CREATED Feb. 4, 2013
SOUTHWEST FLORIDA - A Fox 4 investigation finds alarming information regarding how exotic animals are regulated in Southwest Florida. You may remember just last month a brown bear escaped from its home in Collier County. The owner was licensed to own grizzly bears and even though state wildlife officials inspected his facility, the bear somehow escaped. Fox 4 found there are dozens of people in Southwest Florida who own bears, tigers and other ferocious felines.
Four in your Corner investigator Mike Mason shows us how state officials are dropping the ball when it comes to keeping track of these potentially deadly predators.
Most pet owners have a cat or a dog but others prefer something a little more exotic. Here in Southwest Florida a growing number of people are getting licenses to own Class 1 wildlife - such as lions and tigers and bears....oh my. You may be living next to one of these ferocious felines and not even know it.
And just because they're kept in cages it doesn't mean they're not dangerous.
Laurie Caron: "A lot of times they'll go for your throat."
Mike Mason: "So if a cat was to get loose what would you do about it?”
Ria Brown – Lee County Animal Services: "We actually couldn't do anything about it we have no equipment and we're not trained to capture an animal of that size.”
Mike Mason: "So, I wonder who would respond?"
Ria Brown: "That I don't know."
We do know owners of exotic animals are regulated by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC.
Laurie Caron: "It's all about safety and you can't be safe enough sometimes."
Laurie Caron runs Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary in Punta Gorda. It's basically a retirement home for all kinds of unwanted or abused animals.
Mike Mason: "Octagon got ‘Sneakers’ here in 2006, she was confiscated from a Port Charlotte family who was raising these Bengal tigers in their backyard illegally, we're told she can be highly aggressive and her moods are unpredictable."
Laurie Caron: "Their moods change like that."
Caron knows how dangerous these cats can be if they were to get out - that's why she's required to have liability insurance and must comply with strict state and federal laws.
Laurie Caron: "We could be closed down if somebody got hurt. They're beautiful, you can have a certain amount of connection with them but always look at is as this animal is thinking of you as you're going to be their dinner some day."
Keeping track of these killer cats is serious business but a Fox 4 investigation found the FWC has made some mistakes. Last November, we found this tiger and a leopard living in a residential North Fort Myers neighborhood. Problem is: at that time -- the owner -- Frank Levy - didn't have a license to own these exotic cats.
Frank Levy: "No, you have it all wrong."
In this letter we obtained last October, FWC stated Levy was applying for a license but hasn't been issued one since 2008. When we contacted FWC....they told us Levy had been filing the required paperwork to keep these cats but their office failed to input that information into their database.
Jorge Pino - FWC: "There was some administrative snafu on our part. We made a mistake with regards to keeping track of, administratively, the license."
FWC spokesman Jorge Pino says Levy's license wasn't issued due to a clerical error. Something other exotic cat owners don't understand.
Mike Mason: "If I told you your neighbor has these animals and doesn't have a license....
Linda Seal: "That's too hard to believe."
Linda Seal owns two licensed cougars.
Linda Seal: "Your cage has got to be inspected and meet proper standards for Florida Fish and Wildlife."
Mike Mason: "So when I tell you somebody doesn't have a license...”
Linda Seal: "They wouldn't have one of these animals."
We asked Levy about his two exotic cats. Off camera Levy showed us his current license issued on December 13, 2012, more than a month after we began our investigation. FWC confirmed this was the first time Levy has been issued a license since it expired in May of 2008.
Since Levy didn't hold a license for four and a half years, we wanted to know if he was flying under the radar during that time. Well, not exactly. We found local FWC inspector, Larry Gregory, continued conducting inspections. But after digging deeper, we found at one point Levy also had no liability insurance, which is required by Florida law in case someone is hurt by these cats.
Mike Mason: "The guy did not have liability insurance for more than a year."
Jorge Pino: "I would classify that as partly a clerical issue, the facility itself was safe."
FWC's records show Levy's insurance bond expired on august 13, 2011. Two weeks later, officer Gregory inspected Levy's facility and even noted he had no license. Gregory said he would re-inspect within 30 days but he never did. The next month Levy applied for a license but in December FWC denied his application because he still had no insurance. Levy eventually got insurance in October of 2012.
Mike Mason: "For more than a year he did not have liability insurance, you guys knew he didn't have liability insurance so what was done about it?"
Jorge Pino: "Clerically, obviously we dropped the ball and I'm here not to defend that point."
With all these problems we wanted to find out how many other people own exotic animals without a license? We looked up each facility issued a Class 1 license in Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties; there are 26 of them. According to FWC's website 23 of them have expired licenses, including Linda Seal.
Linda Seal: "I am licensed for Class 1 anyhow."
Seal showed us her license which means the information on the website is incorrect. We asked FWC for an updated list of current licenses -- that was three months ago and they have yet to provide that information.
Mike Mason: "Because of our investigation what are you guys going to do?"
Jorge Pino: "We're going to find out why this situation occurred and we're going to make any changes that we need to make in order for this to not happen again."
In the meantime, if you happen to live near someone who's keeping killer cats, you may want to keep an eye on them yourself.
Ria Brown: "They can't live in a neighborhood, in a home, they're not pets, they're not cuddly.
Mike Mason: "There are a lot of them in Lee County."
Ria Brown: "That's kind of scary."
FWC recently sent us an updated list of licenses, showing most owners do hold a current license, however, that list hasn’t been posted to their website yet. Officials say they're under-staffed and under-budgeted. They promise to investigate this situation we uncovered to see how these clerical errors happened and whether inspectors did anything wrong. We'll let you know when they get to the bottom of it.