In October of 2000, Kenyon student Jessica Lee ’03 and 10-year-old Columbus resident Ethan Newman were attacked by a tiger and lion at the Siberian Tiger Foundation in Gambier, which, according to the Kenyon Collegian, offered “close encounter” sessions “in which those who pay a $35 fee can actually pet and lay with lions and tigers.” Although the attack on Newman, who required stitches on his thigh, was reported in local newspapers, Lee’s injuries were largely ignored in the coverage of the incident.
Despite the attacks, the Siberian Tiger Foundation told the Collegian that they did not plan to place any restrictions on the big cats which had been involved. This was only one in a series of mishaps and malpractices that led to the Foundation’s eventual closing by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) after accusations of animal abuse. According to Big Cat Rescue, one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats, the animals had been declawed and defanged, and were tied to a 40-foot-long chain for 24 hours a day. The cats were also often chained down so that visitors could take pictures with the animals.
Although the owner of the foundation, Diana Cziraky, had lost her USDA license in 2000, she continued to operate and run tours until August of 2007, when she was evicted from the property and Knox County was awarded custody of the lions and tigers. The cats were cared for by Cziraky’s landlord, Donnalynn Laver, who was a frequent volunteer at the Columbus Zoo. Big Cat Rescue ended up adopting the two tigers, but, according to their website, the organization was told by Laver “that the male tiger, Nikita, would be heartbroken that his best friend in the world, Joseph the lion, would be leaving.” Not wanting to disrupt the pride, even if it was a pride made up of tigers, Big Cat Rescue raised funds with help from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Animal Sanctuary of the United States (ASUS) to adopt the two lions as well.
At the time, the ownership of exotic animals was not illegal and essentially unregulated. It was not until the passing of the 2012 Dangerous Wild Animals and Restricted Snakes Act,—which, according to the Collegian Magazine, “grants the state of Ohio the power to regulate the possession, care and transfer of dangerous animals” and “bans the acquisition of animals including big cats, primates, bears and crocodiles”—that such practices were banned.