Owner: Wesa-A-Geh-Ya Will Close
The owner of the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya animal sanctuary in Warren County told county commissioners Tuesday morning he has decided to close his facility near Truxton following Sunday's tiger attack which left a volunteer maimed.Kenneth A. Smith, 51, said he will attempt to place every animal in another shelter within the next 30 days.
Authorities said Jacob Barr, a 26-year-old Warrenton man, was mauled by an 800-pound tiger while he was attempting to move the animal from a large cage into a smaller one.
Barr had to have his right leg amputated just below the knee Monday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was reported in satisfactory condition following the surgery, although additional surgery on the leg was performed Wednesday.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Smith said of the attack on Barr. "If I had to kill every animal to save that man's leg, then I would do it and have no problem doing it."
Smith said he had contacted owners of animal sanctuaries in both Kentucky and Tennessee in an effort to place his animals in locations "where the laws aren't so hard to deal with.
"Everything goes," Smith explained Tuesday. "The animals, the cages, everything."
Smith, who was to meet with the commissioners and the Warren County Planning and Zoning Board next Monday, asked the commissioners for time to complete the transfer of his animals.
Asked how much time he would need, Smith estimated 30 days might be enough to complete the relocations.
"If it takes more than a month, I'll call the fish and game people, dig a hole in my back yard and put all the animals down," Smith observed.
In a statement released later Tuesday, the commissioners said they had advised Smith in 1995 that additions to his property would require the filing of a Conditional Use Permit with the county.
"We have no record of any such request ever having been filed," said Presiding Commissioner Arden Engelage.
Smith said Barr was a new volunteer at Wesa-A-Gey-Ya. "He had just started," Smith said.
The Wesa-A-Geh-Ya sanctuary is located in northern Warren County off Highway A near the town of Truxton.
The tiger, which was named Tony, scaled a 10-to-12-foot-high fence before it attacked Barr, authorities said. The animal was shot and wounded by Smith's wife, Sandra, during the attack and was later killed by Smith himself.
"I had to put him down," Smith said. "It was a hard thing to do but I had no other choice."
"I don't know what made the cat jump that fence," related Sandra Smith. "Maybe it was the heat or something."
According to authorities, Barr's leg had much of the skin stripped off down to bare bone. He was flown by air ambulance to the hospital.
What frustrated sheriff's department deputies about the incident was the fact Smith, his wife and other workers at the facility initially tried to cover up the attack.
"When deputies first got there, they were told the worker had been attacked by a pit bull," explained Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison. "But there was no way these wounds were consistent with a pit bull attack."
Upon further questioning, Harrison said the Smiths and other workers finally admitted the attack on Barr had been done by a tiger. "They lied to us to cover this incident up," said Harrison. "This was no dog attack. It was an attack by a cat, a very big cat."
Harrison said his deputies finally found the body of the tiger at the rear of the Smith's property. Deputies seized the carcass and are keeping it as evidence.
"This is a huge incident," said Harrison, "and it will bring to the front all the negative publicity surrounding this sanctuary."
While the incident Sunday might be described as an accident, Harrison said it cast a dark shadow over the operation of the sanctuary.
The sheriff also said there will likely be extreme civil repercussions from the attack.
The Smiths have operated the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya sanctuary for years. It was originally licensed as a zoo, where visitors could pay an admission fee and see the animals in their cages.
But the Smiths had their operating license revoked by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2003 following an investigation into numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
The Smiths also had to pay a $13,000 fine.
A 2006 USDA investigation uncovered violations including the failure to provide minimally adequate veterinary treatment, a lack of training for employees, unsanitary food storage, unsafe caging for the animals, unsanitary drinking water, failure to have perimeter fencing sufficient to safely contain dangerous animals and the general inhumane treatment of the animals which existed on the property.
"This was an accident waiting to happen," said Debbie Leahy, director of the Captive Animals Rescue and Enforcement organization. "Wesa-A-Geya-Ya has a long history of abuse and neglect and has been cited repeatedly by the USDA for unsafe caging.
"Wesa-A-Geh-Ya is so substandard that the USDA permanently revoked its owner's exhibitors license," added Leahy, "an action that is virtually unheard of."
On Monday, Leahy wrote to Benito Perez, the chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, calling for a thorough investigation of the entire incident.
In her letter, Leahy said she also is concerned by what she called the "unexplained disappearance" of endangered species in Wesa's animal inventory.
In June of 2007, Wesa had 40 animals registered with county authorities according to Leahy. But only 35 animals were found there during an on-site investigation that same month.
The sanctuary currently includes an estimated 50 animals, including lions, tigers, bears, wolves and a leopard.
Kenneth Smith is currently on probation for failing to register some animals. Sandra Smith received probation in 2003 after she was charged with failing to keep the animal's cages properly locked.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:
This message contains information from Big Cat Rescue that may be
confidential or privileged. The information contained herein is intended
only for the eyes of the individual or entity named above. You are hereby
notified that any dissemination, distribution, disclosure, and/or copying of
the information contained in this communication is strictly prohibited. The
recipient should check this e-mail and any attachments for the presence of
viruses. Big Cat Rescue accepts no liability for any damage or loss caused
by any virus transmitted by this e-mail.