“There is nothing abusive about this environment. Our workers really love the animals,” Corley said, watching her employee, Sammy Crowell, play with 9-week-old Bengal cub, Jagger. “This is how we are 24/7.”
Corley said she’s been operating her traveling show at malls and fairs throughout the Midwest for eight years, and recognizes many of her return customers. Michigan City sisters Breanna and Hanna Lucas come to play with the baby tiger cubs every year they’ve appeared at Marquette Mall.
“They’re really cute,” said Breanna, 11. “It’s fun to hold them.”
An Internet search shows Corley’s group goes by several names, including Tigers in Need, Welch’s Entertainment and Awakening Productions, all of which can be traced back by address or phone number to G.W. Exotic Animal Memorial Park. Corley said Tigers in Need is her own organization that supports abused, neglected and unwanted exotic animals.
Some say Corley has taken on the name Big Cat Rescue Entertainment merely to make people believe her tour is part of a different organization. Carole Baskin, executive director of Big Cat Rescue, an exotic animal sanctuary in Tampa, Florida, said the group’s logo looks almost exactly like the one trademarked for her non-profit.
Baskin cited investigations at G.W. Exotic Animal park done by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has accused the park of breeding tiger cubs solely to profit from their tours, then illegally selling or trading them. The park’s operator, Joe Schriebvogel, has denied those accusations.
Baskin said, “He is using a USDA license possessed by one of his staff named Beth Corley to throw animal protection groups off his trail and to try and sully our good name,” adding, “No legitimate sanctuary takes their animals out to malls, nor do they allow contact with the tigers.”
Corley maintains that human contact helps socialize the tiger cubs.
“It helps people get in touch with the tigers’ plight,” she said. “And tigers in zoos are going to be around humans the rest of their lives, so this helps them get used to that.”
Michelle Emrick, Marquette Mall property manager, said this is the fifth year Corley has brought the animal show to Michigan City. When asked if she knew about accusations against the group and the park it supports, Emrick said further comment would come from the public relations department. Despite a request, no such call was received.
The USDA regulates traveling exotic animal exhibitions and conducts regular inspections. This show was found to be compliant at its last inspection Oct. 29 at Mounds Mall in Anderson, Indiana, according to USDA records.
See video of tiger cubs with diarrhea spraying all over the mall floor.
For more about G.W. Exotics and Joe Schreibvogel
Baskin won a judgment against Schreibvogel in 2013 for a little over one million dollars for copyright and trademark infractions.