Couple’s Tiger Haven has fur flying in Tennessee
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The, Jun 20, 1999 by DUNCAN MANSFIELD
Along Harvey Road, in the hills 35 miles west of Knoxville, you see mobile homes, an auto salvage yard and assorted small farms. The area is rural, and neighbors pretty much keep to themselves.
Still, when Joe and Mary Lynn Parker began building their house in 1991, folks noticed a strange-looking fenced enclosure. What was it? Someone heard it was for a large bird. Other explanations were offered.
Then the truth came out, and nothing has been the same since. "Mr. Parker went before county commissioners . . . to tell them he was going to bring one family pet into the neighborhood — a Bengal tiger," recalled Richard Bailey. He lives four-tenths of a mile down the road from what the Parkers have come to call Tiger Haven. Over the years, the non-profit sanctuary has grown to shelter 27 tigers, 16 lions, nine leopards, seven cougars, three mixed-breed ligers, two lynx and a jaguar. Most were rescued from owners who abused them or could not care for them. Now, after years of arguing that the animals are dangerous, neighbors have won a court ruling limiting the Parkers to one big cat. Chancery Court Judge Frank Williams ruled that the 9-acre Tiger Haven violates local zoning laws. It doesn’t fit the surrounding area. The Parkers are appealing the decision. If they lose, what becomes of the big cats, three times as many as are in the Knoxville Zoo? No one knows. "There are no additional facilities in Tennessee," says Walter Cook, coordinator of captive wildlife for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Roane County commissioners and longtime residents have tried to keep the animals’ fate out of the debate. They say the question is one of neighborhood self-determination, comparable to the issue of a highway, shopping mall or landfill next door. "I felt like we were really abused through propaganda," says Commissioner Mike Hooks. "Every time you picked up the paper or turned on the television, it was always, `Roane County is going to kill the cats.’ This is totally a mistruth." Hooks voted with the commission’s 10-5 majority against a request by the Parkers for a zoning variance, even though he toured the sanctuary and was impressed with the job the Parkers have done. How did this all get started? Tiger Haven’s first resident was a tiger named India, which the Parkers bought because its owner was beating it with a bat. That was in 1991. Three years later, another big cat arrived. Dozens more followed, often arriving wounded or starving from the likes of a roadside zoo in Myrtle Beach, S.C., or a crack house in Cincinnati. "They say that we sneaked all these cats in here, that we received permission for one cat and then sneaked all the others in here," Joe Parker says of neighbors who oppose the sanctuary. "We never received permission for the first cat, cow, dog or anything else because none was needed." Parker and his wife have no formal training in handling big cats. Their experience comes from raising a pair of tigers in the 1980s as volunteers at the Knoxville Zoo. Their passion for the cats has landed them in trouble before. Joe Parker was convicted of bingo-related income tax evasion in 1990 in a scheme that was supposed to help the Knoxville Zoo, and he was ordered to shut down an illegal bingo hall in Knoxville in 1996 that was supporting Tiger Haven. In Tennessee, bingo is considered gambling and is illegal. The dispute between the Parkers and their neighbors heated up as they enlarged Tiger Haven. It now has some 20 large enclosures surrounded by 16-foot chain-linked fences, barbed-wire overhangs and double doors, all meeting state exotic animal standards. The Parkers say they have spent $1.5 million. It was when they started buying up neighboring property in 1996 to expand the sanctuary that things really heated up. Bailey and his family charged the Parkers with violating zoning. This time, the county commission listened. The lawsuits that followed resulted in Williams’ ruling in February. The case next goes to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Bailey says the animals are "known man-killers," and that roaring in the middle of the night disturbs the neighbors. "It sounds so loud," he says, "it’s like it is outside the window."
More on Tiger Haven here:
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 150 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564
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