Diane Gustafson is on a self-proclaimed crusade to shut down Great Cats of Indiana. Located on Highway 24, just east of Monticello, Ind., Great Cats is home to dozens of large exotic animals and one of the most well-known animal rescue facilities for tigers, lions and other big cats in the country.
And while the owner/operators of Great Cats call it an animal sanctuary, Gustafson calls it a death camp.
Following a visit to Great Cats with her family this past summer, the 44-year-old Hammond, Ind., resident was so upset that she began contacting state and federal lawmakers, the Monticello tourism board, various animal support organizations, the Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine and several media outlets, recounting what she believes are intolerable conditions for the animals.
"All in cages, some smaller than others, some animals grouped in with too many others for the space. The black leopard, one of the cats left with very little shade, paced frantically back and forth on a plank, never once acknowledging our presence.
"Most cages are covered in feces, urine and some even had rotted meat, swarming with flies, that had been left from previous feedings. One that stood out specifically is home to [two] adult lions; it had the rotting remains of a pig, a mere 10 feet from where the lions were trying to sleep.
"All of the animals are filthy and matted to some degree. Most were sleeping in their feces, some out in the hot sun with no shade. Some had reservoirs filled with water so that the animals could keep cool.
"However, the water was dirty and in some cases red with rust, or who knows what. Within one tiger enclosure, the concrete floor was partially flooded with standing water that had been sitting so long it was filled with bright green algae.
"When we asked about it, the young guide indicated that the drain was plugged and that the water was just like it was in the cat's natural habitat.
"Every enclosure was made of rotting broken wood with peeling paint, cracked and broken concrete foundations, as well as rust-covered metal caging."
Initially willing to consider that the owners had good intentions but that "the situation has gotten too hard to control financially," she pondered methods for area businesses to financially support Great Cats. That focus changed when she discovered a USDA complaint from several years ago that addressed many of her concerns (see sidebar).
At that point, Gustafson set off on her crusade and began contacting "the proper authorities to see that his facility is shut down for good." What she didn't do, however, was contact Rob Craig, executive director of Great Cats of Indiana.
"No, I never called [him] to express my concerns. Our 'tour guide' was ignorant of any wrong doing ... should I expect the owner to differ? Plus, after seeing the USDA formal complaint, I had absolutely no desire to do so."
A caustic situation
The business of keeping exotic animals, whether for profit, preservation or both, is not pretty and the rules are more about pragmatism than compassion.
Estimates of the number of tigers in private hands range from 7,000 to 10,000. The Captive Wildlife Animal Coalition estimates the total of all species of exotic felines privately kept is closer to 20,000. The Humane Society of the United States calculates the trade in exotic animals is a $15 billion annual industry, with about a quarter of it illegal.
As Gustafson discovered, the U.S. Federal Animal Welfare Act sets forth only minimum requirements for animal care and, for the most part, only addresses basic husbandry issues. For example, the USDA mandates that animals must be fed, watered and sheltered, yet space requirements only require that the animals be able to make "normal postural changes" (i.e., allow them enough room to stand up, lie down and turn around).
There is no requirement for grass, greenery or other natural vegetation. There are no requirements for the animals to be "let out" of their cages for exercise or to relieve themselves. Even the requirement for water is open to interpretation: "Water must be provided as often as necessary for the health and comfort of the animal."
One may find that the cages are tiny, the animals look hot and dispirited, or that the animals are displaying stereotypic behavior, but none of these conditions is specifically against the law. Even when exhibitors are consistently found non-compliant during inspections, they are typically allowed time to make "improvements" in a timeframe outlined by the individual inspector.
Because the USDA licenses and oversees facilities that exhibit exotic animals, all USDA-licensed facilities undergo annual inspections.
Once a facility has a complaint, explains Jessica Milteer with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, it makes the risk-based inspection system list, where it will continue to "get looked at more often" until it racks up "a string of clean inspections."
Milteer says that with a 97 percent compliance rate among approximately 9,000 businesses, keeping a closer eye on those with past transgressions isn't difficult.
After her visit to Great Cats and the discovery of prior USDA investigations, Gustafson set about having the facility closed. "This facility needs to be shut down immediately. Why is this taking so long to accomplish and why hasn't anyone stepped in to remove these animals from such a caustic situation?" she asks.
"If there was no ongoing, six-year USDA investigation, I might think otherwise ... but that's not the case."
We are doing better
Frequently recognized from his 2003 appearance on Animal Planet's Growing Up: Tiger when one of his Siberian tigers had four cubs (two of whom were filmed as they grew up at Tiger Creek Wildlife Rescue in Tyler, Texas), Rob Craig has worked with exotic animals for more than 20 years.
Twelve years ago, along with assistant director and fiancée Laura Proper, Craig founded Great Cats when he converted an old Indiana dairy farm into a sanctuary and rescue for big cats, bears and wolves.
"Great Cats of Indiana is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) sanctuary and rescue facility," according to Craig. "We provide a lifelong, caring home to these wonderful animals when, for various reasons, they need a home to live out their lives.
"While each animal has its own unique, often tragic story, the one thing they all have in common is that they were facing an uncertain future and possible death before we became a part of their lives."
As executive director of Great Cats, Craig is well aware of the USDA regulations that govern his animal facility, as well as the on-going struggles to comply.
Great Cats first made the USDA risk list following a 2003 incident when a bear bit a visitor who came too close to a cage. Since then, Craig has struggled to correct infractions noted by a rotating retinue of inspectors, each with their own interpretation of the rules.
Craig admits he's not perfect, but says, "Even the USDA has acknowledged that we are doing better."
Craig initially shrugged off news of Gustafson's complaint with an unconcerned "She's a nut who doesn't know what's best for the animals."
Citing "substantial improvements over the last year and a half," Craig has requested the USDA order a conference so he can demonstrate the positive impact achieved by his "steady changes and improvements."
On Oct. 22, 2007, Colleen Carol, prosecuting attorney for the USDA, filed a motion to schedule a hearing date. She says a date has not been set because the three USDA administrative law judges have "a lot of cases, but not a lot of personnel" and work has been further delayed due to one's tour of duty in Iraq.
While a hearing addressing whether or not Craig has corrected all the issues cited in older complaints has yet to be scheduled, in its most recent inspection the USDA found no non-compliance issues with Great Cats.
Sparking a debate
Craig tries to take the current controversy in stride. "Everyone gets targeted at one time or another. We are a small, quiet little facility that is doing big things and is getting noticed. We keep to ourselves, and just do our thing. We don't say much, but when we do, it ... is always verifiable."
Others are talking - a lot.
Gustafson now has her own Web site meant "to shut down and destroy a pseudo sanctuary known as Great Cats of Indiana and find the animals new homes." She has also enlisted the support of other animal rights activists and sparked a debate over the care of large animals and the existence of sanctuaries like Great Cats.
Gustafson's cause gained momentum when Joe Taft, owner of Exotic Feline Rescue Center (EFRC) in Centerpoint, Ind., wrote her that Great Cats "has been a long-standing problem."
According to Gustafson, operators of EFRC said that "Great Cats of Indiana is not a reputable sanctuary. Not only are they hiding their horrid roadside zoo under that guise, they are also breeding and selling these exotic cats ... they have been a problem for a very long time and was glad someone was going to take the reins on shutting them down."
Craig insists he donated the tigers to help a friend launch a new facility, and speculates that Taft's attack may be due to feeling threatened because he represents "the other place" in Indiana. After all, both facilities rely on visitors and the funds they provide.
Not all animal rights activists are against Craig and his Great Cats facility, however.
Walfredo de Freitas, founder of the Indiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, visited Great Cats in July. And while the animal rights activist didn't see a spotless facility, he saw healthy animals - and something more.
"I saw love between Rob and the animals. Love is something missing in sanctuaries, zoos and circuses. I wish all animals had a Rob Craig in their lives. We could have a better world. If we cannot change the world, at least let the animals live with love and basic care."
Not a proponent of caged animals, de Freitas believes Craig "is a man who is trying to do his job. He is trying hard to improve the animals' lives." He also believes Gustafson's energy is misplaced.
"She could use it to make Indiana a vegetarian state. I think she is wrong. She is not going anywhere with her campaign. We have so many problems to handle right now. Great Cats of Indiana is the last issue on our list."
Denise Flores, founder of Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center in Ashland, Ohio, suggests, "Maybe people should offer [Rob] a hand." Flores, who has received her share of criticism about the spatial accommodations for her tigers, respects Craig.
Two years ago, when she moved to Ohio from Texas, where she was the curator of Tiger Link of Texas, she trusted him enough to board two of her big cats there when "no one else would help us. He came recommended by the Feline Conservation Convention. He took good care of my cats."
We're not closing
When Craig finally does have his day in court and faces the USDA allegations, he will have to prove he's taking care of his animals.
If issues aren't resolved, he could be assessed civil penalties of up to $3,750 per animal for violations incurred after 2004 ($2,750 for violations before 2004) and given time to comply or his license could be suspended or revoked.
Craig says that according to Indiana law, if he loses his USDA license, he can't operate and would have to euthanize his animals - a solution Gustafson considers "a better alternative than living out a life in such appalling surroundings."
Great Cats isn't going without a fight, however. "I'm not giving up my license," Craig vows. "We're not closing."
Determined to set the record straight, he says his 10-foot electrified perimeter fence exceeds USDA requirements, he has never had an escape, someone is on the grounds 24/7 and he has never bought, sought or sold a cat.
Despite Gustafson's claims to the contrary, he asserts, "No one has ever said that cats here are sick, suffering or not cared for. No one has ever said they are unhealthy, starving or showing any signs of stress."
In the USDA's complaint against Great Cats, there are allegations of repeated instances where Craig and Proper "failed to provide minimally-adequate veterinary care to animals that were suffering, and failed to provide minimally-adequate housing and husbandry to animals."
Craig, a former fireman, and Proper, a nurse, say they are qualified to perform basic procedures such as wound cleansing, vaccinating and worming, but work with two veterinarians who are consulted before any treatment plan is implemented. "Any care we provide is under the direction of our vet and he has approved us to perform any procedures he asks us to do."
Additionally, the last baby born at Great Cats arrived in October 2006 and was not part of any practice of breeding, but the result of an accidental mating, when a female tiger in heat broke a fence panel and entered the male tiger enclosure. All male tigers were neutered last summer.
As to others alleging Craig breeds the cats, he says, "From all the people who say we breed and sell tigers, no one has ever been able to produce a person who purchased a tiger from us."
While Craig claims he has never sold a tiger, he did donate a tiger to Louisiana State University to be its mascot. In response to criticism he's received, he says the cat moved from his 30-foot-by-40-foot enclosure to a $3 million, 15,000-square-foot natural habitat with a waterfall and a stream.
With a team of veterinarians - one required to be on campus 24/7 - and a care budget in excess of $10 million annually, Craig believes it was the right thing to do. In fact, he says he'd give more animals to other facilities, but he hasn't found any that have room. "Getting my numbers down would make things here a lot easier and would allow us to rebuild/repair some enclosures and open up others to make larger enclosures."
He also asserts, "No one has bothered to mention that the complaint contains nothing but allegations. Nothing has been proven and nothing is fact, although everyone seems to treat it like it is. Truth is, if things were as bad as everyone says, the USDA would have acted already."
USDA complaint and response
The major points of the complaint filed by the USDA include:
* an allegation of continuing to operate under other corporate names
* using a defunct corporation's license as an individual
* failure to retain a full-time veterinarian and maintain a program of veterinary care
* failure to follow medical instructions of the attending veterinarian regarding specific instances
* insufficient barriers between cages and visitors; failure to remove food and animal waste
* absence of a perimeter fence
* inadequate trained staff
shelter from the elements
* assorted sanitation and pest control allegations
The written response Craig filed explains the complicated ownership when one company was dissolved, its interests taken over by the limited liability company he formed, DBA Great Cats of Indiana Inc. "Everything stayed the same, except for the names."
He notes that his veterinarian moved without notice, but his animals are currently under the care of another vet, directing treatment for issues ranging from an abscessed tooth to E. coli infection obtained from tainted meat.
He cites a revolving door of inspectors, each with a different interpretation of "vague USDA regulations" regarding the issue of barrier fencing and other matters. While he confesses to being under-staffed and over-capacity, he indicates that "primary enclosures are cleaned regularly," and waste material is composted in accordance with Indiana Department of Health guidelines. However, according to the USDA complaint, as late as May 30, 2007, Craig "failed to remove excreta from enclosures for all animals as often as necessary."
Great Cats: www.greatcatsofindiana.org
Diane Gustafson: www.care2.com and search for "Diane Gustafson"
Exotic Feline Rescuer Center: www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org
Indiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: www.ispca.org
Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center: www.tigerpawsofohio.com
United States Department of Agriculture: www.usda.gov