Funds raised for fake sanctuary
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2009:
PALM BEACH–The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation
Commission and Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office on November 18,
2008 arrested Heather Southworth, 26, for allegedly unlawfully
soliciting funds for an unregistered charity called Rescue: Big Cat
Organization–which appears to have existed entirely in cyberspace.
The Rescue: Big Cat Organization web site, still active on
December 27, 2008 but taken down soon afterward, claimed to
represent a charity founded in Pennsylvania in 1985, also operating
sanctuaries in New York, North Carolina, and Florida. The site
included photos and stories about many purportedly rescued animals,
and listed 18 supposed staff.
“Those are not real people. They are made-up names,”
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson
Gabriella Ferraro told Jason Schultz of the Palm Beach Post.
“The commission received a tip about the charity soliciting
donations in April 2008,” recounted Schultz. “When the state
agency investigated, it found that the location given for the
sanctuary is actually the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National
Wildlife Refuge headquarters. The commission did aerial surveys and
found no big cat sanctuary anywhere in the federally managed refuge.
When confronted by commission officials, Southworth admitted making
it all up, the commission said.”
“This would be amusing if it weren’t so pitiful,” Big Cat
Rescue founder Carole Baskin told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “The Florida Fish &
Wildlife Conservation Commission claimed officials spent eight months
figuring out who Heather Southworth is and that she was running a
fake big cat charity, but the fact of the matter is that they knew
who she was and where she lived since July 8, 2008,” when Baskin
sent them all the particulars, in response to an inquiry from a USDA
Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service inspector. “It just took
them five months to do anything about it,” said Baskin.
On the same day, Baskin found photos of several Big Cat
Rescue animals on the Rescue: Big Cat Organization web site, and
wrote to Southworth demanding that they be removed.
Baskin also filed a formal complaint with the Florida
Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, she said.
“Consumer Services boasts that they can charge $1,000 per day
for every day that someone illegally solicits charitable
contributions,” Baskin noted, “but over the years a number of
complaints have been filed against traveling big cat photo booths
that solicit donations, and the only action the state has been known
to take against these big cat exploiters is to tell them to stop.
The next day they are right back at it again.”