Tiger exhibit operator has history of USDA violations
While the cause of deaths of four white tiger cubs this week at a traveling exhibit in Duluth is still unknown, the operator of the exhibit faces numerous charges by the USDA for mistreating his animals as well putting them in a position that has caused injuries to the public.
Marcus Cook, who has told the News Tribune he is both the senior animal specialist and senior zoologist with Texas-based Zoo Dynamics, said Friday all allegations against him are unfounded and that "99.9 percent are completely incorrect, unfounded or misrepresented." He also said that he never lets the public handle his tigers.
But a complaint filed in May by the U.S. Department of Agriculture claims Cook has supervised numerous animals that received improper veterinary care and had numerous untreated health problems, and that he allowed the public -- including children -- to handle tigers.
The charges date from 2002 to 2007.
Also, in 2003 the Texas attorney general's office obtained an emergency court order to prevent Cook and the company he was then associated with, ZooCats, from exhibiting tigers.
The attorney general's office wanted to stop the company from putting the public in harm's way for allowing "children and adults to touch and hold them [tigers] without regard for disease or possible public harm," according to a press release from the attorney general's office.
The office also claimed that ZooCats lied about connections with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and was set up as a false nonprofit, using publicly donated money for profit-making purposes.
As part of Cook's agreement with the attorney general's office, ZooCats was dissolved and Cook must not represent that he has a good safety record. He also must not tell people he has a bachelor's degree in zoology. He was ordered to pay $100,000.
Cook has denied making any misrepresentations.
Cook's tigers have been involved in at least three biting or attack incidents, the most recent in June 2006 in Texas when, according to news reports, a Bengal tiger escaped its cage and mauled a yard worker, who required 2,000 stitches as part of his treatment and recovery.
Cook said Friday that the man had a history of mental illness and signed a statement saying he was attempting to commit suicide.
Cook said the two tigers at his exhibit are in good health, but he referred all questions about the cause of death of the tiger cubs who died Thursday to Dr. Kelly Manzer, who he said was a veteri-narian with Zoo Dynamics. Manzer did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
Zoo Dynamics released a statement Friday saying it suspected the tiger cubs' deaths were due to congenital defects.
Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Zoo, said all white ti-gers are inbred. Tilson said white tigers can trace their origins to a white tiger captured in India in 1951, which mated with one of its daughters, which had a recessive gene to create another white tiger.
"They're all so highly inbred almost to the level of brother and sister," said Tilson who, because of that, believes breeding white tigers is inhumane.
"This is abuse; this is not natural. It's doing something that is contrary to what nature would order," he said. "They are producing cubs that are not doing well simply for the sake of making money."
Tiger cubs born in captivity do generally have a higher mortality rate. But, said Tammy Quist, executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn., cubs handled by humans have a higher chance of death. Wildcat Sanctuary is the only accredited big cat sanctuary in the Upper Midwest,
"A traveling exhibit is not a good situation for tiger cubs to be in," Quist said. "Who hauls around a pregnant tiger in a trailer from Texas to Minnesota?"
Cook said he never allowed the public to touch or handle the cubs, and he never allows people to touch the adults. People can pay to feed them, but that is done by handing food over a gate with a pair of tongs.
Though Cook told the News Tribune on Thursday that a veterinarian from the Lake Superior Zoo examined the cubs the morning before they died, Dr. Louise Beyea said that was not true.
Instead, she said she saw the cubs only after they died to provide a referral for them to be trans-ported to a facility for diagnostic results.
Beyea did not know where the animals were sent. Beyea also said she did not know what caused their deaths but that, based on a limited observation, she did not see "any abuse or mishandling" on the part of Zoo Dynamics.
Under Minnesota law, municipalities don't have to examine traveling animal exhibits' safety records.