By CHARLES FIEGL, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, January 28, 2007
The owner of the Ashville Game Farm was in court last week to answer a felony forgery charge in connection with providing a forged insurance certificate to the Saratoga County Fair last summer, officials said.
Jeffrey W. Ash operates the game farm in Greenwich and is the owner of a white Bengal tiger that clawed 4-year-old Riley Willard at the county fair in July. The Willard family, of Ballston Spa, is seeking to recover damages from Ash and the fair because of the incident.
After receiving a notice of claim from the family, the fair's insurance carrier reviewed a proof-of-insurance document sent to the fair by Ash, said Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy III. The insurance company alleged it was fake, he said.
Ash, 53, was charged with second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument after an investigation by the Saratoga County Sheriff's Office, Murphy said. He pleaded not guilty to the charge in Ballston Spa Village Court Monday.
An investigation into whether Ash provided the fair with other false information is continuing, Murphy said. The case could later go before a grand jury, he said.
Ash's lawyer, Kurt Mausert, said he would not comment on the alleged forged instrument.
Mausert said what happened last July was an unforeseen accident. Ash has experience setting up similar exhibits, Mausert said, and the attorney is unaware of any similar accidents involving Ash's animals.
Mausert said he has since taken a tour of Ash's game farm and noted that he takes good care of the animals.
"I was impressed with the cleanliness and how nice the facility was," Mausert said. "All of the animals are healthy and well cared for. He's taken extra cautionary measures to raise the height of the cages, double-layer the fences and double-lock the cage doors."
Accounts of the July 18 fair incident differ between the Willards and representatives for the game farm.
Jennifer Willard, Riley's mother, said her son was in awe of the exotic animals on display when they came across the Ashville Game Farm exhibit. Willard agreed to have her son sit on a bench and have his picture taken with a baby kangaroo. Willard sat with her son until the kangaroo was in place and the photographer was ready.
Calcutta, the white Bengal tiger, was in a cage behind the bench.
"I stood up to get out of the picture, then I glanced away for 10 seconds and the tiger's claw was in his head," Willard said.
Riley was pulled back toward the tiger cage, Willard said. A game farm employee needed to pull the tiger's paw from Riley's head, she said.
The boy suffered a gash about an inch long on his forehead that required 14 stitches, she said. A scar and bump remain on Riley's head, she added.
Workers for the game farm said at the time that the tiger was curious after smelling the kangaroo within its reach and tried to play with it.
They said the incident was not an attack and Calcutta is one of the "sweetest animals in the world."
The Willard's lawyer, Dan Dagostino, of Martin, Harding and Mazzotti, said the family is looking to recoup medical expenses and other damages. Doctors are still trying to determine the emotional impact this has had on the family, he said.
Ash and the fair are responsible for not providing a safe environment for Riley, Dagostino said.
"We had no control over the placement of the cage or the bench in the booth," Rowland said. "We did not create the situation or put the child in that situation. What we did was rent him the land."
Rowland said Ash and his animals will not be welcomed back, but the fair will still allow exotic animals to be on display.
Ash was charged with a misdemeanor in connection with failing to exercise due care to safeguard the public from a wild animal attack that caused bodily harm under the state agriculture and markets law in July.
He was then cited in August by the state Department of Environmental Conservation with several permit violations.
The misdemeanor charge will be part of the felony case, Murphy said.
In 2005, a full-grown female tiger escaped from Ash's game farm and zoo. It remained at large for more than three hours and was captured without incident.