Hunting for the truth of animal and land deals

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2000:

BEIJING, NAIROBI––A pending application to sell tigers and a black leopard to a Chinese zoo which has fed live animals to carnivores, filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by International Animal Exchange Inc., has in common with a dubious land deal involving the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya that in each case a Hunt brother, from Ferndale, Michigan, allegedly signed key documents.

And the brothers, longtime business partners, have often before been accused of sleazy dealings.

R. Brian Hunt applied on behalf of IAE to send the tigers and leopard to the Beijing Badaling Wild Animal Park, one of several major Chinese zoos named in ongoing international campaigns against live feeding.

Brian Hunt’s application was noticed in the Federal Register by Dena Jones of the Animal Protection Institute, reported San Jose Mercury News staff writer Linda Goldston on December 14. Jones and Asian Animal Protection Network founder John Wedderburn of Hong Kong asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to refuse the export permit.

“Brian Hunt said his tigers would not be going to Chinese zoos where live feedings occur,” wrote Goldston.

Claimed Brian Hunt in a fax to Goldston, “The Beijing Badaling Wild Animal Park had been notified by our company that we would not provide animals to any facility that fed live animals to carnivores. They have stopped that practice.”

Badaling Wild Animal Park president Li Xiaoming reportedly told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that, “A senior staff member did authorize this method of feeding without my approval. The staff member has been disciplined and the practice stopped.”

But Goldston noted a loophole in the Badaling assurances. “In documents from the park included in Hunt’s export permit application,” Goldston wrote, “Li Xiaoming also said, ‘Should these animals become surplus to the needs of our program, they will be placed with other qualified institutions.’”

That means they could end up at a facility that does live feeding––and neither Brian Hunt nor anyone else except the Chinese government could do anything about it.

Jones and Wedderburn are also opposing an application to export tigers to China filed by Robert Baudy, owner of a Florida facility called the Rare Feline Breeding Center. Baudy reportedly wants to sell four tigers to the Xiongsheng Bear and Tiger Mountain Village in Guilin.

There, on October 15, 1999, Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson and two colleagues videotaped tigers attacking a live pig and a live calf for the entertainment of visitors. Robinson also videotaped a zoo guide advertising the availability of tiger bone wine at the Xiongsheng Bear and Tiger Mountain Village in exchange for a “donation.”

Where is AZA?

Animal advocates have long suspected that unscrupulous zoo management might encourage mortality, at least covertly, to exploit market demand for wild animal parts.

Accusations of that sort flew, for instance, in December 1996, when Pittsburgh Zoo staff learned that two 18-year-old white rhinos sold to the San Diego Zoo and then sent to the Chengdu Zoo in China had died of dehydration and exposure four months earlier, during an unusually slow 1,200-mile truck ride to Chengdu from Shanghai.

In February 1997, the Legal Daily of Beijing reported that Wuhan Zoo keepers Zhou Qisheng and Zhou Yong had been arrested for butchering a resident fallow deer.

Yet another suspect case emerged in August 1998, when Arshad Mahmud of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, raised “the possibility that zoo officials, in league with skin traders, might have caused the deaths” of three tigers who died within four days at the Mirpur National Zoo in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Another tiger and a lion had died under purportedly questionable circumstances at the Mirpur Zoo in May 1999.

Similar incidents have even occurred at U.S. zoos, including the Little Rock Zoo, in Arkansas. During the latter half of the 14- year tenure of former director David Westbrook, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Chris Osher charged in an October 1999 expose, more than 850 animals were sold alive––only 15% of them to accredited zoos or sanctuaries. Almost two-thirds went to dealers, like IAE.

“Dead animals left the Little Rock Zoo, too,” Osher wrote. “Officials can’t say how many valuable hides they lost track of, because they can’t find records of the deals. This leaves the zoo with no way to locate or reclaim the hides, dozens of which are now at a roadside museum in Louisiana. They could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Westbrook was named to head the Little Rock Zoo in 1984, despite having paid a civil penalty for making an allegedly illegal snake purchase in 1981.

Westbrook resigned in May 1998, just before the American Zoo Association suspended the zoo’s accreditation. The suspension came nearly two years after ANIMAL PEOPLE told AZA of evidence assembled by Arkansans for Animals which suggested that Westbrook might have illegally sold animal pelts and bones. Westbrook denies any wrongdoing.

The Rare Feline Breeding Center is not AZA-accredited, but IAE is. Brian Hunt also runs the AZA-accredited African Wildlife Safari Park in Port Clinton, Ohio, and reportedly owns a company which Lab Animal magazine lists as a source of nonhuman primates for research use.

Brian Hunt told Goldston that he had not “provided nonhuman primates to any medical research facility for more than 12 years.”

AZA has had a policy against members selling animals to laboratories since 1986. But Brian Hunt would not run afoul of the AZA Code of Ethics, AZA spokesperson Jane Ballentine told Goldston, “as long as the animals do not come from AZA members.”

Observed Goldston, “Brian Hunt has bought hundreds of primates from other AZA zoos, but there is no way to determine whether they were offered to labs.”

Brian Hunt’s application for permission to sell animals to China “comes amid the surge of favorable publicity generated by the recent birth of a panda at the San Diego Zoo and the arrival of a pair of giant pandas from China at Zoo Atlanta,” Goldston continued. “Critics [such as Wedderburn] charge that pandas are such a bonanza for U.S. zoos, prompting huge leaps in attendance, that officials of the 184-member AZA remain silent about the fate of other animals in Chinese zoos to avoid hurting their chances of securing panda loans.”

Hunt brothers

As Goldston was researching her expose, ANIMAL PEOPLE was in Kenya. Late the night before our departure, an anonymous visitor slipped us a packet of documents seeming to suggest the involvement of IAE founder Don Hunt in an attempt to steal government land for logging and development on the slopes of Mount Kenya––an area long favored by wealthy expatriates.

Don Hunt, 67, the eldest of the five Hunt brothers, reportedly began working at a pet store in Ferndale, Michigan, at age 11. He eventually bought the store, renamed it Bwana Don’s Pet Center, promoted it with a locally produced TV show called Bwana Don In Jungle-La, and brought Brian, Mickey, Tom, and Patrick Hunt into the business.

Don and Brian Hunt, 65, founded IAE together in 1960 to buy and sell zoo animals. More than 90 zoos around the world became clients. In addition the Hunts acquired their own zoos, more-or-less to warehouse and breed animals. They opened the African Safari Wildlife Park in 1968; failed in a 1970 attempt to start a park called World of Animals near Dallas; and in 1977 took over the former Lion Country Safari park in Grand Prairie, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Renamed the International Wildlife Park, it was flooded five times in nine years by the Trinity River. Hundreds of animals reportedly drowned. It also became notorious for selling animals to Colombian cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar between 1982 and 1984. Killed in a 1993 shootout with police, Escobar left behind an extensive private menagerie.

Mickey Hunt, 58, expanded Bwana Don’s Pet Center into a nine-store chain between 1962 and 1976; founded Hunt’s Travel to promote African photo safaris; and ran the International Wildlife Park from 1980 until it closed in 1993.

Tom Hunt became executive vice president of IAE, and formed a game meat ranching firm in Nebraska with Brian Hunt and New York animal dealer Jurgen Schulze.

Patrick Hunt managed the last of the Bwana Don’s stores, as the chain contracted back down to just one location.

While his brothers built the Hunt empire, Don Hunt acquired exotic animals abroad––chiefly in Kenya. To bring animals from nations that were off limits to U.S. trade, our anonymous visitor said, Don Hunt brought them to Kenya first, and then declared them as being of Kenyan origin.

Emigrating to Kenya in 1965, soon after Kenya won independence from Britain, Don Hunt became a pal of actor-turned-trophy-hunter William Holden and his girlfriend Stefanie Powers at the Mount Kenya Safari Club. Holden, who emigrated to Kenya in 1957, is said to have held a 10% interest in the club, founded earlier by the reputed Las Vegas gambling boss Ray Ryan.

Don Hunt and Holden in 1967 formed the 1,200-acre Mount Kenya Game Ranch, and later helped the Kenya Wildlife Service set up the nearby Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage, all near the Safari Club.

The 1972 formation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and 1973 passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act made the Mount Kenya Game Ranch a particularly useful venture, the anonymous visitor told us, because it enabled Don Hunt et al to declare that endangered animals were captive-born. Soon IAE was reportedly importing 80% of all the wildlife bought from overseas by U.S. zoos, grossing more than $6 million a year.

The Detroit Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and Belize Zoo in Central America ceased dealing with IAE upon developing ethical concerns about how the Hunts did business, according to a 1990 D a l l a s Times Herald investigative series by staff reporter Alison Young. Former Detroit Zoo director Steve Graham in 1986 formally accused IAE of misconduct in a complaint to AZA over the deaths of two chimpanzees he had sent to IAE for temporary keeping. But repeated investigations of these and other charges by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Justice Department, and the AZA found IAE doing nothing significantly wrong.

IAE revenues reportedly fell by twothirds after AZA ethics code amendments in 1986 inhibited sales of animals to non-AZA facilities. Don Hunt sold his share in IAE to his brothers in 1990. But even after the AZA expelled most animal dealers in the early 1990s, IAE remained in good standing.

Land on Mt. Kenya

Hunt had a new interest, having joined Powers in starting the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in 1984, three years after Holden died. Powers heads the main office in Los Angeles; Hunt is the Kenya director. The chief Holden Foundation project is operating an education center at Mount Kenya, which reportedly hosts up to 10,000 students a year.

“It is sufficiently endowed to operate for more than 100 years without additional funding,” Los Angeles Times staff writer David Lamb reported in 1991.

The >><< archive of information on U.S. charities reports that the Holden Foundation has assets of $2.5 million and had 1997 income of $331,000. Expense data was unavailable. The Holden Foundation did not answer an A N IMAL PEOPLE request for IRS Form 990.

The bogus land deal began on March 7, 1996, if the documents ANIMAL PEOPLE received are authentic, when Don Hunt asked the Kenyan Commissioner of Lands to deed to the William Holden Wildlife Foundation 500 acres of government property adjacent to the Mount Kenya Game ranch.

“We intend using this land as an educational centre, to educate the youth of Kenya about wildlife and the preservation of wild animals,” Hunt wrote––or someone wrote, anyhow, above his apparent signature.

Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi appears to have personally approved the request in March 1996. Instructions to convey the deed were forwarded in May 1996.

On October 15, 1997, a letter on the same letterhead, bearing a similar but not quite identical signature purporting to be Don Hunt’s, asked the Commissioner of Lands to issue the deed “in the name of our sister company,” Coyne Investments Ltd., of Nairobi.

The case came to light in April 1999, when Mburu Mwangi and Njonjo Kihuria of the Nairobi newspaper The Nation revealed that Moi “has revoked the allocation of 500 acres of Mount Kenya forest he unknowingly signed away to a private company, thinking it was going to a wildlife conservation group,” and had ordered an investigation.

Continued Mwangi and Kihuria, “The attempt to deceive the President and grab the land was uncovered about two months ago after an anonymous complaint was sent to Richard Leakey,” then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and now in charge of the entire Kenyan civil service.

Said Leakey, “I sent somebody to the President to seek the truth about the matter, because I was sure this old man had not applied for any land.”

According to Mwangi and Kihuria, “Mr. Hunt was shocked when he was shown the letters of application for the land he is purported to have written and signed. There is a big difference between the letterheads and signatures used by the real foundation and those on the forged application. In a letter to T h e N a t i o n investigative team, Mr. Hunt wrote, ‘Both letters are forged. The letterheads used are not ours. We do not have a sister company called Coyne Investments Ltd. My signature on the two letters is a forgery.’”

Concluded Mwangi and Kihuria, “Coyne Investments Ltd. is not documented anywhere by the Registrar of Companies. Offices said to be on State House Road, Nairobi, could not be found.”

Web-searching by ANIMAL PEOP L E found no Coyne Investments Ltd. existing anywhere in the world. The anonymous source who brought copies of the letters to ANIMAL PEOPLE said misrepresentation of land ownership is a persistent problem around Mount Kenya. He said All The Little Animals star William Hurt and wildlife photographer Karl Amman, who exposed the bush meat trade in a March 1996 guest column for ANIMAL PEOPLE, are among many others who bought Mount Kenya property in good faith but cannot get clear title.

Amman did not respond to an ANIMAL PEOPLE request for confirmation.

Who is responsible for all the misrepresentation remains a mystery. 

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