Closer regulation of exotic cat facilities may follow two tiger attacks in Missouri

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2008:

ST. LOUIS–Kenneth and Sandra Smith, owners of the now
closed Wesa-A-Geh-Ya exotic animal park in Warren County, Missouri,
and Wesa-A-Geh-Ya board member Roy Elder were on September 19, 2008
charged with evidence tampering for allegedly trying to mislead the
county sheriff’s department into believing that a pit bull terrier
rather than a tiger attacked volunteer Jacob Barr.
“Barr, 26, had part of his leg surgically amputated
following the August 3 mauling,” recounted Associated Press writer
Betsy Taylor. “Elder and Sandra Smith are accused of lying to
investigators. Kenneth Smith, who shot and killed the attacking
animal, is accused of moving the dead tiger’s body to a different

In Stone County, Missouri, only one day after the Barr
attack, “Branson Zoo intern Dakoda Ramel, 16, suffered puncture
wounds to the neck, head and leg after he entered a tiger
enclosure,” reported Branson Daily News staff writers Chad Hunter
and Donna Clevenger. “The Stone County Sheriff’s Department reported
that Ramel entered the tiger pen to take photographs for a customer.”
“At that point, two other tigers joined in the attack and
dragged the victim to a water pool,” said a Stone County Sheriff’s
Department press release.
Responded a Branson Zoo press release, “We do not know at
this time why Ramel was in the enclosure, as it is a clear violation
of policy, which is both written and verbal. The only persons who
saw what happened clearly stated that he slipped and fell and that
the cats had not attacked in any way. It is also firmly believed he
was unconscious when a female tiger approached, grabbed him by the
neck, and dragged him to what she would have felt was safety.”
Ramel had worked at the zoo, formerly known as Predator
World and the Branson West Reptile Garden, for about three years.
Both Wesa-A-Geh-Ya and the Branson Zoo had long histories of
alleged violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including
failure to maintain secure enclosures.
“A 2007 safety inspection of Branson Zoo noted three
instances of animals getting out of their pens: two wolves who
escaped into the community, a grizzly bear that remained on the
property but was able to kill a tiger, and a fox that was hit by a
car,” wrote Hunter and Clevenger.
“The Smiths moved to eastern Missouri in 1986 with a tiger
and two cougars, and acquired more animals over the years,”
recalled Taylor.
The business name they adopted, Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, “means ‘Cat
Lady’ in Sandra Smith’s native Cherokee language,” the Smiths told
Initiatially operated as a for-profit zoo and breeding
compound, Wesa-A-Geh-Yah obtained nonprofit status in 1998 and
thereafter claimed to be a sanctuary. “Many of the tiger cubs that
were sold to others ended up back in Warren County when the new
owners couldn’t handle them,” noted St. Louis Post-Dispatch
columnist Susan Weich.
The Smiths surrendered their USDA license to exhibit the
animals in 2003, after repeated Animal Welfare Act citations, for
which they were fined $13,000 and given two years on probation in
“That got the USDA off their backs,” wrote Weich. “It also
stopped the Smiths from being able to collect donations from visitors
who came to see their animals. Funding for the facility slipped to
about $1,200 a year from $40,000 annually. Donations of meat and
volunteers help to tend the animals dropped off as criticism by
animal rights groups and public scrutiny of the operation increased.”
The Smiths reportedly also drew probation after convictions
in May 2008 for failing to register dangerous animals with the county
sheriff’s department.
“Unfortunately, Barr, of Warrenton, knew nothing about the
facility’s troubled history,” continued Weich. “Barr is friends
with a volunteer at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya. The two men had been camping
together, and when Barr’s friend said he was going to clean the
cages, Barr agreed to help.”
The Barr family sued the Smiths for damages on September 3.
“Officials in Warren County said they would consider an
ordinance addressing ownership of nondomestic animals in the next
month,” reported Weich. “State Representative Mike Sutherland, who
has been trying to set standards for places like Wesa-A-Geh-Ya for
five years, is hopeful that publicity about the mauling will help a
law get passed this session.”
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya entered the summer of 2008 with “52 animals of
the 84 they reported in 2004,” longtime critic Rosella Baller told
ANIMAL PEOPLE, “and this does not include new animals born” since
then, Baller said. Baller claimed that at least one litter of four
tiger cubs was born at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya in 2007.
Sandra Smith told Sarah Whitney of the Post-Dispatch that
just one tiger had been born at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya since 1998, a lone cub
in 2003.
Wesa-A-Geh-Ya had 49 animals when the Smiths announced on
August 5 that they would close the facility. Among the animals were
33 tigers, eight lions, four wolves, a bear, a puma, and a
leopard, according to Kevin Murphy of the Kansas City Star. The
last animal was a fox whom the Smiths planned to keep.
Joe Schreibvogel, director of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park in
Wynnewood, Oklahoma, took in “eight lions, the four wolves, four
tigers, the bear, the cougar and the leopard,” said Murphy.
Schreibvogel told Jordan Wilson of Post-Dispatch that the G.W. Exotic
Animal Park already had more than 170 big cats and 1,400 animals on
16 acres.
Nineteen Wesa-A-Geh-Ya tigers were sent to the Serenity
Springs Wildlife Center in Calhan, Colorado, opened in 1993,
already housing 147 big cats, chiefly tigers.
Schreibvogel told Whitney that the Carnivore Preservation
Trust in North Carolina had offered to take four tigers, but
withdrew the offer after the Smiths refused to sign a contract
stating they would never again own exotic animals.
Both Schreibvogel and the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center
have also had troubled histories. Schreibvogel’s background,
including controversies over the safety of his traveling animal
shows, filled 15 paragraphs in the October 2002 edition of ANIMAL
The Serenity Springs Wildlife Center debuted as a breeding
operation in 1993, but turned to rescue in 1995 after taking 12 big
cats from a facility called the Alamo Tiger Ranch that was closed due
to Animal Welfare Act violations. In June 2003 two Bengal tigers
mauled the only Serenity Springs employee. Founders Nick and Karen
Sculac lost their home to foreclosure in 2005, after Nick Sculac
suffered a heart attack and was unable to continue his contracting
firm. Karen Sculac died of pneumonia in August 2006–but Serenity
Springs now has nearly twice as many animals as it reportedly did
Amid the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya and Branson Zoo episodes, Carole
Baskin of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida wrote “New laws,”
including the 2003 federal Captive Wildlife Safety Act, “have caused
such a dramatic decrease in the number of unwanted big cats that we
are on the brink of no more abused and unwanted big cats.”
The long list of individual big cats in urgent need of
sanctuary space is much shorter than five years ago, ANIMAL PEOPLE
files indicate–but the total numbers in need of placement remain
about the same, due to increasing numbers of sanctuary and roadside
zoo closures.

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