Leopard, cougar, lion, two tigers taken from woman
Cats recovering at Exotic Feline Rescue Center
NEWARK — When Joe Taft arrived at a Greene County farm to pick up a leopard a woman had living inside a cage in a barn, he found that feline and four others — two tigers, one cougar and a lion — living in what he called the worst conditions he has seen in 40 years of rescuing big cats.
Taft described the scene: small cages inside a dilapidated barn, deep piles of feces and bones, rotting and maggot-infested dead cows, no food or water.
The Exotic Feline Rescue Center director put the emaciated leopard inside a cage in the bed of a pickup truck, then returned two days later with a bigger rental truck to take away the other four big cats.
“When we saw the conditions there, we said it was not acceptable and came back and took everything,” Taft said.
That was six weeks ago, when Taft said the animals were on the verge of death. Today, they are alive and well, eating and growing, at the Center Point refuge Taft established to house abandoned and abused exotic cats. One, the female cougar, still is receiving medical care for infected and rotting teeth.
The cats belonged to Patti J. Vanmeter, who in 2004 was charged with cruelty to an animal after police found a sick three-month-old black bear cub abandoned at her home. The bear had to be euthanized. Vanmeter pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge, which later was dismissed.
Taft said he received a call from a Minnesota big cat rescue center that the leopard’s owner wanted to give the cat up. That’s how he got involved in confiscating the cats, but Taft said he has heard complaints for the past several years about the poor conditions of animals in Vanmeter’s care on her property east of Newark.
He said Vanmeter was present when he took the cats, and said she told him to “just take them all.”
According to Taft, the woman — who has moved from the Greene County property — had a federal permit from the United States Department of Agriculture to breed and raise wild animals for commercial sale. Taft said a Bloomington-based USDA animal care inspector who oversees southern Indiana had told him, when he contacted her about complaints he received, that conditions were fine at the compound and that the animals were adequately cared for.
No one from the USDA could be contacted on Monday, a state and federal holiday. But Taft said the inspector for southern Indiana was aware of Vanmeter’s exotic cats and should have known of their conditions. “People have been complaining about that place for years, and there have been rumors that the cats have been loose, but I didn’t see any indication of that. But if they got out of the cages in the barn, there was not a perimeter fence to keep them contained.”
Pictures Taft took at the scene show chain-link fencing around enclosures inside a barn-like building. The fencing extends up to the rafters; dead and decaying calves were photographed inside the barn, but outside the enclosures.
Greene County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Bryan Woodall said he has been aware of Vanmeter’s unusual pets for about a decade. “She’s got a pretty good-sized compound out there, but as far as we know, there have not been any cats out there that have escaped,” he said. “They had pretty good fencing and the animals seemed well contained.”
Mike Leake, who used to live in the area, reported hearing roaring at night. He suspected the big cats might have been responsible for the recent mauling death of his Rottweiler mix dog, but learned the animals had been taken away before his dog was killed.
“There have been rumors about a lion being loose out there,” he said. But after talking to Taft, he decided his dog fell victim to some other kind of animal, possibly a pack of coyotes or a native bobcat.
“He said the lion was in such poor condition, and that the other four cats were almost as bad, and he said even if they had still been out there none of them would have been in any condition to attack, or protect themselves from, anything.”
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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