Born to be wild, big cats break loose
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1998:
ALACHUA, Fla.–– Responding
to a “Help!” call from Doris Guay, co-owner
of Ron and Judy Holiday’s Cat Dancers
Ranch in Alachua, Florida, tiger trainer
Charles Edward “Chuck” Lizza III, 34, was
killed on October 7 by a bite to the neck.
Reported staff writer Karen Voyles
of the Gainesville Sun, “It was about 7:45
a.m. when Ron Guay began walking Jupiter,”
a 400-pound, three-and-a-half-year-old white
tiger tom, “from a night cage to a day kennel.
Workers arriving to install fencing for a new
kennel apparently startled the big cat. Ron
Guay,” Doris’ husband, “said he called to
Doris to bring out a couple of chicken necks
to take Jupiter’s mind off his anxiety. When
that failed, Guay asked his wife to wake
Lizza, but without his glasses or contacts, he
(Lizza) was unable to see which animal Guay
had on a leash. Wearing a pair of slightly too
big mocassins as slippers, Lizza stumbled
over a scrap of chain link fencing and fell to
the ground. The tiger attacked him,” as Ron
and Doris Guay togther were unable to hold
the animal back.
Lizza had worked with Jupiter since
he was a six-day-old cub.
Performing together for more than
40 years, the Guays met Lizza in 1988,
when all three traveled with the Tommy
Hanneford Circus. They began working
together in 1992 after appearing for the
Hanneford Circus at the Jolly Roger
Amusement Park in Ocean City, Maryland.
They reportedly regarded Lizza as their eventual
The Lizza mauling was only one
among a recent flurry involving expert handlers
and supposedly well-trained big cats.
Another was in the news when
Edward E. Milder of West Los Angeles in
late July sued the Academy of Magic Arts in
Hollywood seeking damages of $25,000 for
back injuries suffered when he was pounced
by a purportedly restrained tiger at an
October 1997 reception for members of the
Greater Los Angeles Press Club.
Antony Gottus, 5, was clawed by
a four-month-old Bengal tiger on July 30,
after posing for a photo with the tiger and five
other Gottus family members at a North
Dakota State Fair exhibit presented by Brian
Turner of the Bridgeport Nature Center, in
Bridgeport, Texas. The tiger was reportedly
unnerved by the presence of so many people
inside the photo booth.
The next day, in Vallejo,
California, Jaunell Waldo, 45, of San Jose,
lost her balance and fell from a two-foot-high
platform during a birthday gift photo session
with a Bengal tiger named Kuma at Marine
World Africa USA, recently renamed Six
Flags Marine World. Kuma bounded after
Waldo, dragging trainer Chris Austria, who
did manage to hold Kuma’s head back enough
for a second trainer, Chad Zierenberg, to push
himself between Waldo and Kuma. Waldo
suffered serious bite and claw wounds.
Zierenberg was treated for claw wounds and
released from a local hospital that afternoon.
It was only the third time since 1972
that a photo client has been hurt at the park,
and the previous incidents involved an African
elephant and two pumas, but––under new
management since February 1997, and trying
to establish a new image––the park immediately
quit offering photo sessions with tigers.
As word of the attacks spread, other
exhibitors moved to halt photo sessions with
big cats, as well. That brought Cleveland promoter
Sam Mazzola to media attention again,
when on August 28 the Darke County Fair in
Dayton, Ohio, shut down his booth featuring
Lakota the black bear and Nuff the Siberian
tiger. Mazzola threatened legal action.
Best known as a promoter of barroom
bear wrestling, Mazzola also made news
in January 1990, when sentenced to 18 months
in Ohio state prison for allegedly trafficking in
cocaine; May 1994, when Canadian authorities
prevented him from staging bear wrestling
events in Ontario and Manitoba; April 1996,
when New York authorities warned him that
bear wrestling is illegal in that state; April
1997, when charged in Mt. Clemens,
Michigan, with alleged disorderly conduct and
having an unsecured wild animal; and October
1997, when a county judge in Elyria, Ohio,
sentenced him to seek counseling for his temper,
do 80 hours of community service, and
serve one year in prison, suspended, for illegal
possession of a .45 pistol back in 1994.
At least three 1998 maulings
involved sanctuary volunteers.
River Glen Feline Conservatory volunteer
David Breece, 28, of Fayetteville,
Arkansas, has reportedly recovered from an
April 10 attack by a one-year-old tiger named
Major Bill, who pounced Breece from behind
when Breece entered a double-fenced holding
compound to drink from a hose, unaware the
tiger was present. Breece’ wife told ANIMAL
PEOPLE after the attack that he held Major
Bill and the sanctuary blameless, and that both
of the Breeces would continue to help the
sanctuary in every way they could.
Alexis Yost, 14, of Myakka City,
Florida, suffered a mangled hand on August
22 when bitten by a Siberian tiger at a private
facility owned by one Andy Acevedo. Yost
was trying to feed the tiger. She reportedly
began working at the Acevedo ranch about
seven months earlier to fulfill a school volunteer
service requirement, and enjoyed the
company of Bliakial and a female Siberian
tiger so much that she kept returning.
Acevedo also keeps exotic reptiles,
alligators, and spiders, according to Vickie
Chachere of The Tampa Tribune.
Wildlife On Easy Street sanctuary
volunteer Mindy Harrell, 46, of Odessa,
Florida, took 451 stitches on September 3,
after she reached into the cage of a black leopard
to pet him, and he seized her arm.
“I think it was partly my fault
because I pulled out, and that’s what caused
the rip,” Harrell told media, adding that she
plans to resume work at the sanctuary.
Wildlife On Easy Street keeps about 100 exotic
cats on 40 acres.
There were serious incidents involving
big cats in private homes, too. On May 3,
Uriel Neri, 4, of Wylie, Texas, suffered two
bites on the leg when he followed his father
into a cage containing a puma named Ranger,
belonging to acquaintance Vicky Marshall.
Ranger was seized and quarantined for rabies
observation. While authorities sought a warrant
to seize a second puma, named Tahoe,
Marshall took that puma and fled. But her
case was a relative rarity, if only because big
cats in private homes tend to have little exposure
to strangers and small children. Most
often, the big cats themselves suffer the
injuries––like Sauna, an 18-month-old female
tiger, found chained to a beam in a San
Antonio warehouse in mid-July, suffering
from malnutrition, dehydration, and a severe
skin infection. Sauna was taken to the Wild
Animal Orphanage sanctuary, just north of
San Antonio, but died soon afterward.
The Michigan Humane Society on
September 14 received the 20th big cat to
arrive during present executive director Gary
Tiscornia’s seven-year tenure––an emaciated,
dung-encrusted puma whom MHS officers discovered
chained to a doghouse during a
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
raid on 11 suspected drug-dealing locations.
At least one Michigan alleged big cat
abuser was brought to justice, of sorts, on
October 6, when Saginaw fashion designer
Larry R. Sparks of Jungle Love Fashions drew
two years on probation for cruelty to an
African lion cub named Thunder, and was
assessed $808 in fines, court costs, and restitution.
The cub, whose neck was reportedly
severely infected from a too-tight collar, was
found dead due to smoke inhalation after a fire
at Sparks’ former home in October 1997.
Sparks previously owned another lion, Sheba,
who died of an apparent heart attack in June
1997. He didn’t remove her remains from his
yard until city officials ordered him to do so
three weeks later.
Most of the serious big cat incidents
this year came after the National Enquirer celebrated
big cats as pets with a July 28 photo of
Jimmy Boardman, age 4, of London,
England, pulling the tail of the family cheetah.
“Now 19 months old and eight feet
long,” the caption proclaimed, “cool cat
Bobby loves horsing around with Jimmy in the
back yard of their home.”
Cheetahs are among the most easygoing
of big cats, but even cheetahs tend to
outgrow private homes. When they do, the
owners generally find that reputable sanctuaries
are overcrowed, while zoos rarely want
neutered representatives of endangered species
or animals of unknown or redundant pedigree.
The owners’ options usually lie
among having the typically still young animals
killed, illegally releasing them into the countryside,
or turning them over to an exotic animal
dealer for probable sale to a canned hunt.
Sometimes the dealers who sold the
animals as pets in the first place, as kittens,
will take them back––for a fee––because the
purchaser has assumed the cost and risk of
raising them to trophy size.
But the canned hunt market is much
smaller than the supply of unwanted big cats,
big cat owners are increasingly aware of the
racket, and indications are that growing numbers
prefer to just dump exotic cats instead,
much as domestic cats and dogs are dumped.
In late September, barely a month
after the photo of Jimmy Boardman and cheetah
appeared, police and the Royal SPCA
combed a 40-square-mile section of the
London suburbs, trying to capture an animal
described by police officers who saw it as “a
large brown cat ,” bigger than a German shepherd
dog, “with a very large rope-like tail,
which had a black ring on the end of it.”
Probably someone’s ex-pet puma,
the animal was apparently “feeding on rabbits,
small game, and possibly muntjak deer,” who
are also feral in the area, RSPCA inspector
John Storey told Sue Quinn of The Guardian.
Other former pet big cats appear to
have established at least one enduring wild
population in England, at Bodmin Moor,
Cornwall, documented by 60 sightings within
the past year alone, plus plaster casts of paw
prints and a video of one of the cats recently
aired by Newquay Zoo curator Mike Thomas.
Incidents involving pet big cats at
large have become commonplace in the U.S..
Police and animal control officers in
northeastern Tarrant County, Texas, from
July 20 through the early fall responded to frequent
reports about an unusually large black
cat, believed to be an escaped exotic pet, who
was seen “everywhere between here and
Dallas,” Colleyville animal control officer
Debbie Wallis told Diane Smith of the Fort
W o r t h S t a r – T e l e g r a m. Tracks indicated that
the animal either had a kitten or was accompanied
by a housecat.
A similar rash of sightings occured
during the same weeks around Wisconsin
Dells, Wisconsin, where Department of
Natural Resources spokesperson Greg
Mathews speculated that the quarry was probably
an ex-pet puma whom someone had deliberately
released. The most recent reported
sighting was on September 21.
There was apparently a former pet
puma at large: two pumas, named Tougar and
Quincy, escaped on April 29 from the property
of Dan and Sherry Hess, of Dickeyville,
Wisconsin, about 80 miles southwest, but
while Tougar was recaptured within 24 hours,
ANIMAL PEOPLE found no record that
Quincy ever turned up.
The danger in such cases isn’t necessarily
from the animal. Investigating a report
about a 500-pound lion at large, police in
Vernal, Utah, on August 26 found that John
Pinder, 40, and Filomeno Valencia-Ruiz, 34,
had just recaptured the lion––and charged the
two men with driving under the influence of
alcohol, plus having alcoholic drinks open in
the vehicle. Pinder was additionally charged
with possession of a loaded concealed weapon,
possession of loaded firearms in a vehicle,
possession of firearms while intoxicated, and
driving on a denied driver’s license. Other
firearms charges were reportedly pending.
“In the truck,” wrote Connie Coyne
of the Salt Lake Tribune, “were three loaded
semi-automatic rifles, two loaded handguns,
nine 30-round magazines, a 50-round magazine,
and three smaller magazines.”
The Utah Division of Wildlife
Resources has reportedly revoked Pinder’s permit
to keep the lion, named Sinbad.
In other escaped big cat incidents,
game warden Bobby Newman of Grant
County, Ohio, on August 29 captured a
seven-month-old puma named Tigger, who
had escaped from Robbin and Bob Long, of
Frank Peeples of Lincolnville, South
Carolina, on September 11 recovered his sixyear-old
puma Tosha, after she spent more
than two weeks on the run.
A panic erupted around Davenport,
Washington, in mid-September, after fourth
grade teacher Karen Lyle and others saw a pair
of large black cats with a “bobcat-lynx-cross
kind of a face” and “an extremely long tail,”
in the vicinity of Lincoln Memorial Hospital.
“Tame” but at large
In England, big-cat-at-large cases
are quickly recognized as involving former
captive animals, because there are no native
big cats, nor any other native species larger
than bobcat-sized than Scots wildcats who
might be mistaken for them.
In the U.S., however, authorities
tend to attribute––and probably misattribute––atypical
puma attacks and puma sightings
around the fringes of cities to wild pumas
allegedly losing fear of humans due to declining
This serves wildlife agencies well as
they seek to reverse ballot initiatives in
California, Oregon, and Washington which
have banned hunting pumas with hounds. The
misidentification also well serves political candidates
who seek hunter support. Washington
state senator Pam Roach (R-Auburn), for
instance, built part of her fall 1998 re-election
campaign around a promise that she would
introduce legislation to rescind the ban on
hounding pumas and bears that 64% of the
state voters approved in 1996.
Roach cited Washington Department
of Fish and Wildlife data showing that there
were just 247 reported complaints about puma
incidents in Washington during “most” of
1995, when the department began counting,
but were 495 in 1996, and 563 in 1997. But
the ban wasn’t in effect yet during the first 10
months of 1996. Since then, houndsmen have
encouraged fellow hunters to report every
puma and bear “incident” they can.
Certainly some genuine wild pumas
do attack and otherwise threaten humans.
“On the morning of September 29,”
according to a National Park Service news
release, “a string of five pack horses led by
Bruce Deane of Lake Quinault Outfitters was
traveling north on the Elwa River Trail,” in
Olympic National Park, Washington. “South
of the Lillian River, Deane had just passed
under a three-foot diameter tree overhanging
the trail when he heard the snarl of a cougar.
He turned around to see a cougar land on the
back of the second horse behind him. The
cougar landed on the empty pack saddle,” and
for that reason didn’t hurt the horse.
Except that the horse lived, this was
a classic puma strike: from above and behind,
near dawn, with a snarl to freeze the prey.
It also happened in near wilderness.
Clues are plentiful that most of the
pumas involved in other well-publicized recent
incidents were probably not raised in the wild.
Mary June Coder of Harlingen,
Texas, for instance on May 30 posed her
daughter Dallas, 8, for a photo near the Pine
Canyon 4 campsite in Big Bend National Park.
Also with Coder were her two other daughters,
Meagan, 6, and Jessica, 9. Dallas screamed,
Coder looked up, and saw a male puma standing
directly behind the girl.
According to the Associated Press
account published on May 31, “Ms. Coder
gathered her children and tried to frighten the
animal away by yelling, waving her arms, and
throwing rocks. The lion struck her in the left
hand with his paw, but did not hurt the girls.
The lion followed them back down the trail,
but stopped when they reached an open area.”
A skilled wild predator could have
dispatched the nearest child in seconds and
bounded away with the remains. This kitty
behaved more like a kitchen pest who jumps
up on a counter and is not deterred, demanding
that someone open a can.
The story soon stretched. According
to the Fort Worth S t a r – T e l e g r a m of June 9,
“Armed only with a pocket knife, Coder
defended her children… As the cougar charged,
Coder shoved her daughters under the ledge of
a boulder and flicked the knife open, advancing
toward the big cat.”
Logically, with the puma charging
and Coder advancing, at close range, there
should have been a bloody collision.
Instead, the Star-Telegram account
continued, “The cougar backed off.”
Which is not something he could
have done quickly if already charging.
“Coder gathered the girls and started
to walk away,” the S t a r – T e l e g r a m went on,
“but the cat slapped its paw on Coder’s hand
before taking off.”
That’s what hungry house kitties do
to get attention.
The Coder incident recalled an April
22 encounter near Wolf Creek, Montana.
According to spokesperson Mike Korn of
Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and
Parks, “Two adults and two kids were hiking
on a ranch and were near a pond, skipping
stones. One adult turned around and a mountain
lion kitten ran down and grabbed onto
four-year-old Ben Cook’s leg. It was acting
similar to the way a domestic cat acts.”
One of the adults kicked the young
puma, who fled.
Ken Cook, Ben’s father, told media
he was glad a tracking team with dogs failed to
find and shoot the kitten.
“It just did something similar to what
a house cat does with a ball of string,” Cook
said. “It sensed movement and jumped.”
Wild puma kittens are not usually
out and about until they are weeks older than
most would be in late April––and the nonappearance
of a mother suggests that if the kitten
had a mother, she might have been used to
the presence of humans, viewing them as neither
prey nor a threat to her offspring.
Other Montana puma incidents this
year also involved behavioral ambiguities.
Notably, on July 15, at the
Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, a group
of 25 children and four adults were reportedly
stalked by two pumas at the same time.
Rangers speculated that the pair were 18-
month-old siblings, still together after leaving
their mother. Maybe––but wild pumas don’t
normally stay together for long.
On July 31, 16-year-old camp counselor
Aaron Hall pulled Dante Swallow, 6, of
Missoula, away from a puma who tried to
drag Swallow off during a morning hike at the
Marshall Mountain ski area. That attack followed
the classic puma pattern, except that the
attacker, shot at the scene, did not kill or incapacitate
Swallow before attempting to take him
away––and at age two to three, the puma
should have been a skilled hunter.
Just a day later, in another almost
classic attack, a puma seized Joe Wing, 6,
during an evening hike at the Swift Reservoir
campground 20 miles west of Dupuyer, but
like the puma who attacked Swallow, this one
failed to dispatch the child before trying to
drag him off, and let go and ran when Wing’s
mother, Melissa Wing, came to the rescue.
This puma was also shot at the scene, and also
turned out to be a two-to-three year-old male.
Only two days after that, an 18-
month-old male was caught attempting to eat a
pygmy goat he had killed in a pen full of livestock
owned by Marshall Mountain co-owner
and day camp manager Kim Doering.
Certainly the two Marshall Mountain
male pumas were not from the same litter.
Equally certainly, they were not choosing to
share habitat which seems to have offered little
wild prey to pumas of shaky hunting skill.
But all five of the pumas involved in
the late July and early August incidents in
Montana might have been dumped at easily
accessible “wild” locations by the same backyard
breeder, unloading litters he couldn’t sell
after they outgrew kitten cuteness.