Smuggling claims may threaten lion, tiger refuge plan
By Joey Bunch
Denver Post Staff Writer
Animal trainer Peter Winney and girlfriend Joan Laub, who have applied for a sanctuary for lions and tigers, stand Monday by the enclosure where they would keep the cats on her ranch south of Elizabeth. (Post / Cyrus McCrimmon)
Elizabeth – Animal trainer Peter Winney wants to bring six lions and tigers to his girlfriend’s ranch south of Elizabeth, but the couple has faced allegations of smuggling cats, according to state wildlife records obtained by The Denver Post.
Winney was convicted once for bringing two lion cubs into the state without proper documents and charged two other times with having unlicensed animals.
He said the 2003 conviction was a misunderstanding over paperwork, though it cost him his wildlife license for a year.
Elbert County commissioners will decide Wednesday whether Winney and Joan Laub, a psychologist, can keep six big cats at a sanctuary they have built in a rural but residential neighborhood, pending state and federal permits.
At a zoning hearing last month, dozens of area residents criticized the proposal, concerned about safety, property values and whether the scent of lions and tigers would spook nearby horses and livestock.
“When we settled in this neighborhood, we never anticipated we would be awakened in the predawn hours by a lion’s roar,” said neighbor Ed Steinman.
No one seemed aware that Winney has been charged three times in cases involving unlicensed lions and tigers, resulting in a dismissal, an acquittal and a conviction.
“It’s a vendetta thing,” Winney said Monday of the Division of Wildlife.
Tim Holeman, a spokesman for the division, said the agency is doing a thorough but fair job. “The delicate balance between the needs of wildlife and human activity demands nothing less,” he said.
Like Winney, Laub also has been charged with offenses involving the state Division of Wildlife, but a Douglas County judge sealed her records in 2004, citing privacy.
The charges against her stemmed from the cases involving Winney, Laub said, and she was never convicted.
In August 2001, Winney’s business associate, Adam Fishman, took a tiger to the Elbert County Fair in Kiowa. Turned away, Fishman instead exhibited the cat at the County Seat bar in Kiowa, according to state wildlife records.
When authorities investigated eight days later, Winney and Fishman could not produce a license for two lions and two tigers they were keeping at another sanctuary.
Winney said the cats were never his, and the district attorney’s office dismissed the case. Fishman has since left the state and could not be located for comment.
In November 2001, Winney fetched two sick lion cubs from a faltering sanctuary in South Dakota and brought them to a refuge near Colorado Springs for life-saving care.
Winney said Monday that he thought he had obtained the clearances he needed from local and federal officials in South Dakota, and his conviction was the result of a poor legal defense.
After exhausting his appeals, Winney lost his wildlife license. It was suspended for one year, until November.
In May 2002, Winney and Fishman brought two tigers to a party at Laub’s home in Parker.
One tiger allegedly pinned down a 2-year-old child, and Winney was charged with failing to have a license for the tigers. State records are unclear about details of the incident, but Winney said no one was ever in danger. He was acquitted by a jury.
“Oh well, I’m sure I will have another opportunity in the future,” district wildlife manager Gene Abram wrote in a 2003 e-mail to colleagues after Winney’s acquittal.
Holeman said Winney’s record would not be a factor in any future application for the Elbert County sanctuary.
“We consider each application on its merits,” he said.
Winney has touted his experience as an animal trainer in his qualifications to oversee the proposed sanctuary, including two years as “sole handler” for Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas.
A spokeswoman for Siegfried & Roy characterized Winney’s role with the showmen as in a “junior capacity.”
Winney is “not an expert, if that’s the impression,” said spokeswoman Kala Peterson.
Winney said Peterson’s characterization is inaccurate and just part of Siegfried & Roy’s effort to present themselves as the sole experts in their act.
“In the cat world when you join the family, you’re in the family, but when you leave you’re no longer part of the family,” he said.
Staff writer Joey Bunch can be reached at 303-820-1174 or email@example.com.