Thu April 24, 2003 - 7:52 PM ET
By Gina Keating
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jon Weinhart saw himself as a big cat lover who for over 35 years provided a sanctuary in Southern California, under the name of Tiger Rescue, for retired animal actors whose performing days were over.
But California authorities on Thursday held a starkly different view of Weinhart's activities after discovering nearly 90 dead tigers and leopards at his home -- including 58 dead cubs stuffed into three freezers -- and piles of big cat pelts stacked in a storage barn.
Authorities raided Weinhart's home in Riverside, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, this week after being tipped that he was keeping a tiger cub and two alligators there without permits, Assistant Chief Mike McBride, of the California Department of Fish and Game, said on Thursday.
"We found a whole lot more," McBride said. Agents first found a 4-month-old tiger tethered to a pole and a 7-month-old confined to a four-foot (1.2 meter)-square cage.
A search of the attic, where agents heard noises, yielded a litter of seven tiger cubs and two leopard cubs, all less than two weeks old.
But the yard was most disturbing to agents, who found carcasses of at least 30 animals, including the skeleton of one big cat sharing a cage with a live burro, McBride said. Inside three freezers were the frozen bodies of 58 cubs, and the bodies of numerous animals in various states of decomposition.
The alligators were there, too, in a bathtub inside the house. "This kind of adds up into concern by our department," McBride said.
BOY LIVING AMONG ANIMALS
Fish and game officials called in the sheriff's department after discovering Weinhart's 8-year-old son living among the animals, McBride said. Deputies arrested Weinhart and the boy's mother, Marla Smith, on suspicion of child endangerment and placed the boy in protective custody on Tuesday.
Authorities also arrested Tiger Rescue's veterinarian, Wendelin Rae Ringel, on an animal cruelty charge, said Deputy District Attorney Paul Dickerson.
Although Dickerson said he hasn't received law enforcement reports about the raid, the trio likely will face additional charges of animal cruelty at their first court appearance on May 21, he said.
"I am going to be prosecuting this case aggressively -- based on the information I have heard. So far, it sounds like they were mistreating a lot of animals," he said.
The living tigers were taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center run by Chuck Traisi, who said some were dehydrated and malnourished, and one was suffering from mange. Traisi said Weinhart was allowing adult tigers to starve after they became too old to breed, which is illegal in California.
Actress Tippi Hedren, who runs a well-regarded animal sanctuary in Acton, California, took in three tigers seized in a November raid at Tiger Rescue. The raid resulted in an animal cruelty case against Weinhart that is pending in San Bernardino County.
Hedren said the conditions were "filthy."
"I left there in tears," she said. Hedren said tiger body parts are prized in Asia as aphrodisiacs and can bring up to $40,000 per tiger.