The claws come out in tiger custody fight
BY JOHN A. TORRES
Years ago, he lost two fingers to an alligator he was working with at a theme park. Then, he decided to dedicate his life to tigers and other big cats.
Now he is in what he calls the scariest situation of his life.
Late last year, Thunderhawk was banned from seeing the tigers, lions and cougars he raised and cared for. In turn, he is suing his ex-girlfriend and others in a custody case unlike most that have come before Judge George Turner.
At issue are 15 adult tigers and several cubs with an estimated value of about $200,000 — a figure Thunderhawk said he only begrudgingly calculated — and the leadership of the animal welfare group he helped found more than a decade ago.
“This may rub people the wrong way, but I lost a son years ago, and this is just as devastating,” he said. “I have been forced to put a monetary value on the cats. How do you put a figure on your kids?”
Neither Sharon Farrar, Thuderhawk’s former girlfriend, nor any other member of the new board of directors at Central Florida Animal Reserve would elaborate on why Thunderhawk was voted off the board.
“Mr. Thunderhawk has chosen to discuss the lawsuit he filed against the corporation and board, and some of its associated topics, in various public forums instead of limiting it to court,” Farrar wrote in an e-mail. “The board will not do so.”
Removed from board
Central Florida Animal Reserve, known until recently as Thunderhawk Enterprises, cares for rescued cats and aims to keep them from being exploited or from inappropriate living conditions.
The trouble, Thunderhawk said, started 18 months ago when his seven-year romantic relationship with Farrar ended. Thunderhawk Enterprises had moved to Farrar’s property in west Cocoa several years earlier and Thunderhawk lived on the compound. After the breakup, he was asked to leave the premises and was allowed back only on a limited basis to care for the animals.
Then, according to his attorney, John Boelke, the nonprofit company and the cats were “stolen” from Thunderhawk when the board, acting without his knowledge, removed his name as the registered agent.
“If you make changes and you don’t have authority, then it’s a violation of Florida statute, and it’s a felony. It’s fraud,” Boelke said. “That’s one of the things in our complaint. They have removed him from the board without authority.”
At an emergency hearing in Turner’s court on Dec. 6, Animal Reserve board member Julia Kunigan said she had no way of reaching Thunderhawk to inform him of the change made in April, when he was still president and chairman of the board.
“A few months later, we found an address,” she said as she testified about why she put her name down as registered agent. “At that time, I talked to the other board members, and they said go ahead and put my name down.”
Boelke said Kunigan’s testimony is preposterous since Thunderhawk was on the property regularly and Farrar knew his cell phone number and where he was living.
Turner did not grant a temporary injunction for Thunderhawk.
As the head of the operation, Thunderhawk was mainly a showman, Boelke said, working to raise money through fundraisers and shows. His downfall, Boelke said, was being computer illiterate.
“It’s a sad situation,” he said. “He relied on his girlfriend to maintain things.”
Farrar did not wish to be interviewed for this story. Instead, she provided a prepared statement from the Animal Reserve and then a revision. Both were sent via e-mail.
The statement said everything was done legally and that the decision to remove Thunderhawk was not an easy one.
“The change in management was a very hard decision, but was necessary for the long-term survival of the organization and thus all our cats, which belong to the organization and are supported solely by the organization through its charitable activities,” the statement read.
It went on to say Thunderhawk, though removed from limited administrative duties, would still be able to care for the animals.
“The board’s intention was not to remove him from participating with the company and the cats,” the statement continued. “His threat to sue and ultimately his choice to litigate instead of cooperate with the decisions of the appointed Board of Directors resulted in him no longer being allowed on private property.”
Turner did order Farrar and her staff to report to Boelke or Thunderhawk any “instances of terminal illness, impending sale or any severe injury or disposition of any animal.”
Since that hearing, a tiger chewed his way out of his enclosure and into another tiger’s, then killed that tiger. No one called Boelke or Thunderhawk to report this, Boelke said.
Officer Mike King of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission confirmed the incident did occur.
Farrar did not address questions about the incident in her
e-mails to FLORIDA TODAY.
‘I want my cats’
Thunderhawk predicted additional dangerous incidents at the compound as the cats vie for his position.
“I was the alpha tiger, and the alpha tiger is gone now,” he said.
Thunderhawk says he owned several cats before the corporation was formed and he is entitled to them and their offspring. That some of the cats were allowed to breed was a contentious point between Thunderhawk and Farrar.
He acknowledged that selective breeding — among the pure bloodlines — was sometimes done to help with fundraising by taking the cubs to shows. Other births, however, were accidental, as the tigers were part of a contraceptive study.
Boelke said the breeding was so limited that only six or seven cubs were born during the past five years.
The next court date is Feb. 12, where Turner will rule on the new board’s request to dismiss the suit.
“They stole my corporation and took my cats,” Thunderhawk said. “I want my cats back.”
Contact Torres at 242-3649 or email@example.com.
Please take a moment to tell this reporter that real sanctuaries do not breed or take their cats out in public. Posting on the site above also helps educate the public.