Our View: Hold that tiger
Duluth News Tribune
Published Sunday, June 29, 2008
If a wild animal exhibitor brings a couple of tigers to town, one of which is very pregnant, and sets up shop at a carnival where the female gives birth to four cubs that he displays publicly only to see them die the next day, should he be welcomed back?
How about if he made the trip last year after being socked with a lengthy complaint from the United States Department of Agriculture alleging Animal Welfare Act violations, as well as a $100,000 fine for fraud from the attorney general of Texas?
Well, sanctions or not, Marcus Cook and his Zoo Dynamics tiger show have been barnstorming the South and Midwest this year with the Mighty Thomas Carnival, which is preparing to set up shop in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center parking lot this week. But hold your horses — or tigers — because this time, the carnies may be stripped of their stripes.
“I’m not sure if the tigers are coming with us or not,” Mighty Thomas co-owner Tom Atkins told the News Tribune’s editorial page staff early last week, acknowledging that the big cat sideshow had been traveling with the carnival “for a couple of weeks.”
Atkins advised calling back later in the week. In the meantime, the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas, the state where Cook is based, had plenty to report.
“What name is he operating under today?” asked spokesman Charlie Castillo when the newspaper called to inquire about the status of the “Final Judgment and Agreed Permanent Injunction” signed by Cook and the attorney general’s office in February 2007. Asserting that Cook had fraudulently operated various nonprofit entities — ZooCats Inc., Zoo America, and the Kaufman County Humane Society, among others — the ruling enjoined him from ever again establishing a nonprofit in the state, as well as claiming any affiliation with Save the Tiger funds sponsored by Exxon and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
With regard to dangerous animals, the judgment enjoined Cook from “misrepresenting or causing confusion … as to Defendants’ safety record … including representing that Defendants have a ‘perfect safety record.’”
It would appear that he does not. In 2005, a woman was bitten in the hand by a tiger cub Cook exhibited at a Florida auto dealership, the St. Petersburg Times reported. A year later, according to numerous news reports, one of Cook’s workers required 2,000 stitches after being mauled by a tiger that had escaped his Texas facility.
In Duluth last year, Cook dismissed the incident, telling the News Tribune the worker was trying to commit “suicide by tiger.” (The worker disputes his claim.) And Cook said the attorney general judgment — which would seemingly enjoin him from making suicide-by-tiger excuses regarding his safety record — wasn’t as severe as it sounded and the fine had been reduced.
Not quite. On Thursday, Texas attorney general spokesman Thomas Kelley gave an update. “Mr. Cook is mistaken,” he e-mailed. “Short answer: yes, the judgment still applies; no, he hasn’t complied with the judgment; and yes, the $100,000 is reinstated.”
It looks like Cook won’t soon be getting any ticket revenue in Duluth to pay down that debt. On Friday, the News Tribune editorial staff called Atkins of Mighty Thomas again to ask if the tigers were coming to town.
“They’re not,” he said, and hung up.
Cook did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer, Bryan Sample, who also signed the Texas judgment, said of it: “There are ongoing matters that would be improper for me to make any comment.” As for the cause of the tiger cubs’ deaths last year — Cook reportedly sent their remains for a necropsy shortly after the incident — Sample said, “I really don’t know. I don’t believe any criminal charges or charges from the [United States Department of Agriculture] were brought against him or anyone else from the exhibit.”
He’s correct, but the USDA has other matters to discuss with Cook in a September hearing on its voluminous complaint against him.
For Duluth and Minnesota, the larger question is what state and local governments can do to control wild animal exhibits gone wrong. A state law passed in 2004 requires residents who own dangerous animals to register them with their counties, but is mum about visiting exhibitors. As for Duluth, city spokesman Jeff Papas was in the process of researching relevant ordinances on Friday when told Cook probably wasn’t coming to town.
“That might solve the whole issue completely,” he said.
Maybe this time, but not completely.
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