Saturday, August 30, 2014
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A jungle of confusion: tigers in Minnesota
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The regulation of tigers and other exotic animals is causing headaches for Minnesota law enforcement. (Image courtesy BEARCAT Hollow)
Later this week a Goodhue County man will appear in court after four of his Siberian tigers mauled a Minneapolis woman as she cleaned out their pen. The woman was air- lifted to the Mayo Clinic where she was treated for serious wounds to her neck and leg. While the attack made national headlines, for Goodhue County officials this was just the latest in a string of incidents at the facility known as Tiger Zone.

Red Wing, Minn. — Grant Oly moved to Goodhue County in 1997, and set up Tiger Zone just outside Red Wing. Within a few years, reports began to trickle out to law enforcement of the tigers injuring people. Carol Lee's the assistant Goodhue county attorney.

"We charged him in 2003 and just as we were bringing our prosecution a member of the public walked onto the property and was bitten so then we filed another complaint," Lee explains.

Lee says from the beginning prosecution was difficult because no one wanted to press charges. Another problem has been that Oly's facility is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That permit allowed him to exhibit his animals to the public. Lee contends that remained true even after a local judge ruled the property unsafe.

But the incident last month proved the tipping point. In the weeks following Oly was charged with a series of misdemeanors and his animals were trucked to Colorado which cost the county approximately $30,000.

On Thursday, Grant Oly will make another court appearance to answer the charges. Jail time is possible but unlikely. According to a USDA official, the agency is contemplating bringing its own set of charges against Oly.

County assistant attorney Carol Lee says closing Tiger Zone has been an uphill battle.

"Our county is just going to have to work very hard to make sure that something like this doesn't happen ever again in the interest of the public purse but also in the interest of public safety, " says Lee. "So we're glad that part of it over. And I'm sure there are other places in Minnesota where this happening as well and because the law on the subject is very fragmented it's hard to control the situation before something happens."

About an hour south of Red Wing, lies the town of Racine. These days the community's best known as the former home of BEARCAT Hollow, an animal park that's sparked its share of headlines over the last few years. A Siberian tiger named Como mauled a young girl there in 2001. More recently the owners were prosecuted for violating federal animal laws.

Terese Amazi is the Mower County sheriff. She says there's no handbook for dealing with exotic animal facilities. She says figuring out who's responsible for regulating them can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

"You know when these incident happen you they expect, the victim expects, you do something when in fact your hands are tied," Amazi explains.

Amazi says a recent state law known as the Regulated Animal Statue has helped matters slightly. It requires exotic animal owners to register with the state board of animal health. It also restricts the importation of new exotic animals into the state. But as of right now, there's no list -- either state or federal -- that comprehensively details how many tigers there are in Minnesota. Animals are categorized as exotic and not necessarily by species.

Grant Oly could not be reached for comment. But tiger owner Marcus Cook was willing to talk. Cook estimates he has about 40 tigers at his headquarters in Texas. His business involves leasing the tigers to zoos. He's also on the board of directors for the national group the Feline Conservation Federation. Cook says federal regulations are tough enough but need to be enforced.

"The situation we believe is that there's just not a significant number of employees that are adequately trained with the USDA and APHIS to get out there and regulate it. There's only about 70 of these inspectors in the entire nation," says Cook.

Cook says unless more inspectors are added the situation stands to get worse. He says thanks to shows like Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel exotic pets are becoming increasingly popular. But he also points out that tiger attacks in the U.S. are still few and far between, especially when compared to the nearly 300-thousand incidents involving pet dogs last year.

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