Tiger trainer was fearless, but one cat was a killer
Pine County mauling death is Minnesota’s first fatality in a string of animal attacks
BY RICK LINSK
Cynthia Lee Gamble was known for being fearless, friends say. But when the longtime animal handler went into the cages that housed her beloved tigers near Sandstone, Minn., something went tragically wrong.
On Friday, as investigators worked to understand how Gamble came to be fatally mauled by a 500-pound Bengal tiger — the first such death in the state, authorities said — friends and neighbors shook their heads in sadness and remembered the hard-working single parent who remained devoted to big cats despite recent adversity in her life.
For years, Gamble was widely known for exhibiting animals at civic events and schools, most recently from her base in Duxbury, Minn., about 90 miles north of the Twin Cities. She raised, trained, and filmed wolves, wolverines, coyotes, and foxes; produced several films about exotic animals; and wrote a children’s book on leopards.
"Cindy was a great person," said Michael McCullen, a neighbor whose daughter is a friend of Gamble’s 14-year-old son Garrett. "My daughter was there quite a few times and saw the cats. What it basically comes down to was a horrible, tragic thing."
Gamble, 52, was found dead shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday by a friend visiting the 80-acre site, said Pine County Sheriff Mark Mansavage.
The tigers were housed in separate cages within a larger fenced enclosure. The individual cages were normally closed off from a "pass-through" area by drop doors, Mansavage said. The sheriff said one of the drop doors was apparently left open, leaving Gamble exposed to the tiger.
"It appears the cat took one leap and was on her," Mansavage said.
McCullen, a longtime member of the local fire and rescue squad, responded to the scene.
"My first thought was, ‘Where’s Garrett?’ " McCullen said. "When I left my driveway, all I was thinking about was Garrett."
Friends said Gamble, a native of Ohio, was a longtime animal enthusiast. She and ex-husband Steve Kroschel, a cinematographer, began working with animals years ago in nature photography and commercial advertisements, said friend Lee Greenly. She had an animal exhibitor’s license from the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Gamble then began working with larger animals such as tigers, creating the Center for Endangered Cats with business partner Craig Wagner in 1992, at first in Hugo and then on 30 acres in Forest Lake Township.
In 1997, more than 30 neighbors signed a petition protesting the center, saying it endangered lives and lowered property values. Allegations were aired of unsafe conditions, according to court records, including cats escaping their cages and a bite that hospitalized one of Gamble’s colleagues.
"I’m not surprised at all," said former township board member Dick Tschida of Thursday’s attack. Tschida said he once inspected the Forest Lake site and found safety hazards.
"People become pretty complacent about the animals," he said. "I’d have expected it a lot sooner considering the conditions under which she operated in Forest Lake."
Gamble moved to her 80 acres on Duxbury Road in Pine County, which has no zoning ordinance regulating ownership of wild animals.
Gamble was on the road nine months a year as the center’s 40 cats made television appearances including NBC’s "Today" show, according to a 2002 story in the weekly Pine County Courier. Gamble also had a hand in the 2000 movie "Vertical Limit," providing two snow leopards for a brief sequence.
The center did not let the public onto its grounds, and colleagues said Gamble was a careful operator. It was not her practice to walk into the cages alone, Greenly said.
But Mike Janis, the former director of the Duluth Zoo who once visited the center, said that while impressed with how Gamble and Wagner ran it overall, he was concerned that they occasionally would enter the cages with the tigers.
"A single person never, ever works alone with a big carnivore. All you have to do is slip, or not make sure a gate is closed, and something can happen," Janis said.
Friends said Gamble and Wagner split and Wagner moved to Oregon a few years ago with many of CEC’s best show animals. Gamble stayed in Minnesota with the remaining animals.
Wagner, who now runs Great Cats World Park in southern Oregon, declined to commentFriday.
"We’re all really devastated here," said the woman who answered the phone at the park.
Gamble, deeply in debt, filed a bankruptcy petition in 2004. Among her possessions were two tigers and a caracal, similar to a lynx, worth $500 in all. She took a job at the Grand Casino in Hinckley and also worked in a local restaurant for a time.
Gamble’s death is the first in the state from a tiger attack, the sheriff and others said, but it is not the first mauling. There was a spate of attacks last year, including a 10-year-old boy critically injured by a lion and tiger.
A new law that took effect Jan. 1, 2005, banned private ownership of wild animals in Minnesota but allowed owners to keep animals they had before that date. Owners were required to register their animals with local authorities unless they met one of the law’s exceptions, for instance wildlife sanctuaries.
Mansavage, the Pine County sheriff, said Gamble had not registered with his office.
Interest groups on both sides weighed in Friday. PETA, the animal rights group, said it had sent letters to Minnesota legislators urging that only accredited zoos and sanctuaries be allowed to own big cats and exotic animals. The group said there had been 196 dangerous incidents in 39 states involving big cats, with a sharp increase in recent years.
Exotic animal enthusiasts fired back, saying most of the deaths involved owners or handlers who had accepted the risk, rather than members of the public.
Mansavage said the difficult recovery of Gamble’s body Thursday night made a powerful impression on him.
"It was one of the worst things I’ve ever come across," he said. "I couldn’t tell you how many times (the tiger) kept running at the fences and just making that screeching roar. It’s something I’ll probably never, ever forget. I don’t know how these people get used to it and work with those animals."
Alex Friedrich contributed to this report.
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