She said trees leaning against fences and those growing within three feet of cages had to be cut down to eliminate the possibility of a big cat climbing a tree to get over a fence. She also said the heights of enclosures, ranging from 11-feet-6-inches to 12-feet-7-inches, were not sufficient to prevent escapes.
In a Nov. 7, 2012, response appealing the citations, Washington, D.C., attorney David Durkin said they “respectfully but forcefully disagree” with the findings. “The enclosures are not out of compliance,” he wrote, claiming “22 years of no felid escapes over the top of any of the primary enclosures cited.”
Durkin explained that enclosures are inspected daily and that nearby trees are monitored and pruned regularly. The lawyer said that if Taft cuts down too many trees, he could end up in violation of a statute that requires sufficient shade to allow animals to escape sunlight. He pointed out that the same enclosures cited in December 2011 had never been listed as a problem during previous inspections over 20 years.
“The interpretation changed without the trees, cats or enclosures changing, and without any change in the written regulations provided in the Animal Welfare Act to guide the facility.”
He said his client uses 48 years of experience dealing with exotic felines to determine which enclosure they will live in and how likely it is they might try to escape given their age, condition and size.
During a May 2013 inspection, Taft remained adamant: He would cut down no more trees until the appeals process was over and the lawyers involved settled the issues. A month later, on June 14, Durkin once again sent a letter appealing the USDA findings. “The imposition of these requirements is based on conjecture,” he wrote.
Walking among the enclosures recently, Taft scoffed at the USDA concerns and questioned the need to increase fence heights or embark on a tree-removal plan. He acknowledged the 2007 escape of a 75-pound cougar, Donner, who may have scaled a tree and gone over a 12-foot-high fence. Donner, rescued in the wild as a cub when her mother was killed, had lived at the center with her brother for eight years, then disappeared into the night. Despite searches by a professional tracker and conservation officers, Donner was never found.
In the summer of 2013, after the June attack in which employee Marissa Dub was injured, Taft’s troubles turned from trees and fence height to problems with a gate that contributed to the attack. Dub, who had been working at the center about a year, forgot to secure an interior guillotine gate that segregated the tiger, 18-year-old Raja, from the rest of the pen during cleaning.
The tiger had Dub’s head clenched in his jaws as her coworkers sprayed a hose and tossed a chunk of meat into the cage to distract the animal. Dub suffered serious injuries to her face and neck, and was hospitalized for weeks, initially in intensive care. She returned to work at the center in August.
Three days after the attack, USDA Animal Care Inspector Ann Marie Houser visited the center to investigate what had happened. She documented concerns about safety, neglected repairs and working conditions. She issued a report demanding immediate changes.
While examining the enclosure where the tiger attacked Dub, Houser noted a 4- to 6-inch gap at the bottom of the guillotine door, which slides up and down. She described how Taft used a piece of rebar to pry the door open, and said it took “a tremendous amount of effort that would hinder quick action in case of an emergency.”
Employees told Houser the gate had been broken for weeks and that Taft did not make fixing it a priority. Her reports said several employees reported being “tired of the continual lack of concern or repairs of issues reported.”
She described “a strong sense of contention” among the staff about unresolved maintenance issues. She wrote that workers are afraid to report concerns because Taft is dismissive and sometimes downright angry, so they “give up and do their jobs.”
Taft attributed the complaints to two disgruntled employees who disagreed with his methods. He claims either he or maintenance staff address facility issues “as soon as we know about them.” He said there’s a new rule requiring an extra person to oversee gate closings.
The June inspection report also said the big cat reserve is understaffed and employees overworked, their concerns disregarded. Houser said workers claim Taft pushes them to lead tours because the revenue is vital, causing them to rush through their work feeding the cats, checking out their health and cleaning their cages. They disagreed about the number of employees qualified to have such close contact with the cats, and no records documenting their training could be located at the center’s office.