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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Riverfest’s traveling White Tiger Discovery exhibit has new owner since its Chicago shutdown

By Fred Mann
The Wichita Eagle

The White Tiger Discovery exhibit that will be on display at the Wichita River Festival starting Friday is under new ownership since it was shut down in Chicago in January when its previous owner was found to have violated federal animal welfare laws.

White Tiger Discovery was purchased from Texas-based ZooCats Inc. and its owner Marcus Cook about a year ago by Michael Todd, owner of All Things Wild, a zoological service provider in Illinois, and Todd’s Pony & Hay Rides in Garden Prairie, Ill., according to a supervisor with All Things Wild. The sale wasn’t final until February.

In January, the exhibit was closed down while on display at Navy Pier in Chicago when organizers learned that ZooCats was having its license revoked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for health and safety violations, including endangering children.

According to All Things Wild, ZooCats Inc. and Cook no longer are affiliated with White Tiger Discovery, which will exhibit four white tigers during the nine-day river festival.

However, in April the new owners also were cited by the USDA.

Inspectors’ reports show that Todd’s Pony & Hay Rides was accused of failing to disclose the purchase of the tigers and two cougars within 10 days of the transaction, and of allowing the public, during an exhibition, to feed two of the tigers through a barricade that had bars spaced so that children and adults were able to touch the tigers’ enclosure with tongs containing red meat.

The feeding issue was corrected at the time of the inspection, said Aaron Myers, supervisor of the Animal Care Facility at All Things Wild. Failing to report the sale was “probably an oversight”, he said.

USDA records show that the previous owner, Cook’s ZooCats Inc., which also did business as Zoo Dynamics, had a long history of infractions of the federal Animal Welfare Act, including failing to provide a proper diet, lack of veterinary care, poorly maintained facilities and physical abuse of the animals.

Myers said the White Tiger Discovery exhibit is “totally different” under its new ownership. The tigers that will be in Wichita were returned to Texas after leaving Illinois, but have been well taken care of and are “extremely healthy,” he said.

“On a scale of one to 10, I’d give them an 11,” said Myers, who last saw them in March.

Janet Wright, president and CEO of Wichita Festivals, said “nothing has come to light” suggesting to River Festival organizers that there are any issues regarding the exhibit that will be in Wichita.. The tigers have passed a veterinarian’s inspection in Texas and have been licensed by the city to be exhibited, she said. A local veterinarian will be available throughout the festival to make sure they’re taken care of, she said.

“We’ve tried to do as much due diligence as appropriate,” Wright said. “If anything comes about that’s not what we expected, it’s our call to ask them to leave. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Myers said there won’t be any public feedings in Wichita. White Tiger Discovery has been changed into more static exhibit, he said, with public talks and feeding demonstrations rather than public interaction.

River festival goers must pay an extra $3 on top of the cost of the festival button to see the tigers. Navy Pier paid $27,000 for the exhibit, but the river festival paid nothing for it, Wright said. White Tiger Discovery will keep the $3 cost from each visitor, she said.

Myers said Todd purchased the animals, equipment, marketing data base and the name “White Tiger Discovery” from ZooCats.

“We knew we were going to see some negative publicity with the old affiliation,” he said.

Todd did not respond to a request for an interview.

The USDA issued All Things Wild a stipulation — a monetary penalty — in 1999 for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including exhibiting animals for compensation without a license.

The USDA also issued Todd’s Pony & Hay Rides a warning letter in 2010 for two alleged violations of the act. One was a failure to establish and maintain adequate veterinary care programs after a male goat was found with extremely long hooves that folded beneath its feet, and which were beginning to crack.

The other was a failure to make potable water accessible to animals at all times after its water receptacles were found to have excessive amounts of algae. The license for All Things Wild has been active since June 2009 and the USDA is not investigating All Things Wild, according to a USDA spokesman.

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