In Case You Are Wondering What the Fuss Was About
Last Friday (Oct 3, 2014) the Florida Wildlife Commission inspectors came out, based on a complaint filed by Vernon Yates and Kathy Stearns, of Dade City Wild Things. The officers told us that the rules say you can't have leopards in an open top cage unless you get a prior, written, approval by the FWC.
This was news to us, because in the past it was OK to have leopards in open top cages and back when we first built the sanctuary, a lot of our leopard cages were built that way and passed inspection every year. Attached at the bottom is the actual rule, so you can see how confusing it is, but I have highlighted the sentence in yellow so you can find it at all.
The one sentence about leopards and open top cages was buried in a section about cougars. The FWC inspectors said they thought the cage was safe for leopards, but that they couldn't make the decision, so they told me to contact Tallahassee for the request. I did so within the hour.
Since we were obviously not aware of the rule and there was no imminent danger, they issued a warning, instead of a citation. The warning gave us 5 days to remedy the situation. All that meant was that leopards can't go on vacation, until we hear differently from the FWC.
Yates and Stearns, apparently gleeful to have at least secured a copy of the warning letter, immediately sent out the following press release to all of the local news outlets, and included three photos that I took of the day the leopard went on vacation and lied, saying they had an undercover spy inside BCR who gave them the photos:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BIG CAT RESCUE ENDANGERS THE PUBLIC
Big Cat Rescue local Sanctuary was issued a warning by Fla Fish & Wildlife Commission for unsafe caging. Per Carol Baskin's own claims "Dangerous Leopard" that could of escaped and BCR put the public at risk.
On Friday October 3, 2014 the Florida Wildlife Commission issued a citation to Carol Baskins and her roadside zoo Big Cat Rescue for illegal housing of a leopard, (citation # W716942). The citation was issued after receiving a complaint from Vernon Yates, complaint #13437. Mr. Yates, who runs a shelter for exotic cats in Seminole Florida, was sent pictures by an informant who works at Big Cat Rescue. The pictures showed Ms. Baskin releasing the leopard into a non-covered enclosure, and he forwarded them to the Florida Wildlife Commission for investigation. Florida law prohibits the keeping of cats like leopards and jaguars in non-covered enclosures and it does so for good reason; leopards are excellent climbers and thus present a real and immediate risk of escape if housed in an enclosure that is not completely covered. Without a top to the cage the leopard can simply climb out.
It is shocking that Carole Baskin and Big Cat Rescue would endanger the lives of their neighbors as well as their own employees and volunteers in this way. It is shocking that they would endanger the life of the leopard itself in this way since there is a very real risk that the leopard would be hurt or killed if it had escaped. It is ironic that Big Cat Rescue frequently criticizes other zoos claiming that Big Cat Rescue is better able to handle exotic cats.
On Christmas Day in 2007 a tiger escaped from an enclosure in San Francisco zoo and killed a zoo visitor. Carole Baskin previously had a cougar escape from her facility in 1996 when her zoo was called Wildlife on Easy Street.
Vernon Yates requests anyone knowing of any animal facility, SPCA or Humane Society or Big Cat Rescue to contact him so that he may take action to protect the welfare of the animal and the public.
Vernon Yates, President & Founder
Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation
Dade City s Wild Things
37245 Meridian Avenue
Dade City FL 33525
Reporters from TBO the Tribune and WFLA (Ch 8) all called me.
This is what I sent them:
Would you send me a copy of the news release, please?
I'd like to sue Vernon Yates and Kathy Stearns, of Dade City Wild Things, because of all of the false complaints that I believe they have been filing. A copy of their news alert would be helpful.
Feel free to call me on my cell
They lied if they told you it was a citation. The number referenced is their complaint they filed. The Florida Wildlife Commission inspectors said they saw no way a leopard could escape our vacation rotation enclosure but that I would have to apply to their boss in Tallahassee, which I have done, for an exception. They issued a warning, not a citation, because they believed it was clear that no harm was intended and no harm would have come of the situation.
Here is what I sent Captain Kara Hooker.
Dear Captain Hooker,
I'd like to obtain a variance for our 2.5 acre Vacation Rotation area for our leopards.
All of the cage material is 6 gauge, double galvanized, wire panels with 4 " square openings. (The wall, cantilever and wire drape)
The panels are hog ringed with 9 gauge hog rings.
The cage wall is nearly 20 feet high, consisting of an approximately 15 foot high side wall (14 feet and 4 inch at the least) with a 5 foot cantilever extending inward.
What is unique about this construction and makes it safe for even the most athletic cat is a curtain of wire, a foot high, that drapes from the highest peak down toward the floor. This is braced at regular intervals to keep it in place.
If a cat were to climb, upside down, for the five feet of the cantilever, this draping of a wire panel keeps them from being able to get a paw out past the wire and over to the top of the cantilever.
The walls are staked at the bottom to follow the terrain so that there are no gaps. There is an apron along the eastern wall, because that is the side that faces other cats and where the most pacing and posturing goes on, although there has never been a serious attempt at digging by any of the cats.
There are 3 roofed sections that are attached to the outside of the enclosure where the cats are fed each day and we do feed every day; unlike any other place I know. If the winds get up to 30 MPH the cats are locked in the roofed sections until the winds die down.
The platforms and trees are positioned 16 feet from any point on the cage wall, cantilever or curtain.
The poles are 18 foot long, 3 inch steel pipes, sunk in concrete, at 10 foot intervals.
Maintenance to the trees, grass and foliage is done every two weeks, in between cats' turns to be on vacation.
Attached is a video we made about the construction and photos of the cage.
Most captive leopards only live to be 10-12 but all of our leopards are over the age of 16; 16, 17, 18, 20 and 22. All but two of these leopards have been declawed by former owners as well. (none of the clawed leopards have been in the enclosure)
Would you grant us a variance on this cage design for our leopards so that they can have the benefit of 2 week vacations where they can run, swim and have an unobscured view of the sky?
What happens next?
There is no fine or strike on our record for the warning letter. We have applied for an exemption to the rule and now it is up to the FWC to approve this fun space for our leopards, or deny it. Meanwhile, no leopards can go on vacation.
We believe Vernon Yates and Kathy Stearns also filed another false complaint with OSHA. I haven't gotten a copy yet, but will have to address their nonsense formally. The complaint, as read to me over the phone is about the leopards on vacation endangering staff, something about a cougar being lifted off a platform that was more than 4 feet off the ground, which requires safety harnesses if the employees are up on the platform, and exposing employees to zoonotic diseases by not quarantining animals. All of these claims, as well as the last round of false complaints are ridiculous, but it is the only way they can divert us from the work of passing the Big Cats & Public Safety Act, which would stop them from breeding, buying and selling big cats for their own personal gain.
See the actual caging rules and note how tiny the minimum standards are. Yates and Stearns have both been previously cited for failing to even meet these miserably minimal standards.
Cameron and Zabu in Vacation Rotation Enclosure