Welcome to the Jungle
By Julia Waldow
Professor of English Jennifer Clarvoe has always had a soft spot for lions. As a child, she grew up within hearing range of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and often listened to the wild cats roaring at night. As the years went by, Clarvoe developed a “sentimental attachment” to the creatures, even hanging up a print of the biblical story “St. Jerome and the Lion” in her office. So when Clarvoe began seeing flyers about a lion and tiger foundation in Gambier in the early 2000s, she thought she should stop by.
Clarvoe visited the foundation with her friend Barbara Dupee, a retired administrative assistant for the English Department. “We went to see what it was, … partly on the simple level of ‘Can you believe it? We’re here in Gambier, in Knox County, where it’s mostly just apple orchards, pastures, and oh, by the way, also some tigers,’” said Clarvoe, who petted a male lion on the property.
The Siberian Tiger Foundation, which was located at 22143 Deal Road and owned and operated by Diana McCourt (formerly Cziraky) beginning in the 1990s, housed a number of big cats with whom residents like Clarvoe could pose or pet for a fee of up to $35. Originally known as the Siberian Tiger Conservation Association, the facility established itself as a nonprofit committed to spreading awareness of endangered species. Over the years, however, it violated numerous USDA regulations and federal law and was finally shut down in 2007 following McCourt’s eviction from the property.
The facility, which chained its young and adult cats inside of two enclosures — one small area and one larger, 40-by-40-foot yard — faced scrutiny about how animals were treated. According to the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) 2011 report on the foundation, employees sprayed the cats in the face and eyes with vinegar if they became too aggressive. A former worker even told the HSUS that “some of the big cats were so stressed by the constant handling that they hid when they heard cars coming up the driveway.”
“They were being chained down for photo opportunities, and to do that [McCourt] had collars on them that she had definitely put on a long time back, so they had grown around the collars,” Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue, said. Big Cat Rescue is an organization that assisted with the cats’ eventual rescue and relocation in 2007. “It took us a long time to get those collars cut off. The cats weren’t in a good enough condition that we could sedate them and they would survive.”
Baskin explained that the cats had been defanged and declawed and that the animals were suffering from “nutritional deficiencies.” This, according to Baskin, is an unfortunately common practice among exotic animals’ owners.
“Whenever people are using animals for photo opportunities, they usually try to keep them small as long as they can,” Baskin said. “So [the cats] don’t get the vitamins they need or the calcium they need to build strong bones and a healthier body, because the healthier they are, the less likely they are to sit still for the photos.”
The cats’ maltreatment was not the only problem plaguing the foundation, however. According to the HSUS, at least 10 incidents of people being bitten or injured by big cats occurred at the facility in 2000 alone.
“One boy required 50 stitches after he was knocked to the ground and bitten on the leg by a tiger while participating in a ‘close encounter,’” the HSUS’s report reads. “In another case, a 10-year-old girl bent down to pet a tiger’s paw, the cat stood up and came down with his mouth on the girl’s head, drove her to the ground and started shaking her. A lion pounced on a 19-year-old and had her flat on the ground while trying to bite her back. The lion released her after being sprayed with vinegar.”
One of the attacks involved a Kenyon student, according to a 2000 article in the Collegian. Jessica Lee ’03 was visiting the foundation with her parents over Family Weekend when she was bitten by a male tiger.
“Basically he was trying to gnaw at my back and my parents were trying to pull me out from underneath him, and eventually a trainer who had a spray bottle full of vinegar came and sprayed him in the eyes and he got off of me,” Lee told the Collegian.
Lee’s injuries were minor and did not require stitches; she demanded her money back from the foundation. Her family chose not to press charges.
The attacks often went unannounced to the general public, according to Dean Vickers, a member of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the state program coordinator for the Ohio branch of the HSUS from 2006 to 2009.
“They were able to talk people out of saying anything,” Vickers said. “Like, ‘Hey, look, I’ll pay your medical bills, but if you tell anyone what happened, they’ll revoke the license and probably kill the cats. Is that what you want?’”
Nevertheless, several federal organizations investigated McCourt and her business over the years. The Siberian Tiger Conservation Association was the subject of one administrative enforcement case under the Animal Welfare Act, and McCourt was the subject of at least three.
McCourt lost her first license to operate the facility in 2002 but continued to allow visitors onto her property, according to Vickers.
On Nov. 2, 2003, McCourt failed to obey a cease-and-desist letter ordered by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. She was later found to have failed to “establish and maintain a program of adequate veterinary care that included the availability of appropriate personnel … capable of handling tigers safely,” “use appropriate methods to control and prevent injury” and “handle animals as expeditiously and carefully as possible,” according to a USDA decision filed March 29, 2005.
“The gravity of Respondents’ violations is great, and Respondents’ violations involve willful, deliberate violations of the licensing and handling regulations,” the decision states. “The violations demonstrate a lack of good faith on the part of Respondents.”
As a result of the decision, McCourt received a cease-and-desist letter from the USDA and an $18,070 civil penalty. The foundation received a $16,420 civil penalty.
McCourt also allegedly spent charitable donations to the foundation on personal items such as movie tickets and meals at restaurants, according to a Feb. 15, 2001 article in the Collegian. Although the Foundation promised volunteers and visitors that it would use its thousands of dollars in contributions to improve facilities and host training sessions, construction projects and animal handling programs never materialized.
“None of the money ever went to build up of the facilities and none of it went to the animals, except for the feeding,” Barbara Como, a former foundation employee, told the Collegian in 2001.
Como said the business took in over $119,000 in revenue between January and August 2000. About $75,000 went to expenditures, including McCourt’s own private purchases.
According to the Collegian article, the foundation was registered as a nonprofit corporation with the Ohio secretary of state. However, the IRS did not recognize the foundation as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization.
After McCourt received her second cease-and-desist order, the foundation began losing community support and McCourt could no longer pay her rent. She was evicted in 2007, and Knox County assumed possession of the four tigers and two lions.
None of the money ever went to build up of the facilities, and none of it went to the animals, except for the feeding. – Barbara Como
McCourt and her landlord Donnalynn Laver assisted with finding new homes for the animals. Laver, a volunteer at the Columbus Zoo, contemplated keeping the animals but was told it was not an ideal solution.
“I appreciated that the owners of the property, instead of wanting to sell the animals to a canned hunt facility to be shot for big game, reached out to other organizations,” Vickers said. “Donnalynn probably spent a good five or six months trying to do that. It’s not easy to find places for big cats, so I give her a lot of credit for her persistence. I think we had a lot of people involved who really cared about the animals and wanted to do the right thing.”
Laver declined to speak to The Collegian Magazine, saying, “My unfortunate association with Ms. McCourt is a chapter of my life that I’d like to leave in the past.”
Besides Laver, Knox County worked with the Humane Society, the Columbus Zoo and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to help relocate the animals. The Wild Animal Orphanage in Texas took two tigers but dissolved a few years later in 2010, and the cats were relocated to Minnesota. Big Cat Rescue in Florida took the other two tigers and both lions.
Big Cat Rescue’s President Jamie Veronica, Vice President Cathy Neumann, Operations Manager Scott Lope and Veterinarian Liz Wynn flew to Columbus in October 2007 to begin the rescue mission. The group first gathered at the Columbus Zoo to meet with IFAW staff and a driver and vet technician from the Animal Sanctuary of the United States (ASUS). Then, all parties drove to the foundation to meet with Laver and Rich Reed, the Knox County animal control officer.
“Within just a few hours, all of the cats were safely loaded and on the way to Florida, where they arrived at 6 a.m. the morning of the 21st,” Big Cat Rescue’s website reads. “While the weary drivers slept, the Big Cat Rescue team unloaded Nikita, Simba, Sasha and Joseph into their new enclosure, which is a little more than half an acre of lakeside living with high grass, cave-like dens and hills from which they can survey their new kingdom.”
The cats adjusted well to their new living situations, according to Vickers. The USDA, IFAW and HSUS were kept up to date on the cats’ progress, and Big Cat Rescue received thousands of dollars in community donations to support the cats.
Baskin said Joseph the lion is the only cat from the Foundation that is still alive. The youngest of the group, he is “not in great condition, but he’s hanging in there. We’ve had a period of trials with him in the last year.”
At the time of the rescue, Ohio did not have a law banning exotic animal ownership. Individual cities, like Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland, had similar laws, but Knox County did not. To display such animals, one had to pay a fee and be registered with the USDA. If one facility got shut down, its cats could be moved to another one.
“There was kind of a [big cat] network,” Vickers said. “So if something happened to someone in Knox County, that person knew someone in Zanesville or Coshocton, and they could kind of transport animals back and forth.”
Regulations changed in 2012 with the upholding of the Dangerous Wild Animals and Restricted Snakes Act, which grants the state of Ohio the power to regulate the possession, care and transfer of dangerous animals. The new law bans the acquisition of animals including big cats, primates, bears and crocodiles, but current owners may keep their animals by registering with the state, microchipping their animals, paying permit fees of $250 to $1,000 and obtaining liability insurance. The Department of Agriculture can seize animals from owners who do not comply with these standards.
The law was inspired by the animal massacre in Zanesville in 2011, precipitated by resident Terry Thompson releasing 56 lions, tigers and bears into the community and then taking his own life. Forty-eight animals were shot, including 18 Bengal tigers, an endangered species.
Vickers said the law is a good start, but believes there need to be tighter regulations on animal ownership and closer monitoring of the facilities.
“Everyday people shouldn’t own an exotic animal,” he said. “You have to leave them back in the wild or leave them with people who know what they’re doing. It’s a safety hazard.”
Clarvoe agreed with Vickers, emphasizing the need to respect the boundary between appreciating an animal and exploiting one. Looking back on her zoo-filled childhood, she now sees animal treatment in a different sort of light.
“There’s a trade-off between [having] an ability to see a gorgeous animal close-up and what you’ve taken that animal from in order to see them there,” Clarvoe said.
Neither McCourt nor her estranged husband David Cziraky could be reached for comment.