Monday, June 27, 2005

Lynn Wittmeier

Lynn Wittmeier

Check for yourself to see if they meet the sanctuary standards for an accredited animal refuge.

FL Charlotte County rules against animal menagerie

Sanctuary lost

The owners of a haven for exotic animals in Punta Gorda get a court-imposed deadline to remove them.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer

Published June 27, 2005

PUNTA GORDA - Lynn Wittmeier calls to her baby in a sing-song voice, all lovey and maternal.

"Cassie," she coos. "Where's my Cassie?"

Cassie, a 600-pound Bengal tiger, perks up like a house cat that just heard the can opener. She gets on her feet and walks out of her shady nap spot toward Wittmeier's voice. She emits a little roaring purr, which sounds a bit like this: "Rawr-oh."

It's a moment like this that Wittmeier will miss.

On June 14, a judge ruled that Lions, Tigers and Bears - Wittmeier's animal sanctuary - has to remove the three lions, three tigers and two bears from the property. And the four cougars, one wolf and one macaque monkey.

It has nothing to do with safety - the sanctuary has never had an escape or attack in its five years in Charlotte County . The reasons for the court order are more mundane: Lions, Tigers and Bears doesn't have the proper permits or zoning to operate in that part of the county, Judge Isaac Anderson said.

The animals must be gone within six months.

"There is no way we can move them in six months," said Wittmeier, who runs the sanctuary with her husband, Dennis, and a handful of unpaid volunteers. "I can't imagine ever leaving here."

There was a time not long ago in Florida when people like Wittmeier could buy a patch of land, build some cages and rescue abandoned or abused exotic animals. Rural Florida was sparsely populated, not scattered with subdivisions and targeted by developers.

Now, municipal officials from Clearwater to Coral Gables are rethinking zoning laws to exclude potentially dangerous animals. The public, frightened by a spate of maulings, generally backs such laws.

"It's definitely more difficult to get the right zoning," said Scott Lope, general manager of Big Cat Rescue in northwest Hillsborough County . "This is the problem with people trying to take care of these animals. A lot of these smaller places aren't thinking further ahead.

"They're supposed to be a rescue facility and now they're the ones in need of rescue. We hear about it all the time."

* * *

They started with Sammy.

In the early 1990s, the Wittmeiers volunteered at an animal sanctuary in the Fort Myers area. Sammy, a cougar cub, was a new resident. He had two owners before he was 2 months old, and the Wittmeiers fell in love with him.

The sanctuary allowed the Wittmeiers to adopt Sammy. They received state permits and built a cage on their small North Fort Myers property.

"Then, people kept bringing us more animals," Wittmeier said.

Most came from the photo trade ("Get your picture taken with a baby tiger!" Wittmeier snorts); one lion was discarded from a circus; and the macaque monkey was brought in because it killed a bunch of female monkeys during breeding. Others, including Sammy's previous owners, realized a wild animal was too much to handle.

The Wittmeiers knew they had to move to accommodate their growing brood. They found a chunk of land in eastern Charlotte County . For $200,000 they bought 54 acres. That was in 2000, when prices were low.

From the start, the Wittmeiers had problems with Charlotte County officials.

To hear Wittmeier tell it, people in the zoning department urged her to apply for a zoning change - taking the property from a category known as "agricultural estates" to a "planned unit development" in order to build the cages and accommodate the animals.

County officials denied the request.

According to court records, the Wittmeiers moved their animals to the property anyway. The couple contended that their agricultural zoning allowed them to keep exotic animals.

"Boarding, breeding, training of animals was allowed," said sanctuary attorney Ralf Brookes, who added that the county ordinance didn't specify the type of animals allowed or prohibited.

The Wittmeiers built airy cages and sandy trails on the palmetto-lined property. They offered tours, leading hundreds of schoolchildren past the animals. They took on volunteers, including one woman who has a degree in animal behavior. The animals kept coming - some were even brought by state officials, who confiscated them from people without permits.

"I do not think that private owners should own these animals," said Wittmeier, 57. "Yet there's a big market for them."

* * *

At night, Laura Hagopian likes to sit on a plastic chair in front of her mobile home and listen to the tigers roar.

Hagopian lives less than a half-mile from Lions, Tigers and Bears. She has never had a problem living near the sanctuary, not even when Hurricane Charley hit last year and rumors flew around the neighborhood that one or more of the tigers got loose.

"It doesn't bother me at all," she said.

In truth, none of the animals escaped after the hurricane; Wittmeier says it's testimony to how strong the wood, cement and steel enclosures are. All of the enclosures and cages have been inspected and approved by both the state fish and wildlife commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sammy, 12, is the only animal the Wittmeiers have close contact with. He walks on a leash and travels as an "ambassador" for the sanctuary, going to schools and craft fairs.

But other neighbors aren't sold on the sanctuary's security measures or the government's stamp of approval.

They cite recent incidents in Florida - a Hernando man killed by a tiger, a tiger escaping from a Palm Beach man's home last year - as evidence that it's unsafe to live around the creatures.

"How would you like to live within 300 yards of lions, tigers and bears?" asked Madison Ketter, who has lived in the area for half of his 66 years.

Ketter said he keeps "a big gun" in his house, just in case one of the animals gets loose.

* * *

The state licenses 325 people throughout Florida to care for so-called "Class I" animals, such as tigers, bears and monkeys.

But that doesn't mean counties want these animals within their borders. In Pinellas, officials are tightening regulations for exotic animals in unincorporated areas, requiring cages containing livestock and some exotic animals to be set back from property lines. The rule change came after a county commissioner saw a tiger in a cage on the back of a pickup in his St. Petersburg neighborhood.

And in Coral Gables , the planning and zoning board is trying to enact measures to prohibit people from owning large, venomous or exotic snakes.

Charlotte County has been fighting the Wittmeiers in court for 31/2 years.

In 2004, the county asked state officials not to renew the sanctuary's permit because the operation violated zoning codes; the state renewed it anyway.

Judges in both circuit and appeals court ruled against the Wittmeiers.

Wittmeier suspects developers want the land; it is on a stretch of U.S. 17 between Punta Gorda and Arcadia that is dotted with "For Sale" signs.

The animals can't just be dropped off at a zoo; those facilities often have genetic requirements for their animals.

Wittmeier says she can't find 54 acres at a reasonable price, definitely not in Charlotte County and maybe not in Florida . She barely makes a profit as it is.

"I don't know where these animals are going to go," she said. "I won't place them in a facility that is just row on row of cages."

--Times researcher Carolyn Edds and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 27, 2005, 01:06:04]

Places like these are NOT sanctuaries. They are pet owners supporting themselves by keeping caged animals. Zoning laws are the only way we can put a stop to people doing this sort of thing and fueling the need for exotic cats. If it weren't so easy to dump last year's baby, then that industry would have to change. In case you haven't seen the Lions, Tigers and Bears website that is supposedly SO educational, and the reason for their existence, you may want to look at their "panthers" and the fact that the only education is on how to find them to support them.

Help Big Cat Rescue end the practices that result in the abandonment and abuse of big cats by sending an email to your lawmaker through

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Out of Africa

Out of Africa

Check for yourself to see if they meet the sanctuary standards for an accredited animal refuge.

Out of Africa shut down with 300 animals

Wildlife park gets eviction notice

By Erin Reep, Tribune

Out of Africa Wildlife Park has until June 30 to find a new home for about 300 wild and exotic animals.

The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation issued the notice to vacate on May 5. The 16-acre park had planned to move in July 2005 to a 104-acre property near Camp Verde , but must now accelerate its efforts.

In a statement released Monday, the park said the eviction notice threatens "action toward the park's property and wildlife, including seizure, impoundment, sale and disposal."

The park also has to restore the land by June 30, the statement said.

Fort McDowell officials took action because park officials showed no signs of keeping their promise to provide an exit plan, said Michele Crank, Fort McDowell tourism and public relations manager.

"In June 2002, Out of Africa issued a letter of 'intent to vacate' to the nation," Crank said.

"At that time, the tribe had asked them for a plan on how they were going to restore the land," including how it would secure a bond to pay for the restoration, Crank said.

The wildlife park has been on the reservation since 1988, Crank said.

In 2002, the park requested 16 additional acres to double its site, which Fort McDowell officials denied. The park then began searching for a new site, Crank said.

Out of Africa was closed Monday. Park representatives could not be reached for comment.

Fort McDowell "has always worked with Out of Africa owners in allowing them to stay on the land," Crank said.

Contact Erin Reep by email (, or phone (480) 970-2312

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Bottle raised cougar attacks owner nearly killing him

Bottle raised cougar attacks owner nearly killing him

Posted: 6/2/05

Recalling vivid details of mountain lion attack

By Joel Stottrup

Cold weather can easily remind Princeton wildlife artist Donald Blakney of an experience he had nearly four years ago that he says few have lived to tell about.

It was an a average fall day on Oct. 1, 2001, with moderate temperatures and sunny skies when the then-61-year-old Blakney walked at mid-afternoon toward the cage of one of the two mountain lions he was keeping.

He was planning to clean the cage of his female mountain lion named Tonya, not far from the cage holding his other mountain lion, a male named Tooker. A locked metal gate was on each of the cages of Tooker and Tonya.

Blakney had been keeping the mountain lions for nearly three years as models for photographing. His plan was to eventually use the photos to make wildlife paintings that would include mountain lions.

But what happened next that afternoon nearly took his life, as he explained last week.

"I always knew that working with Tooker was dangerous," Blakney began, "and if he ever got a hold of me, he would do some damage. Little did I know he could do so much damage in such a short time."

As Blakney walked past the gate of Tooker's cage to head for the gate to Tonya's cage, as he had done many times before, something different happened this time.

The male lion "reached out and tripped me," recalled Blakney, explaining that Tooker did so by swiping beneath his gate with a paw.

"I fell down and this must have triggered an instinct in him," said Blakney. "He lunged through the chain link cage door, busting the wire and the bolts, and jumped me from behind.

"I threw him off and turned around to meet him, jumping back at me like a spring. He caught me, sinking his teeth in my right forearm and wrist."

Blakney said the cat then recoiled and sprang back on him, catching him "with his fangs in the left front shoulder and chest. Somehow, I got him off of me again and he sprang again for the fourth time, catching me in the left ear and cheek. Again, I got loose and he came for the fifth time, getting me in the left side of the head with his paw. Like a baseball bat, he knocked me off my feet, landing me on my back.

"He pinned me down, sinking his teeth in my right neck and ear. He's now fully on top of me as I was on my back."

Blakney remembers that every time Blakney screamed or moved, the 130-pound mountain lion crushed Blakney's jaw tighter.

"I could feel the bones cracking and the warm blood in my eye," Blakney recalled. "After some time, I decided he finally has me and I should play dead before I pass out. I knew this works with bears from my studies, but lions prefer to kill before they let loose. After some time, I decided he finally had me and I was a goner. I told God that I hoped I did things right and, 'Please forgive me.' "

Blakney said that after a while he opened an eye and looked at Tooker "nose to nose," and "noticed it was very brightly lit behind him. Suddenly, he let loose his grip and backed off about four feet toward my feet, snarling, with blood dripping from his face while he stood crouched looking at me.

"I slowly moved to my feet, expecting him to attack again. I got to my feet and slowly moved out the door and locked it."

Blakney said that the two dogs he had then, a 14-year-old collie and a 13-year-old collie-shepherd mix, had followed Blakney into the foyer part of the mountain lion enclosures when he initially went in. As the two dogs followed him back out as he retreated after the attack, the male mountain lion didn't seem to pay attention to the dogs, Blakney observed.

Blakney remembers falling down several times as he made his way about 50 yards to his house, once falling on one of the dogs and smearing blood on the dog. Blakney recalled falling and crawling up the deck and into the house, dialing 911 and saying, "I need help, I've been attacked by a mountain lion and I'm bleeding badly."

He said he then left the house, locked it and crawled out to put the dogs in their kennels.

Looking back on the acts of locking up the house and placing his dogs in the kennels, he explained that he figured he was going to bleed to death there in his yard and that those were his final preparations.

Sherburne County Sheriff's deputies received the call to respond to the Blakney home about five miles east of Princeton at 4:22 p.m. He was loaded into an ambulance and tended to until a North Memorial Air Care helicopter arrived and was flown to North Memorial Hospital .

Blakney said that although he was pronounced in good condition the day after the attack, he was in intensive care at North Memorial for 10 days. He said he received 96 stitches, nine of which were on the right side of his right eye.

He remembers that the right side of his lower jaw was in about 17 pieces and that a doctor told him it wouldn't work to try putting them back together. So instead, surgeons made a metal jaw.

Last Friday Blakney traced his finger from below the right side of his chin up about six inches alongside the right side of his jaw, explaining that a big metal plate is in place of where that part of the jaw bone had been. His teeth and gums were still intact and could be attached.

A few days after his new jaw was made, he said, a surgeon examined it and decided it needed a realignment and so cut into it and adjusted a couple screws.

Blakney said the mountain lion's fangs went almost two inches into his chest and just missed organs.

"That was another close call, and the fact that I didn't bleed to death is amazing," he said.

'Not the lion's fault'

Blakney quickly pointed out that he didn't feel the attack was the mountain lion's fault. "He was just playing out his instinct and was a very good lion through all my years with him," said Blakney.

Neighbor Judy Ziegler, shortly after the attack, said she felt Blakney was very fortunate to have lived.

Not long after the incident both mountain lions were intentionally killed. The male lion had to be killed so the head could be sent to a lab to examine for rabies and Blakney wanted the female lion killed because he didn't want it attacking anyone, he said.

Both lions were mounted by a taxidermist and are part of neighbor Mike Ziegler's display of mounted wild animals.

Blakney said he didn't feel any pain during the attack and that his first pain came after the surgery when he was no longer given morphine and needed other types of pain killers.

And though his jaw was wired up for eight weeks after it was reconstructed, he said it didn't affect his painting. He told of spending time right after the hospital stay assembling photos and making sketches in preparation for painting and did some painting right away.

"I don't have to get in the mood to paint," he said. "I can paint any time of night or day."

Blakney, who just opened a business in Princeton with partners Karen Taylor and Chuck Connell (Blakney does art work and custom framing and Taylor and Connell sell gifts), talked more about surviving the mountain lion attack.

"I'm spiritual enough to think that something happened to the cat in that moment, because they will kill you," Blakney said. "Maybe it was the dogs barking at him or maybe he [the mountain lion] reached back in his mind and thought, 'He raised me.' "

Whatever it was, Blakney said, there must have been some "divine intervention." He said he believed while he was pinned under the lion's body that he was going to die, and also when he was on the lawn, bleeding, that he would die there.

"You look at things a little more closely," he said about the effects of the attack on him spiritually.

It was either that "God didn't want me yet," Blakney said, or that "I was not finished with my work."

Blakney said his work is directed at conservation efforts, citing how he manages the 38-acre place where he lives with ponds and streams to keep it as habitat for wildlife.

He continues his many years of studying animals in the wild where he has taken more than 1,000 slide photos for use in his paintings. He plans to paint many more wildlife scenes.

His painting of three grouses called "The Triple" that he painted for the Rough Grouse Society in 2003 will make the October cover of Ultimate Outdoors.

He said his efforts in conservation have also included donating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art work to sportsmen's and conservation organizations.

He recently completed an acrylic painting commissioned by Milaca Unclaimed Freight. It is a unique ice-fishing view of a part of Mille Lacs Lake called Big Point. Ice houses and other structures are shown above the ice while a bald eagle soars above and fish are shown below the ice, like in a diorama.

More of Blakney's art can be found at his website,

He has not forgotten, meanwhile, how he raised the mountain lion that attacked him, raising Tooker from when he was six weeks old and still on the bottle.

"I think of it once in a while when I am out and around the farm," said Blakney. "I used to walk him in the yard."

Blakney acquired both of the mountain lions as infants from a place that raised exotic cats.

But he also is reminded quite often, even if he doesn't need the reminder, about the attack, he said.

Whenever he is out in the cold for very long and if the protection he wraps around his face isn't enough to keep his artificial jaw warm enough, it will hurt once he goes back into the house until his jaw has warmed up again, he said.

When he does start to think about that attack, he said, he often wonders what made the mountain lion let go of him and let him up.

"He could have taken hold of my arm and started chewing," he said. "I've thought about it a lot. I think it's unnatural for that cat to do that."