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From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:
DALLAS––Travis County judge Suzanne Covington
on October 14 ordered Texas Exotic Feline Foundation
cofounder Gene Reitnauer to leave her home on the sanctuary
grounds in Boyd, Texas within 30 days, and to have no further
contact with any of the animals there.
Reitnauer is to forfeit the house in partial payment of
almost $1.8 million in punitive damages and costs of prosecution
assessed against her by jury on September 20. The jury ruled
that Reitnauer, 48, “unjustly enriched” herself by spending
$323,000 on permanent improvements to her personal property,
including a swimming pool, and improperly used more than
$121,000 in donations to TEFF for personal purposes including
mortgage payments and income tax liens. Reitnauer held that all
improvements were for the benefit of the 64 big cats in her care.
Reitnauer began TEFF in 1984 with her former husband
Robert Reitnauer. According to Ann Zimmerman of The
Dallas Observer, who investigated the case for almost a year,
“Gene, then 22, met Robert Reitnauer, then 39, at a fashion
show she helped coordinate for members of Game Conservation
International, a hunting organization. He told her he wanted her
to come to Africa to help him document imperiled African tribes
and wildlife. He was married, but told her he and his wife were
only staying together for the sake of their three children.” Gene
eventually did join Robert Reitnauer in Africa; he later divorced
and moved to Texas, where he married Gene in 1978.
Receiving $750,000 in gifts over the years from
Blockbuster Video founder David Cook, plus heavy support
from investor Louis Dorfman, the Reitnauers built TEFF into a
In August 1995, however, Robert Reitnauer skipped
to Belize with a TEFF volunteer. Gene Reitnauer gave him
$26,000 from TEFF funds to study native cats in Belize.
Witnesses claimed Gene actually made the grant in hopes of luring
Robert back. “The $26,000 shows up as part of their property
settlement in the divorce decree,” reported Zimmerman.
Friction meanwhile developed with Cook, 47, and
Dorfman, 61, who “made TEFF and its cats their personal playground,”
Zimmerman wrote. “Cook liked to have his favorite
tigers take chicken legs from his mouth. He relished stepping
into the cages and dominating the cats––a thrill that once almost
cost him his life. Dorfman favored a gentler approach. When he
wasn’t watching TV with his pet wolf, he often could be found
at TEFF napping with a white tiger named Sabrina.”
When Cook and Dorfman challenged Gene
Reitnauer’s use of funds, she restricted their access to the cats.
They sued her for conspiracy to commit fraud. A central issue
was that the Reitnauers had never legally conveyed the land the
TEFF facilities occupy to TEFF. Thus, while TEFF is a nonprofit
organization, the facilities remained in private ownership,
apparently with no mechanism such as a lease/purchase agreement
to insure the integrity of the donated assets.
Texas attorney general Dan Morales sued Gene
Reitnauer about two months after Cook and Dorfman did. As
the dispute escalated, court-appointed receiver Ron Sommers in
December 1996 had a 10-foot fence built to keep Reitnauer away
from the cats, had it covered with fabric in early March 1997 to
keep her from seeing them, and later in the month legally barred
her and 14 former volunteers from entering the TEFF grounds.
Gene Reitnauer reportedly may appeal the jury verdict
and seek a stay of Covington’s enforcement decree.