Berousek runs a private zoo, Zoopark Doksy, where guests can pay to hold big cat cubs.
He is also the current owner and animal trainer for Circus Bernes, which his family founded eight generations ago.
Circus Bernes contains many archaic animal acts, including lion/tiger shows, performing monkeys, and muzzled bears walking on balls.
Berousek also runs the website http://www.exoticanimalsforsale.biz/, where he sells exotic animals, including adult lions and tigers, only to overseas buyers. This could be a violation of CITES if he’s not doing it with the proper documentation.
Let Jessica Chastain’s agent and manager know that you do NOT approve of the use of wild cats for such films, nor her cub petting photos, which just encourages others to abuse big cats.
Notice how they always try to get the press to downplay the attacks.
Uses 4 lions, 3 tigers and 2 elephants, as well as camels in their circus act
Vicenta Pages poses with one of her six white Bengal tigers Monday on the Shelby County Fairgrounds after arriving a week early for their 2012 Shelby County Fair booking. The show came to Sidney after an Indiana engagement was canceled. Their free fair shows next week are sponsored by the Sidney Daily News and Hemmelgarn Services Inc. SDN Photo/Tom Barnett
Performing act arrives at fairgrounds
7/18/2012 9:31:00 AM
Young Vicenta Pages and her six Asian white Bengal tigers arrived at the Shelby County Fairgrounds a week early on Monday after a Muncie, Ind., engagement was canceled.
A new mom with her first child, Pages, 26, and her tigers are safety billeted in a shady corner of the local fairgrounds, the tigers napping in their sturdy cages and Vicenta and family in her air-conditioned motor home.
“I was born into a circus family,” she said. “I’ve done horses, camels, dogs, even aerial acts and I’ve really enjoyed working with my tigers these past 12 years.”
Pages, of Native American and Cuban American heritage, is the only woman training big cats today. She performs alone in the show ring with her six striped charges.
Her family members, on both sides, perform with animals, aerials and most every circus act. Vicenta has toured with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey and also been part of the Pages Circus.
Beginning Sunday at the 152nd Shelby County Fair, Pages and the tigers will be performing free shows at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. daily through July 28 next to the fairgrounds gazebo. Performances are sponsored by the Sidney Daily News and Hemmelgarn Services Inc.
Pages said she prefaces each show with information about the tigers, and how they’re trained and cared for.
At her bidding, the big cats will be standing on their hind legs, doing walks, sit-ups, rollovers and other routines. Asked if she has ever had any close calls with her charges, Vincenta shook her head.
“No, they’re all well-behaved,” she said.
Vincenta says her cats are fed 60 pounds of beef and/or chicken a day, all purchased from Walmart stores. Their fresh meals cost about $560 a week. The tigers, four females and two males, variously weight from 300 to 500 pounds.
The act travels nine or 10 months a year, returning to winter in Florida where the tigers and Pages plan the next season’s fair and carnival itinerary.
Their fairgrounds site in Sidney includes a horse and 3-month-old tiger cub Vicenta says she “adopted” in Indiana.
The show’s next engagement takes them to Hale, Mich., in August.
Note: Most private owners and roadside zoos seem to be using Wal-Mart’s discarded meats to feed their cats. Please ask Wal-Mart to discontinue enabling the breeding and exploiting of big cats by providing free food. While Vicenta claims in this article to pay for food from Wal-Mart, that is unlikely given the recycling program Wal-Mart provides free through http://www.questrecycling.com/food_services_meal.shtml
Vicenta is a fifth generation performer, her father is Jorge Pages Jr. of the Pages circus family which originated in Cuba and arrived in the US as Circus Pages. Her mother is Frieda Logan-Pages who is the daughter of former Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus elephant trainer Fred Logan.
She began performing on trapeze at one, trampoline at four, on ponies at age 8 in her first solo act. It was around that age when she asked her father when she could join him in the arena with the tigers, he told her when she was older. At age fourteen she reminded him of that fact and she joined her father in the presentation of the family tiger act. At 18 she began performing solo with the tigers.
At age 19 she began a tour with the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. Her run with Ringling Bros. ended on Labor Day 2009 and Vicenta is now reduced to performing at fairs, festivals, special events and possibly theme parks throughout North America.
A concerned supporter recently contacted Big Cat Rescue about the Paramount Grill restaurant in Gainesville, Florida. The restaurant is scheduled to host a fundraiser for Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation on August 20th, 2016. Carson Springs is a pseudo-sanctuary that in our view mistreats and exploits exotic cats by taking them off site and allowing them to be handled by the public. This Facebook post from Carson Springs shows they plan to bring their tiny Geoffroy’s kittens to the Paramount Grill fundraiser for patrons to handle.
Big Cat Rescue reached out to Paramount Grill owner Clif Nelson several times to explain that a true sanctuary does not breed or buy exotic cats and would never parade cats or kittens around at an event as part of a fundraising gimmick. We asked him to do the humane thing and insist that Carson Springs not bring any exotic cats to the fundraiser.
We also reached out to Carson Springs about their plans to bring the Geoffroy’s kittens to the event but received only a threatening response from a Carson Springs attorney that did not address our concerns for these very tiny kittens.
Please take one minute and let Clif Nelson and Paramount Grill know that big cat lovers do not want to see exotic cats exploited at off-site events. Thank you for your speaking out for these kittens!
Please email the restaurant owner at Clif Nelson, Owner and Chef Paramount Grill email@example.com and ask him to NOT allow exotic cat kittens at his restaurant.
The call to circus animal trainer Lancelot Ramos caught him at what I would think was a time to totally ignore his cell phone.
But he answered, and we talked for several minutes about an animal rights group’s suspicions about what happened days before during a Sarasota circus performance at Showfolks.
Only then did Ramos say he wanted my fax number but couldn’t write it down because, well, he was in an enclosure working with several tigers, training for a performance.
“Can you text me the fax number?” he asked.
Sure thing, Lance. And take your time. I’ll call back.
Ramos, also known as Lancelot Kollmann, loves the spotlight but not the one he is getting into again now. A member of a long-time circus family, Ramos has had lots of trouble with federal animal welfare investigators.
Some of the problems stem from incidents there at his compound near Wimauma, about half an hour north of Sarasota County. His license to do animal shows was revoked in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after the USDA blamed Ramos for the death of some big cats, and for neglecting an emaciated elephant named Ned.
Ramos says he has documents that show he can perform now, something that the USDA disputed on Friday. Ramos offered to fax documents, but they have not arrived yet.
The elephant died in 2009, after the USDA seized it and new custodians were unable to nurse it back to health.
Ramos says that elephant neglect thing was a bum rap, and that, like the USDA’s caretakers, he had simply tried and failed to care for an elephant that was a picky eater with a bad stomach.
But the animal rights group PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — said that elephant’s problem was a life of stressful mistreatment as a circus performer. And now PETA is all over Ramos again, for what the organization insists was a flagrantly illegal tiger performance in Sarasota on Dec. 8, at a nonprofit circus-community venue called “Showfolks.”
Ramos’s act at the “45th Annual Showfolks Circus” featured him working with 14 white tigers. PETA says an unimpressed audience member reported afterward that Ramos mistreated the tigers.
Actually, the alleged whistleblower “said he beat the crap out of them,” according to Carney Anne Chester, a PETA lawyer. Ramos told me that’s just not so, and that he is sure he knows who made the report, though PETA won’t tell.
It was a jealous retired animal trainer in Sarasota who has been trashing him to circus owners, Ramos said. She was never as good as he is and is jealous and wants to keep his act off the market, he says.
“Our industry has always been that way,” Ramos said. “Back in her day she worked some tigers but she’s never been much.”
Another animal trainer, Tammy Wallenda — of a circus family far more known for high-wire acts — said she watched the same show and saw no such abuse.
“He was very patient,” she said, even when part of the act did not go as hoped. She agreed it was a false report from another big cat trainer, and that it was an example of bitter jealousy in the industry.
Ramos said one female tiger “was a little nervous” during the Showfolks performance, and had balked at jumping over other tigers on cue, but he said he did nothing wrong and that overall the performance went well.
PETA, by the way, is offering a “$1,000 REWARD FOR VIDEO OF CIRCUS TRAINER BEATING TIGERS,” says the headline on a press release.
The reward goes only if the video leads to a successful enforcement action against Ramos.
Kenny Hetrick’s story started well over 40 years ago. Kenny has been a USDA Class C License holder since 1989. His is the classic case of someone collecting wild animals, because of the attention he gets for it, who does not appear to have the animals’ best interest at heart.
How do we know?
Because in 2012 when the state of Ohio decided to make it harder for people trade in wild animals, and asked for minimal reporting and safety measures from those who already possessed exotic pets, Kenny Hetrick thumbed his nose at the law. His actions just emboldened other bad actors to refuse to report their animals to the state. After 40 years of having minimal supervision, he and others with something to hide, thought they could out wait the government because before now so little had ever been done to force compliance.
He fought the law and the law won.
He continues to fight but it seems to be more about his pride than about what is good for the animals. Accredited sanctuaries have been willing from the very beginning to give permanent and loving homes to the animals if Kenny Hetrick would just stop trading in wild animals. Most obnoxious has been that he allows Stumphill Farms to dump last year’s Obie Tigers on him so that they don’t have to provide lifetime care after renting cubs out for Massillon football games.
These are just a few of the stories on the issue:
It’s all about Kenny…not the animals
From Save Tigerridge Exotics Facebook page:
“Meet The Stony Ridge Tiger Man!
Kenny Hetrick has had a passion for exotic animals since the age of 10. Kenny’s devotion for exotic animals began in Florida, as an active volunteer at the Tarpon Zoo …”
State Moves Cats to Sanctuaries Pending Court Decision
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has transferred the exotic animals removed from Tiger Ridge Exotics to three out-of-state wildlife sanctuaries, ODA stated in court filings Tuesday.
The 10 animals were sent last week to facilities in Arizona, South Dakota, and Florida while their owner Kenneth Hetrick and the state resolve a case in Wood County Common Pleas Court regarding their care, according to a notice filed in that court.
A liger and a cougar were transferred to Keepers of the Wild in Valentine, Ariz. Three tigers and a leopard went to Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla., and three tigers and a Kodiak bear went to Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Spearfish, S.D.
Transfers began Aug. 27 and all animals have arrived at the respective facilities, said ODA spokesman Erica Hawkins. The state continues to have custody of the animals and is contracting with the sanctuaries for temporary care.
The animals had been in a state facility in Reynoldsburg, near Columbus. State agents seized the animals, along with a lion that has since died, on Jan. 28 from the Stony Ridge property because Mr. Hetrick had not obtained a permit to keep the animals as required by state law. The lion was killed in April because of health problems.
“The department has always been very clear that the Reynoldsburg facility was designed to provide high-quality but temporary care,” Ms. Hawkins said in a statement, adding that the animals are “acclimating very, very well to their new environments.”
…Mr. Hetrick filed an emergency motion in June calling for the animals to be returned to Tiger Ridge while the case continues because the state facility was not suited for long-term care. ODA officials agreed that the Reynoldsburg site was meant to be temporary but said the animals were in good health while they were there.
In an Aug. 14 order by Judge Reeve Kelsey, the court ruled against Mr. Hetrick’s emergency motion, finding “the inadequacies of the ODA holding facility do not rise to the level of requiring the immediate return of the animals to Tiger Ridge.”
Mr. Hetrick has four appeals pending regarding the seizure and transfer of his animals, one in Franklin County and three in Wood County.
The following is information that has been shared by those who claim to be insiders at Tiger Ridge since 1995. These are both direct statements and paraphrased for clarity. It is stated as a matter of opinion pending evidence to back it up. If you have such evidence, please share in the comments section. Names have been with held because the people making these statements fear reprisal from Hetrick and a town that seems to be entirely fooled by him.
“Kenny Hetrick’s cats were not rescued, they were bought and bred. I was there when babies were born and they lived in his house when they were small. They were scratching my kids and we had to leave the house because they were mean little things. His friends would go in and play with the animals. He didn’t have people that worked for him, just friends of his would come over.
The first time my husband went there with me, Kenny’s wife was in the barn with a horse hanging from the roof, as she was butchering it. I’ve been there when he has given the animals shots with no vet there. I’ve been there when someone called for him to come pick up a deer they hit with their car, to feed his cats. I’ve been there when his wife would pull up with a car full of the expired goodies from hostess for the cats and other animals he had.
My ex husband actually bought a leopard from him, before I met him, but couldn’t keep it so he gave it back. I quit going over there when I got divorced but I did take my present husband there (that’s when he witnessed the butchering of the horse and was grossed out from the blood all over her) He was not impressed. He couldn’t believe Kenny was allowed to have the animals in an environment like that. There were cages hooked to the house they lived in. He didn’t think the cages looked safe and the place was very dirty and run down.
Kenny complains they are jn little cages now; (after the state seized the animals) well let me tell you his cages were no bigger.
Never, ever had I known him to take in rescued animals. They were all his, born on the site or purchased by him. When they died they were buried in the back yard. He used to have a monkey but it bit him and caused him to get blood poisoning and he was hospitalized for a long time.
My kids were with me when a tiger was being delivered. Kenny purchased from someone in Florida, I believe, and it sprayed my daughter and me. I wish I knew the people he bought and sold to, but all I remember is him receiving them, or him shipping them to other states.
As far as the complying with the ODA new rules, it’s public record that Kenny was quoted saying he couldn’t afford it and if they would come to take his animals he would kill the animals himself first. I think that’s why they showed up to get them without notice of the day they were coming so he wouldn’t kill them before they got there.
Kenny did most of the vet things himself because he couldn’t afford a vet. He told us that he declawed the animals and stitched them up himself.
He went to Mississippi, I think, with his son and picked up 2 jaguars but couldn’t put up with them so he sold or gave them away. If you can get a warrant it’s on a VHS tape somewhere in that house.
A vet did go there a little over 7 yrs ago and said his lion Leo needed to be put down and Kenny wouldn’t let him do it.
Kenny sold 1 or 2 of his animals to a guy in California who supposedly trains them for movies. Kenny claims the MGM lion and the Exxon tiger are his.
If those supporters of his would look at pictures he posted of little baby tigers living in the house and his daughter writing how she would sleep with them, then why can’t they figure out that he bred them? If anything negative is written on the “savetigerridge exotic ” fb page it gets deleted.
If Kenny couldn’t afford to get the updates or file for the forms he was supposed to, because he couldn’t afford it, he shouldn’t have wild animals. Just like a domestic animal, if you can’t afford to take care of a dog you shouldn’t have one. The only reason he is up to code now is because he begged cried and pleaded to the public and they all donated the stuff. So if he does get them back who’s going to pay for them?
Is he still going to beg for people to pay? If he was a sanctuary or zoo or rescue yes, donations are great, but these are his “fur babies.” That’s all I hear. Ugh if these people only knew. His daughter Corrina was married to a guy named Jeff, who got a bear and a tiger or jaguar from Kenny and shot them in the head because he couldn’t take care of them and Kenny didn’t want them back. Around that same time Jeff was arrested for fighting pit bulls so that family is not what people think they are.
1995-2004 is when I personally witnessed Kenny administering drugs to the animals. He couldn’t find a local vet who was willing to work with wild animals so he did it himself. There was a vet who told him how to do it and Kenny said he ordered a lot of things from magazines. He would show me articles and such. I haven’t witnessed the declawing. Kenny just told me he did it himself. (Unless Kenny is a licensed veterinarian or medical doctor, he can’t just order up sedation and potent pain relief medications from a catalog. This implies that chopping the end of each toe off the animals was done with no pain relief during or after the procedure.)
Kenny said he was certified to tranquilize animals and would go out and put down horses that people would donate to him. He would tell me stories of how long it took or if he didn’t get it just right. (Not sure why some were euthanized and others were shot. The drugs used to euthanize a horse would kill the cats if they ate the meat.)
The Lion was in a cage with other tigers. They shared spaces. The corn crib was inside the caged area as a getaway I guess you could call it. The cages were roughly 15ft x 20 but they were shared with probably 3 tigers. He was always having to add pieces of fencing to heighten it because they would jump on their platforms and get awfully close to the top.
Around the year 2000 he added electric fence around the bottom because the bear would try to escape. His cage was roughly 10ft x 15ft but was later moved to the back of the yard to an enclosure a little longer because the inspectors told him he had to put different fencing up.
For food he shot the horses people gave him and would say how sometimes it would take more then 1 shot because it wouldn’t die.
The bear was raised on apples and sweets from hostess. The lions got horses and deer.
I know he bought the wild animals because I was with him at the animal auction one time, and he would talk with my ex husband about the price of the animals he bought or sold, as they would sit around the kitchen table drinking coffee. Now the cages are rebuilt and new enclosures were put in with feeding tables and little houses. The public can’t see what it was like before. The leopard lived in an enclosure hooked to the house with a huge tree. I was always afraid it was going to leap over and get me. His cage was probably 15×15.” – Name withheld
State action against Tiger Ridge is upheld
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — A hearing officer for the first of three administrative hearings in the ongoing case of Tiger Ridge Exotics has made a recommendation in favor of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Andrew Cooke, a private attorney contracted by the department as an impartial hearing examiner, said the Jan. 27 transfer order requiring 11 large exotic animals owned by Kenny Hetrick of Stony Ridge be placed in state custody was proper and should be maintained.
State agents seized a lion, six tigers, a black leopard, a liger, a cougar, and a Kodiak bear Jan. 28 because Mr. Hetrick had not obtained a permit to keep the animals as required by state law. The animals are being held at a temporary holding facility in Reynoldsburg.
Mr. Cooke’s recommendation dated Tuesday said Mr. Hetrick’s possession of wild animals without a state permit violated the law, “and his care and housing of the animals was potentially dangerous to him, the public, and the animals.”
The report cites a Nov. 7 departmental inspection of Mr. Hetrick’s property off Fremont Pike showing a number of deficiencies, including improper fencing, dirty water bowls, and open padlocks used to secure chains around enclosure gates.
Mr. Hetrick has made significant improvements since January with the help of donors and volunteers, including added fencing and new water bowls and shelters.
“I’ve got more than enough done,” he said. “Everything they said, plus. Everything we have, we made new again. All we have to do is get the animals back.”
Mr. Cooke said those improvements were made after the order was issued and therefore have no bearing on whether the order was proper.
Erica Hawkins, spokesman for the department of agriculture, said Mr. Hetrick will have 10 days to file any objections to the hearing examiner’s recommendation.
“Then the report, recommendation, and any filed objections will be submitted to the [department] director to make a final determination,” she said. “Once that determination has been made, a final order will be issued.”
Such an order can then be appealed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Mr. Hetrick said he has always anticipated having to have to take the matter to court.
“They’ll never be agreeable with us,” he said. “They’re trying to break me, to drag this out until there’s no money left. We’re not going to give up.”
The elderly lion, Leo, was killed April 13 for health reasons. Mrs. Hawkins said all of the remaining animals are in good health and doing well.
Mr. Hetrick’s veterinarian, Dr. Richard Carstensen of East Suburban Animal Clinic, visited the Reynoldsburg facility April 20. In a handwritten statement Dr. Carstensen provided the department and obtained by The Blade, the veterinarian notes the holding facility is appropriate for housing Mr. Hetrick’s animals and provides adequate space for them.
“I was impressed by the airy feeling in the building,” Dr. Carstensen wrote. “There were no odors present. All the animals seem content and appear to be in good body condition.”
The second administrative hearing on the state’s proposed denial of Mr. Hetrick’s application for a rescue-facility permit is slated to continue Monday for a fourth day. The third hearing on the proposed denial of a second application for a wildlife-shelter permit is scheduled for the end of the month.
Contact Alexandra Mester: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.
BY ALEXANDRA MESTER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Read more at http://www.toledoblade.com/local/2015/05/09/State-action-against-Tiger-Ridge-is-upheld.html
In total, six tigers, a bear, a lion, a cougar, a black leopard and a liger (part lion, part tiger) were taken from Kenny Hetrick’s Stony Ridge farm
State officials found he didn’t have the right permit and cages were ‘unsafe’
An exotic animal owner from Ohio is campaigning for his bear and big cats to be returned after they were seized by the state in January.
In total, six tigers, a bear, a lion, a cougar, a black leopard and a liger (part lion, part tiger) were taken from Kenny Hetrick’s Stony Ridge farm after it was found he did not have the correct permit and cages were ‘unsafe’.
Authorities have also started cracking down on the owners of wild creatures following an incident in 2011 where a man in eastern Ohio released 56 exotic animals – including lions and tigers – then killed himself.
Apparently Hetrick has been heartbroken by the clampdown on his farm and the 72-year-old widower is now fighting to overturn the seizure, backed by neighbors who insist his menagerie doesn’t pose a threat.
However, the 2011 incident mentioned earlier pushed Ohio to tighten regulations on ‘private zoos’.
Owners are now required to have sturdy cages, background checks and insurance before receiving an annual permit.
Since the beginning of last year, Ohio has issued permits to 54 exotic animal enthusiasts.
The agriculture department says that it tried, but that he never responded to letters sent over a span of two years with the permit application materials until last October, nine months after the deadline, when it gave him ten days to surrender his animals.
State officials in January rejected his application for a permit, which includes a $1,000 fee, saying it submitted was too late.
They also said state inspectors who visited the sanctuary outside Toledo last November discovered the tigers could stand on their housing and get dangerously near the top of their cages.
The inspection noted there were unsecured padlocks and chains and not enough fencing around an enclosure holding a tiger and black leopard.
‘If motivated, it would be very easy for either of those two animals to escape,’ said Melissa Simmerman, assistant state veterinarian.
Hetrick, whose pickup truck has ‘Tiger Man’ painted on the side, disputes those assertions.
‘Nothing’s ever got loose. Not in almost 40 years,’ he said. ‘Nobody’s ever been bit. Nobody’s been hurt.’
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has a duty to protect the public’s safety, spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said.
‘Just because an animal’s never gotten out, doesn’t mean that an animal couldn’t get out,’ she said.
Hetrick is appealing the department’s rejection of his permit application and a hearing is scheduled for next week, but the fight will probably continue in court no matter what a state panel decides.
Until then, the ten animals – a lion named Leo that had been in failing health was euthanized by the state last week – will remain a two-hour drive away outside Columbus, in a high-security building operated by the state.
PETA RESPONSE TO THE SITUATION
‘Today, the Ohio Department of Agriculture did the right thing by seizing the wild animals at Tiger Ridge Exotics who have been held illegally and long neglected.
Now, it’s been reported that the animals will possibly have to endure the stress of being tranquilized again and moved back to the roadside zoo—a potentially life-threatening move.
This is a selfish stunt to prevent the animals from being sent to a sanctuary where they would finally receive the care that they so desperately need.
PETA is calling on the facility to do the right thing and allow these animals to enjoy a peaceful life at a reputable sanctuary where their needs would come first.’
Supporters of Hetrick believe the animals – only the wolf wasn’t seized because it doesn’t fall under the exotic animal law – have been mistreated and will not survive long outside their home. State officials insist they are fine.
Hetrick doesn’t have formal training with wild animals, but he has been around them about 60 years, since he was a ten-year-old volunteer cleaning cages at a zoo in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
His love for wild creatures grew when he moved to Ohio. He first brought home an ocelot, often called a dwarf leopard.
‘I tell people don’t start with a tiger if you don’t know what you’re doing,’ he said.
He and his wife, who died four years ago, spent much of the money he made as an auto worker and police officer on the animals. Even with donations, food alone for the tigers and others cost as much as $15,000 annually in recent years.
Their collection multiplied, often when others dropped off unwanted pets. His daughter, Corrina Hetrick, remembers going out to catch the school bus only to find an alligator swimming in a kiddie pool.
There also was the time a black panther showed up in the back of a pickup truck.
‘I didn’t have cats and dogs,’ she said. ‘I had bears and tigers.’
Even the circus camped at his two-acre property while traveling between shows. ‘We had elephants in the backyard and contortionists in the living room,’ she said.
STONY RIDGE – The ODA cited the Jan. 13 denial exotic animal permit and that a recent inspection of the five-acre facility revealed a failure “to comply with caging requirements needed for public safety and care standards intended to protect the animals” under the Ohio Revised Code.
“Leo was humanely euthanized Monday afternoon after experiencing complications from his chronic hip issues,” Erica Hawkins, Communications Director for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said in an email sent to the News Herald on Friday morning.
“Last week, department animal health staff began to observe signs of prolonged lateral recumbency, loss of appetite, increased rate of breathing and decreased ability to move,” Hawkins email said.
Dr. Tony Forshey, the State Veterinarian, and Assistant State Vet Dr. Melissa Simmerman consulted with Dr. Richard Carstensen, Leo’s long time vet and Dr. Randall Judge, Vice President of Animal Health for the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds, the email said.
“The lion was documented to be weak in the rear end and not walking correctly as far back as August 28, 2014, (a year ago) by an inspector of the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” the email said. “All four vets recommended to humanely euthanize the lion given his condition, how long he had been declining, and that his ailment was irreversible.
According to Hawkins, the other 10 animals are still being cared for by the state in Reynoldsburg and are “still thriving and in good general health.”
Corrina believes Leo’s death adds fuel to the fire in their fight to get the other 10 animals back to Tiger Ridge.
The sanctuary broke the news to supporters through a Facebook post on Monday, viewed by more than 450,000 people from around the world, Hetrick said.
Since the animals were seized in January, more than 10,000 letters have been sent to Gov. John Kasich to return the animals to the Stony Ridge facility.
“I’ve written every day,” Hetrick said. “I’ve invited him to come to Tiger Ridge. I’ve gotten only one reply saying he would not meet with me, with no reasoning.”
Hetrick said she had also reached out to the ODA to inspect the facility again. She said they’ve spent more than $86,000 in upgrades and in attorney fees in the last two months.
“If they would just come out, they would see we’re compliant,” she said. “They won’t come out. They won’t send us pictures, they won’t let our attorney or our veterinarian inspect them.”
Hetrick said she had received condolences from supporters around the country for those at Tiger Ridge who are mourning Leo’s death. Many of them include photographs of lit candles with Leo’s picture.
“It hits a nerve with people,” she said. “People know you don’t treat God’s creatures like that.”
A memorial service for Leo was planned at Tiger Ridge for 6 p.m on Saturday.
This video was taken about 15 years ago. Tiger Ridge had 8 Tiger Cubs at the same time. Shown here playing with Roberta and Merissa Coffman. Several of these cats were purchased by a trainer for the movie “Gladiator.” They are tight lipped about the names of the cubs, so it makes one wonder if they have all died. 15 is not so very old for a tiger. Where are they now?
STONY RIDGE, Ohio — Among a host of exotic animals seized Wednesday by the Ohio Department of Agriculture were four tigers used as “Obie” mascots at Massillon Washington High School football games.
For now the former mascots are in legal limbo, sitting in holding facilities near Columbus after a Wood County judge ordered an injunction against the warrant used in the seizure, which the state has appealed.
When the legal wrangling ends, however, private non-profit organizations will be left on their own to cover the cost of transporting the animals across the nation, to accredited animal sanctuaries as far away as California. One tiger alone may cost a sanctuary over $200,000 over its lifetime.
The Massillon tigers were kept by Kenny Hetrick, the owner of Tiger Ridge Exotics, who has fought state authorities to keep his Toledo-area exotic animal farm open despite 2013 permit laws aimed at shutting down exotic animal breeders.
Hetrick applied for a permit but was denied. The Department of Agriculture cited Hetrick’s tardiness and dangerous metal cages in its letter of denial.
Non-profits left to care for seized exotics
More than 3,000 miles away, in Alpine, California, Bobbi Brink is waiting to see if she will be making a drive to Ohio to pick up Hetrick’s animals and move them to her accredited sanctuary, called Lions, Tigers and Bears.
If and when the Department of Agriculture overcomes Wednesday’s court injunction, the state plans to release Hetrick’s animals to out-of-state sanctuaries. The transportation will extend into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Brink’s sanctuary builds habitats without any assistance from the state of Ohio or Hetrick, and her sanctuary will be on the hook to pay about $10,000 per year to keep the animals alive, in addition to covering the cost of operating the sanctuary.
“It is really a lot to take care of these animals, people don’t realize just how much these animals cost,” Brink said.
Lions, Tigers and Bears has already assisted in transporting more than 60 exotic animals from Ohio, mostly from owners who were keeping them in their back yards.
The animals there are not bred, per the rules of internationally-accredited sanctuaries, and live in large zoo-like habitats, Brink said.
Ohio a ‘breeding ground’ for exotic animals
Ohio is ground zero for Brink and others who run animal sanctuaries. That is because, until recently, Ohio had the least restrictive exotic animal trade in the country, Brink said.
“Ohio was like a breeding ground for these animals,” Brink said. “The animals aren’t properly cared for, like the public believes they are, they are just not.”
Animals including lions and tigers could be bred by private owners, kept in cages, traded and sold. After a mentally ill man released over 60 wild animals into the streets of Zanesville in 2011, the state passed laws banning such sales and requiring strict permits for facilities that keep exotic animals.
Lawmakers granted Massillon Washington High School Booster Club a specific exemption from the law, however, and the booster club remains the only entity in the state that can accept exotic animals.
A new tiger cub is brought in each year to serve as the Obie mascot before being returned back into exotic animal farms, such as Tiger Ridge.
The issue of where those tiger cubs go after the football season has led activists and animal rights organizations to protest the Massillon tradition.
“This is just one example of the mess that these tigers end up in,” said Amanda Whelan, a California woman whose online petition asking Massillon Boosters to stop using live clubs has gathered over 78,000 signatures. “The state has no money to take care of these animals. It falls to the graces of caring people to come up with the means to take care of these tigers.”
The booster club has been unable to produce records showing where 44 years of former mascot tigers are, Whelan said. The Ohio Department of Agriculture said it has no way of telling where the four former “Obie” tigers it seized have been.
Amanda Whelan starts and online petition that gets more than 150,000 people to ask the Ohio Department of Agriculture to seize Kenny Hetrick’s animals before he can make good on his threat to kill them.
The petition states: “After ignoring a new state law requiring him to upgrade his facilities and enclosures for his wild animal sanctuary, owner Kenny Hetrick threatened to euthanize all his animals: an endangered black leopard, six endangered tigers, two lions, a brown bear, a liger and a bobcat. Tiger Ridge Exotics has publicly documented USDA violations and was once an exotic animal breeding facility.
The state gave Hetrick until Oct 22 to turn over his animals, and media reports made it clear he would have rather killed his animals than turn them over to the State. Attempts by numerous accredited sanctuaries waiting to rehome the animals in far better facilities have been ignored by Mr. Hetrick. We do not know how much time he was given to comply.
Multiple times Hetrick has threatened to kill the animals which is not acceptable or to be taken lightly. Please tell the State of Ohio to follow the law, secure the facility and make sure no harm comes to these innocent animals before they can be rehomed into licensed, proper sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives. Thank you.”
Owner asks state for time (2 years after the law passed)
STONY RIDGE, Ohio — A local exotic-animal rescuer has retained legal counsel and asked for more time to get in compliance with state regulations.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture sent a letter to Tiger Ridge Exotics off Fremont Pike in Stony Ridge last week with a 10-day ultimatum to either surrender the animals to the state or the animals will be seized and owner Kenny Hetrick will face charges in Perrysburg Municipal Court.
Mr. Hetrick has not obtained a permit as required by an exotic animal law enacted in 2012. He has six tigers and a black leopard, which are considered endangered animals; two lions, a Kodiak brown bear, a liger, a bobcat, and a wolf hybrid.
Read more at http://www.toledoblade.com/local/2014/10/14/Owner-asks-state-for-time.html
The Hetrick family irrationally states on Facebook, “look into the Zanesville incident. It’s not what you seen on tv. This man was murdered in cold blood his animals were murdered in cold blood to further the states agenda to ban exotic animals..period.” She goes on to ask for money and asks people to stand up for their rights and roar against the state of Ohio. The only people drinking that Koolaid are those who are pimping out animals or the Johns that pay to fondle them.
The Hetrick’s started a petition to try and raise money, saying, “…we just recieved (SIC) notice that we have 10 days as of Oct 8th to surrender the animals or be criminally charged.”
Hetricks post on Facebook, “the attorney that all the exotic animal owners retained got banned from practice in ohio for 60 days”
Hetricks post on Facebook, “we are trying to get money together to apply for the rescue permit. $1,000 is the cost. nonrefundable if get turned down, figure that one out. If anyone would like to donate please send check to Kenny Hetrick 5359 fremont pike Perrysburg oh 43551. we also have joined the OAAO in attaining an attorney to help fight these laws.”
Later they said they never filled out the application because they didn’t want to lose the $1,000 if convicted of perjury.
Kenny Hetrick’s daughter, Corrinne, starts a Facebook page called Save Tigerridge Exotics that is dedicated almost entirely to fund raising and opposing the recently passed ban.
Ohio passes a ban on the private possession of dangerous wild animals. Current owners are allowed to keep their exotic animals but would be required to obtain a state-issued permit by 2014. Exotic animal owners decide to band together and try to fight the new law, rather than register their animals.
Exotic animal owner faces down the feds
A Stony Ridge man is in trouble with the feds again— over his exotic animals.
USDA investigators grilled Kenny Hetrick for more than three hours Thursday afternoon, less than a year after telling him he’d have to improve his fencing. Hetrick spent $40,000 last fall and volunteers raced a six-week deadline to comply but built it four feet short of the necessary height.
Yes, that says 2006, because that’s how long it takes USDA to respond to complaints. In this case, it appears USDA never followed up.
The Animal Protection Institute filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture against Kenny Hetrick, owner of Tiger Ridge Exotics, 5359 Fremont Pike, saying Hetrick recklessly endangers visitors by exposing them to grizzly bears, lions and tigers.
Nicole Paquette, API spokeswoman, said two of her group’s inspectors recently visited Tiger Ridge Exotics and witnessed Hetrick open cage doors without providing a buffer between the animals and visitors.
“These animals present public safety and health threats,” Paquette said. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
How a 1988 cocaine bust in Pinellas County brought down Jungle Mike
It was a terrific amount of drugs for such a small harbor, the kind of haul people associate with Miami.
Someone had smuggled literally tons of cocaine onto the dock at St. Petersburg’s Bayboro Harbor: 7,300 pounds, Customs announced, when it finished guiding each cedar plank through the X-ray machine to see the kilos inside. The tally went down in history as the largest U.S. seizure for which an arrest had been made, although in the end, the fact of who was arrested may prove the more impressive measure.
It’s not easy to overshadow the legend of Jungle Mike.
The legend has been told before, in Saga and True magazines, in National Geographic and Reader’s Digest. There were countless mentions in newspapers, others in books, and once, after the edges of the story had grown tattered, a thinly disguised feature film.
But by all accounts no one tells it quite like Mike Tsalickis himself.
“I enjoyed listening to him on cross examination,” says Terry Furr, the assistant U.S. Attorney who put Tsalickis away for 27 years. “He’s the kind of guy, under different circumstances I would have liked to get a couple of beers with him, just to hear the stories.”
The stories are about Leticia, the Colombian frontier town the man from Tarpon Springs all but founded; about giant snakes, which he wrestled for tourists; about gullible Italians, who seem to believe that he actually stalked, shot and ate the Indians who would have died without the hospital he built for them, way back in the bush.
When the DEA agents come around now, though, they don’t seem interested in any of that. They file in past the guard station at Talladega Federal Correctional Institution, past the sign reading “Count Your Keys,” and take seats opposite prisoner 08482-18, wearing khakis instead of his trademark Tarpon Zoo T-shirt. Then they bore in, pressing for names, demanding “bodies,” reminding Tsalickis that, for a man in his 60s, 27 years should sound the same as life.
And after listening for a few hours they leave, as they have a half dozen times before, without hearing the only story that matters any more, and the one tale Tsalickis does not want to tell:
How, exactly, the most famous gringo in the western Amazon came to be ensnared by the narcotics trade he so famously loathed.
He was an American success story of the first order, the eldest son of immigrants growing up just above the Tarpon Springs docks where his father worked as a sponge diver. At 15, Michael Tsalickis was an Eagle scout. At 17, World War II having lifted most young men out of Tarpon, he was the scoutmaster. He talked a cashier into starting a cub scout pack while bagging groceries after school at the All American Market.
He talked the same cashier, Trudie Jerkins, into starting a zoo.
En route to 102 merit badges, Tsalickis had discovered, at Reptiles, a strong affinity for snakes. Once in the Everglades he claims to have bagged 2,000 in two nights by standing on a road during a hurricane. They came like a stampede with the rising water, and though afterward his arms looked like hamburger none of the bites was poisonous.
Tsalickis (the “T” is silent) was careful. The teetotaling that in future years friends would point to as evidence of his rectitude, and which so set him apart in Latin America, was in fact a precaution. Tsalickis never drank because holding a snake requires total concentration; he knew drinkers who got bitten, and he planned a career trading animals.
After a stint in the Army, where he bought a pair of lion cubs, Mike had Trudie start buying the land for what would become the old Tarpon Zoo on U.S. 19 while he set out for Mexico, then Honduras and Costa Rica, then the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
“But then I wanted something more exotic,” he said.
He found it in Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon, where he also found plenty of other animal traders. So he headed upstream and 1,800 miles later, the legend goes, happened upon Leticia.
Tsalickis was back in Colombia, though barely. The village _ with 800 people in 1953, it hardly qualified as a city _ dangled on the notch of Colombia that hangs between Brazil and Peru, a muddy, dissolute outpost distinguished only as the country’s southernmost point and sole Amazon access. Over the next 20 years its growth was driven above all by Tsalickis.
The animals he expected to be so plentiful were not. To gather enough for export to zoos and pet stores, Tsalickis had to boat up and down the river teaching Indians to trap ocelots, bushmasters, tarantulas and the monkeys they had been killing for food. At one point he had 600 families harvesting wildlife. The pesos he paid they took into Leticia to spend.
“It takes a monkey to buy pants in Leticia,” Tsalickis remembers. “Takes a monkey to buy a shirt in Leticia.”
Five hundred miles from the nearest Colombian road, Tsalickis extended the runway that had been used by only occasional military planes, then persuaded St. Petersburg’s ASA freight line to brave landings. Before long he also lured a Brazilian airline and one from Colombia, then acquired his own plane. He brought in his own generator. He set up a sno-cone concession, squirting colored syrup onto brown ice frozen from riverwater.
He started, to his great credit, a hospital.
Within years the town’s population swelled to a size that could no longer be ignored by cartographers. Mike Tsalickis had literally put Leticia on the map. The U.S. ambassador came down from Bogota to make him diplomatic counsel.
“His story shows vividly how a courageous individual with faith in himself and in the challenge of free enterprise can lift the standard of living in an entire region,” Scott and Kathleen Seegers wrote in “Mike’s Revolution,” the Americas magazine article that Reader’s Digest reprinted in May 1966 as “One-Man Revolution on the Amazon.”
The illustration was a drawing of Mike wrestling an anaconda, a snake that can grow to 30 feet and crushes its prey in its coils. The trick, Tsalickis told the reporters who beat a trail to the best story in that part of the world, was to keep the snake in the shallows. “If he gets you into the deep water, you’re through,” he said.
When National Geographic filmed the spectacle (“but the fast-moving herpetologist won the struggle”), Tsalickis made the footage a regular feature for the tourists at the hotel he built. Business was good and, to a large extent, business was Mike Tsalickis, who eschewed advertising for word of mouth. It was excellent.
Michael Herr, who a few years later produced one of the most knowing books on Vietnam, Dispatches, wrote of Tsalickis in 1968: “He is shrewd and tough, but he is constitutionally honest, devoid of brutality, and so kind that much of his income disappears among the local Indians, the townspeople and whatever down-and-outers find their way to Leticia.”
In 1971 one of those vagabonds was Bob Bailey. Knocking around South America after quitting his job as a stockbroker, Bailey heard about Tsalickis from his sister, who had stopped in Leticia for six months. Bailey would stay two years, though in that time the reality he discovered was a good deal more complicated than the Gringo Savior story that played so well in the popular press. To Bailey, the western Amazon that Mike Tsalickis called home looked less like a spread in True than the motley, vaguely hallucinogenic world of missionaries and gunrunners Peter Matthiessen drew in his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
For starters, there was Monkey Island, the name Tsalickis gave a 1,000 acre Amazon island where he put 3,000 squirrel monkeys, followed by a small hotel. Through careful management, he told the tourists he ferried there, the primate population had grown to 12,000. The idea was to refresh the species he might be accused of depleting through his latest business: exporting primates to the research laboratories of U.S. pharmaceutical companies.
It was important work, both to Tsalickis, who got about $50 per monkey, and to medicine. The squirrel monkey has a coronary system enough like those of humans to lead North Carolina researchers to an important discovery: that a tendency toward high or low cholesterol can be inherited.
But Bailey, now an anthropology professor at UCLA, was more interested in how the monkeys behaved in groups. He began his new career by counting the monkeys on Monkey Island. The actual number, he found, was not the 12,000 Tsalickis claimed but 900.
“He was irate,” Bailey says of Tsalickis’s reaction to this news, “but he still let me continue my work.”
There were other curiosities.
Tsalickis tells of the morning an agitated kitchen helper breathlessly reported that a hotel guest had just eaten 19 pancakes. The guest, a fat man who was invited to keep eating, led Tsalickis to believe he was with the CIA.
In light of what was going on upstream in Peru, it was not a strange belief. Tsalickis learned early on to spot American intelligence agents by their attire. “I’m always a little suspicious,” he says, “of a guy who shows up in a nice suit in the jungle.” Tsalickis never put much stock in the stories that U.S. agents were in the Amazon training soldiers to do battle with the Cuban communist Che Gueverra. But it was an open secret that the CIA was the real owner of the Amazon Drug Co., an Iquitos, Peru firm that paid for the legitimate research of legitimate scientists, including a young botanist on his way to becoming the world’s foremost authority on the coca plant.
Coca, of course, is the raw material for cocaine, which is produced by a three-stage process that begins in the coca fields of Peru and continued, at least in the late 1960s, in cocaine factories near Bogota. For traffickers, the preferred route from one stage to the next ran through the porous border region of Leticia. More and more often, as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, people there noticed fast boats running up and down the river from Peru.
About the same time, Tsalickis began losing his most valuable guides, the ones who knew the river best, to jobs that paid ten times what he could.
“I knew what was going on,” he says. “I’m not dumb.”
In the files of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, every newly logged suspected trafficker is assigned a number. It’s a computer thing, a way of keeping track of individuals in a world of aliases and anonymity, but it doubles as a crude guide to how long someone has been under suspicion.
A person who came to the agency’s attention today, for instance, would be assigned a relatively long identification number: They’re now all the way up to eight digits. Michael Tsalickis’ has only five.
“You never see five,” says prosecutor Furr, deeply impressed.
But those who knew Tsalickis _ and Leticia _ at close range were not surprised at all.
“There were always rumors about Mike,” says Jesse Burks, who carried a folder bulging with them the day he arrived in Leticia in 1969. Burks was a criminal investigator for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, stationed in South America. His office had a sign on the door advising, “Ye Who Enter Here Abandon All Hope,” and a shrunken head on the wall. For several tense days he concentrated his attentions on Tsalickis’ books.
In the end he announced that the government owed Jungle Mike a $3,000 refund.
“If he was paranoid, he had some data,” says Bob Cooper, who first met Tsalickis in 1963 as an agent of the San Diego Zoo.
He says Tsalickis stood out like a sore thumb in the rumor-infested jungle, widely resented for the work ethic he displayed in an area where taking it easy was the norm. The fact that he exported animals, enriching himself on the country’s natural resources, could also go against him in the popular imagination.
“He was certainly on the edge of some things,” says Cooper, voicing an observation repeated by other visiting scientists, “but it really involved his companies and his planes. I don’t think anybody ever nailed him on a serious animal violation in Colombia, and they talked about these “things’ that you really never saw a sign of.”
Bailey remembers Tsalickis’ appetite for the minor scam, colluding with pilots to keep a planeload of passengers overnight at his hotels by discovering “mechanical difficulties” on a layover. He also recalls that early in the drug trade Tsalickis was approached with a few kilos to smuggle on one of his planes.
“He refused. He was disgusted,” Bailey remembers. “Mike is essentially a Florida redneck. He hated hippies. He hated drugs. He was disgusted by people who smoked cigarettes!”
It’s the consensus of those who were in Leticia in the early years of drug trafficking: For Mike Tsalickis to become a coke lord, he would have to change as much as the town he made.
And it did change. When he flew back to the states in 1974, on a plane with 13,000 parakeets, Bailey counted one seaplane, one high powered boat and one drug dealer in Leticia.
Visting ten years later, he found 16 float planes and more 120 horsepower speedboats than he could count. The big man was not a drug dealer but the Mestizo the dealers hired to count their money. He was introduced as the only honest man in town.
Burks, who returned often before his retirement from IRS (eventually going to work as Tsalickis’ accountant), remembers seeing people he remembered as living in shacks on one trip walking down the street with handfuls of money the next.
Tsalickis himself, meanwhile, fell on hard times. In the mid ’70s Colombia banned wild animal exports, knocking out his primary livelihood. His response was to push the tourist trade harder than ever, but business was slow, and Tsalickis’ lawyers advised filing for bankruptcy.
His name, he says, simply meant too much to him. “Here is Mike Tsalickis, the great Mike Tsalickis, busted!” Instead he persevered and worked off his debts until 1979, when he moved his family _ his second Latin American wife and six kids, two by his first marriage _ back to Tarpon Springs.
If ever he was ripe for a career in the drug trade, this was the time, Tsalickis says. He was broke, bored and extraordinarily well-connected, but he resisted temptation, he says, and went into legitimate import-export at the urging of a pal he reached, after just two weeks away from the bush, by phone in Bogota.
“Everybody’s up here from Leticia, and they’re all drunk,” the friend reported. “They all got money!”‘
The cargoes Tsalickis began shipping were one more testament to an altered culture. In the 1950s mostly flour and lard came out of the ship holds. Now he filled a boat with 5,000 cases of whiskey, 30,000 of beer, motorbikes, champagne and 20 cases of perfume.
It was lucrative, like a Miami Porsche dealership, but like the dealership kept the businessman removed from the drug industry itself. To Tsalickis it was a crucial distance, one he had taken pains to establish in the late 1960s when the first fast boats were running. He put out the word to one and all that trafficking was not to be discussed around him, that his profile was too high.
“I don’t want to hear it”‘ was his slogan, Tsalickis says. “That’s the only thing that kept me alive.”
The mystery of how he happens to be explaining this from prison rises briefly to the surface as Tsalickis tells a story. It is a story about an offer of $1-million a week from a drug dealer, and as he begins to tell it his chestnut eyes flash.
“I’m the kind of guy, I want to listen to all the deals,” he says.
Was the flash from a chink in the armor?
Friends will tell you that the wily side of Tsalickis was always there, in the promoter who staged jaguar scenes for Marlon Perkins, in the knowing host who explains an expression for petty graft, “dancing the tango,” by rubbing his fingers together and smiling.
“Here’s somebody,” says Cooper, trying to sum up his old friend, “who was a self-promoter and an Eagle scout and at the same time he was poaching alligators.”
Bailey says he cannot imagine Tsalickis succumbing simply to the lure of money, or even to a quest for status, in the corrupt town where he was once the biggest fish, but he wonders how Tsalickis would cope with a trafficker who simply kept after him.
There was, for instance, the Czech who showed up in Leticia in the early ’70s with a scheme to sell canned meat from Europe. Tsalickis laughed at the idea, but the Czech kept at him, and, weeks later, they were in business together.
“If someone was persistent enough, I never knew him to say no,” Bailey says. “It would have to be over a period of months. He probably just got sucked in gradually.”
It is while arguing his defense that Tsalickis gingerly mentions his role as an informant for the DEA. He had Jesse Burks carry notes to its Bogota office. More than that, Tsalickis says, he cannot tell, for fear of reprisals on his family.
From Fort Myers, DEA agent Richard Crawford says Tsalickis has nothing to worry about there: He was de-activated as an informant for never giving the agency anything solid.
The fact is, by the mid 1980s Tsalickis could have stood to climb back into the DEA’s good graces. Drugs were so overrunning Colombia that it might have been impossible for the Pope himself to remain above suspicion, never mind a gringo operating an import-export business between coastal Florida and a region of Colombia reporters were now being warned they visited at their peril. It did not help when, one day at the Bogota airport, 10 kilos were found on a plane Tsalickis owned. He spent a night in jail before a mechanic admitted the drugs were his. And later, Tsalickis’ name was found in the address book of the reputed head of the Cali Cartel, Gilberto Rodriguez. Tsalickis replied, with some logic, that given his prominence it would be news only if his name were not in an address book.
Yet when a bomb turned up in Tarpon Springs, he acknowledged it might have been meant for him. And watching television one night in Leticia, Tsalickis saw a report that was both absurd and prophetic: On the evening news, they said he had just been arrested in Brazil.
“I’m in jail in Manaus _ and I’m in Leticia!” he cries.
The Colombian papers carried corrections, but his reputation was headed south.
The nadir may have been The Hotel Colonial, an Italian-made feature film that confounds Tsalickis to this day. When the filmmakers showed up in Leticia, he provided his usual services, rounding up Indians in native face paint and costumes (“Maybe $50 per Indian; I would pay the Indian $1”) and a few monkeys (“I got a rental price and a death price”).
But the fast-moving herpetologist was behind the times. In the finished film Robert Duvall starred as the gringo owner of a Leticia hotel who showed guests a movie of him wrestling an anaconda and exported wild animals on the side. He also smuggled cocaine and, apparently for fun, killed and scalped Indian children.
It became, at least in Italy, the new Legend of Leticia. Once again the Colombian press investigated, this time discounting the hunting allegations as a perverse magnification of the criticism Tsalickis now endured of “exploiting” area Indians by bringing tourists around to see them in the native dress their promoter had laid out.
“I give them a boat, a motor and a net to catch food,” Tsalickis cries, “and I’m bad?”
When Italians actually called to ask him to arrange one of his human game “hunting trips,” Tsalickis produced Ticuna blowguns and darts dipped in poison, to impress upon the Europeans exactly who might hunt whom. The slur was still in his craw at his 1988 trial. He went on about it from the witness stand.
“If he was going to talk about that in front of the jury, I’m not going to stop him,” Furr said. “They probably believe he did that too.”
As 1988 began, the DEA Tampa office met with Pinellas County sheriffs officials and U.S. Customs officers about Mike Tsalickis.
“He’s been doing things under our noses for a long time,” agent Crawford told the locals, “and I think we should do something about it.”
A month later, the DEA office in Bogota received a letter. Though unsigned, the postmark read Cali, home of the Cali Cartel. In considerable detail, the letter laid out a smuggling operation that DEA recognized as a classic Cali operation:
The ship Amazon Sky came into the port of St. Petersburg loaded with cedar boards. In the hold, a customs agent drilled a board he had seen a Colombian studying and came up with cocaine.
For two weeks, the agents and local police watched the shipment from hiding. They saw the boards hauled to a St. Petersburg warehouse. They saw other boards hauled to a warehouse Tsalickis owned on the site of the old Tarpon Zoo, the journey up U.S. 19 punctuated by a confederate running the most obvious countersurveillance one agent had ever seen: stopping in intersections for an entire light cycle to look for tails.
Most damaging of all, they saw Tsalickis directing forklifts to position the lumber. The act was key because, when the officers finally grew tired of watching and served their search warrants, all 701 boards that contained cocaine were in the same place. At trial, Furr put a statistics professor on the stand to testify that you have a better chance of hitting the Lotto jackpot six straight weeks than of the boards ending up that way by chance.
It was that kind of case, Furr says: “The evidence kept coming and coming and coming.”
There was testimony from agents that Tsalickis and his confederates exchanged high fives when the shipment was safely inside the warehouse.
There was testimony from the man employed to run the warehouse that Tsalickis had boasted of helping a drug dealer count stacks of money.
There was the Sears clerk who testified that Tsalickis had been in Sears asking about table saws because he had a lot of lumber.
“He lied!” Tsalickis says.
Furr, prowling his office like he’s giving a summation, waves his hand.
“At trial he must have called 15 people liars. He’s a world class doper. I don’t believe this was the first time he did this by any stretch of the imagination.”
Since the U.S. 11th Circuit denied the appeal, agent Crawford has come around twice to interview the prisoner. The last time, he left red in the face. After indicating otherwise, Crawford says, Tsalickis had nothing to offer after all. Tsalickis explains he has too many relatives in Colombia to say word one, and after what he calls the government’s misbehavior in his case why should he put any faith in its witness protection program?
He shakes his head.
“Whether you know anything or not, it’s best to say nothing.”
On Hope Street in Tarpon Springs, an old woman steps out of a small white building and shuffles through the midday glare to the church in her back yard. The Shrine of St. Michael was constructed by the Tsalickis family after Mike’s brother Steve, dying of a brain tumor at age 11, had a vision of the saint and recovered his health. Inside are three rows of pews, the icon from the Greek isle where the old woman spent her youth, and a half dozen pairs of crutches left behind by people who found the kind of miracles that Mrs. Tsalickis, in her five or six trips a day, now asks to deliver her eldest son.
Most of his prison roommates have been Colombians. The latest agreed to turn off the air conditioning, which keeps down the welts that dry air brings out on skin conditioned by 37 years in the jungle. Still extravagantly energetic, Michael Tsalickis spends much of the day at his typewriter, corresponding with dozens of people back in Leticia, filing futile legal motions (one, in the middle district, was a motion to end the drug war), and picking at the loose ends in the government’s case.
Such as: if he was shipping cocaine in wood shipments for the cartel as early as 1983, as DEA files suggest, where is the money?
His only known stateside investment, the Tarpon Financial Center, was in fact heavily mortgaged when the feds seized it. His holdings in Leticia, once valued at $1.5-million, may be next to worthless without Tsalickis to run them.
It’s impossible to say for certain. The town has changed so much. One year 30 people were murdered in the street. The Colombian military swept through the jungles looking for drug labs to wreck and scattering drug lords. One of those who disappeared for a time was Vincente Rivera, the man Tsalickis acknowledges owned the ship he served as agent.
“The guy had money to spend, and Mike thought he could make money in the shipping business,” Burks says, of the figure law enforcement calls “Vincentico.” “I told Mike all along, you’re messing with people who are gonna get you in trouble.”
And Tsalickis, the man who once made a living by word of mouth, who would not declare bankruptcy because it would sully his name, brushed the warning off. His slogan had become “so long as they spell my name right,” a policy the Legend of Leticia had no cause to regret until his press helped to put him in jail.
The pivotal moment came on cross examination, when Furr pulled out a batch of newspaper clippings.
“Most of the dopers we see,” the prosecutor explains today, “. . . they’re invisible people. They want to blend in. They don’t want to be noticed.
“This guy was different.”
The clippings were from South American papers and dated three years before the Bayboro bust. There were accusations from Brazil, which Tsalickis had watched on television that night in Leticia, and there was a batch of corrections from Colombia, whose newspapers he had prevailed upon to record that he was not, at that time, in jail at all.
But three years later, the striking thing remained the substance of the charges themselves. For what the coverage described, in impressive detail, was a smuggling enterprise practically identical to the one that had just been laid in the Tampa courtroom: Leticia, the Amazon Sky, the lumber, the cocaine, Vincente Rivera, Tarpon Springs and, in the middle of it all, Mike Tsalickis.
Operation Eccentric, the Brazilians called it, and when Tsalickis saw the reports on TV that night, he remembers laughing out loud.
How a 1988 cocaine bust in Pinellas County brought down Jungle Mike 04/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013