Tiger owner still faces AG’s lawsuit
The victim of a June 16 tiger attack at Zoo Dynamics between Terrell and Kaufman is still recuperating from the incident, which required 2,000-odd stitches to close numerous wounds from a mauling that could have taken his life. Don Roberts’ road to recovery, though, could be smoother than the bumpy one facility owner Marcus Cook may face.
Cook’s facility, which houses exotic cats used in a traveling hands-on exhibit popular among county fairs, amusement parks, children’s birthday parties, weddings, commercial and educational settings, has gotten plenty of media attention since the incident. Besides multiple newspaper accounts, Zoo Dynamics has also drawn the attention this week of at least two Dallas/Fort Worth television newscasts as well as plenty of play on Metroplex radio stations.
Next in line with a few questions for Cook could be Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott as well as federal authorities.
Tom Kelly, press secretary for the AG’s office, said late this week that the attorney general was still pursuing a civil case against Cook and his operation that stemmed from an emergency court order Abbott obtained in the summer of 2003 against ZooCats Inc., Cook’s former organization. Abbott said at the time that “The action was taken to prevent harm to the public from exhibits put on by ZooCats Inc. … This operator deliberately downplayed the potential danger of these animals, as well as the group’s safety record and trainer qualifications, letting children and adults touch and hold them without regard for disease or possible physical harm. This dangerous deception against the public, and the organization’s false assertions about its charitable intentions, led our legal experts to conclude that we needed to act quickly.”
In addition to the emergency court order, Abbott’s actions three years ago froze the charitable assets of ZooCats and related nonprofits, as well as Cook.
State District Judge Howard Tygrett later dissolved the order, writing at the time that “the place to establish rules and regulations for the exhibition of animals is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, health authorities or by statute, and not piecemeal through the courts.”
Kelly, though, said the AG’s office was still intent on handling the matter through the Kaufman County courts, adding that a trial has been set for July 24 but that he expects Cook’s attorney to file for a continuance.
“This is something that has been looming for years and it’s been a long and arduous journey to get this through the courts in Kaufman County,” Kelly said. “We thought in 2003 that we had a strong case against Mr. Cook and we still believe that today. We just want to get this in front of a jury.”
Tygrett’s actions in July 2003 resulted in the return of six tiger cubs because he said there was insufficient evidence to support the AG’s allegations. Three of the cubs had been sent to the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in Boyd and the others to the Austin Zoo.
Abbott’s suit was seeking damages for alleged violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Texas Nonprofit Corporations Act, allegations that Kelly said Thursday were still at the forefront of the case.
Abbott said then that Cook’s operation posed a danger to the public and that Cook made false claims about employee training and gave misleading information about professional affiliations and charitable donations.
ZooCats, like Zoo Dynamics, exhibited animals at the Mesquite Rodeo, Six Flags Over Texas, the Dallas ArtFest and various private schools. It also set up show booths at a number of events in North Texas where children and adults may hold and feed the animals and have their pictures taken for a fee.
Zoo Dynamics has exhibited animals at the Terrell Heritage Jubilee in three of the last four years, according to Sarah Kegerreis of the Terrell Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve never had any problems [with Zoo Dynamics],” Kegerreis said Wednesday. “They have more than adequate liability insurance and have been a very popular attraction at the Heritage Jubilee.”
Cook has made public claims about his group’s perfect safety record but according to Abbott, ZooCats has been cited numerous times by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations such as failing to keep the adult animals under the control of a trained animal handler and for failure to maintain structurally sound facilities to prevent escape.
Abbott also said the organization falsely claimed to be distributing charitable funds it collected for its services. It purported, according to Abbott, to represent and donate funds to the National Fish and Wildlife
Foundation’s Save the Tiger Fund and wildlife programs underwritten by Irving-based Exxon Mobil Corp. But those organizations claimed no affiliation with ZooCats and had not given Cook permission to use their logos or trademarks in exhibits, the attorney general said.
The attorney general, though, isn’t the only one who could be scrutinizing Cook and Zoo Dynamics.
A representative of the animal right group PETA said this week that they have contacted the Dr. Robert Gibbens, Western Regional director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal care unit, urging him to investigate the recent tiger attack and revoke Zoo Dynamics’ license to operate.
According to PETA, the attack outside Terrell isn’t the first time one of Zoo Dynamics’ big cats has caused injuries. In 2005, a visitor to a Florida car dealership was bitten by a tiger cub belonging to Zoo Dynamics and in 2002, one of the company’s tiger cubs bit a Zoo Dynamics employee at Six Flags Over Texas, spurring the amusement park to close the exhibit, the organization said.
In 2003, the USDA filed a formal complaint against Cook for multiple and repeated violations, including 38 counts of improper and unsafe handling during public exhibition, failure to provide veterinary care, failure to provide shelter from inclement weather, inadequate ventilation, filthy cages and failure to provide minimum space, PETA added.
Cook did not respond when attempts were made to reach him for this story.