The New York Times

June 11, 2004, Friday Late Edition - Final

Section A Page 20 Column 3 Desk: National Desk Length: 733 words

Last 39 Tigers Are Moved From Unsafe Rescue Center


COLTON, Calif., June 10

More than a year after 90 tigers were found dead and dozens morebarely alive at an animal rescue center east of Los Angeles, the lastgroup of survivors began a 340-mile trip on Thursday to a 10-acresanctuary in San Andreas in the Sierra foothills.

The group of 39 tigers left cramped and dilapidated cages of thecenter, Tiger Rescue, at a former sewage plant in Colton, a smallcity in San Bernardino County.

The animals were found in April 2003 at Tiger Rescue and at thehouse of its owners, John Weinhart, 61, and his wife, Marla Smith,48, in Glen Avon, a community 10 miles west of here in RiversideCounty.

The State Fish and Game Department found the carcasses of 30 bigcats strewn about the house, along with 58 dead cubs in a freezer, 11starving tiger and leopard cubs and 2 alligators in a bathtub.

Child welfare officials removed Mr. Weinhart's 8-year-old son, andhe and his wife were charged with child endangerment and felonyanimal cruelty. They were released on bail.

''It was a gruesome, disgusting, and depressing scene,'' saidCharles F. Traisi, manager of the Fund for Animals, a wildliferehabilitation center in San Diego.

Of the 75 or so tigers, leopards, lions and cougars here and atMr. Weinhart's house, zoos and other sanctuaries took in nearly half.But with sanctuaries around the United States at or near capacity, 39cats were kept in particleboard shelters here.

Aided by scores of volunteers, Mr. Traisi oversaw their care andfeeding, which required 300 pounds a day of raw chicken.Veterinarians and volunteers used raw chicken on Thursday to coaxtigers into individual cages to be loaded on horse trailers for thetrip to San Andreas.

After an acclimation period there, the tigers will be able to roamfreely in an environment similar to their natural habitat in Asia.The sanctuary was created for the tigers by the Performing AnimalWelfare Society, or PAWS, with help from the Fund for Animals.

Mr. Traisi and the president of the Fund for Animals, MichaelMarkarian, said Mr. Weinhart had illegally bred tigers here. Theysaid such breeding had helped lead to the proliferation of anestimated 20,000 big cats in private ownership in the United States.They added that 5,000 tigers remained in the wild in Asia.

Mr. Markarian said wild cats were easily available in thiscountry.

''People buy them on the Internet for $300,'' he said. ''They'reat gas stations, in backyards, in basements and in cages. Not only isit inhumane, but it's dangerous.'' Private ownership is legal in 32states. Such ownership is illegal in California. Mr. Markarian saidMr. Weinhart was able to skirt that rule by obtaining a license forpublic exhibition from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Reached by telephone at home, Mr. Weinhart said that his animalswere being taken from him illegally and that the Fund for Animals wasabusing and starving them. Saying Mr. Traisi had no experience withthe animals, Mr. Weinhart said, ''You might as well pick a guy offthe street and give him a tiger.''

He said that the dead tigers had died of natural causes and thatCalifornia law prohibited the backyard burial of animals. Manyanimals at his center, he said, came from other rescue centers orwere the offspring of cats he originally brought from China andVietnam. Mr. Weinhart denied that he bred any animals.

Mr. Traisi said the presence of several pregnant tigers when hearrived here proved otherwise. He paused at the cage of an enormouswhite tiger that paced back and forth in the 12-by-6-foot enclosure.

''This is depressing to me,'' he said. ''Every day, I come hereall day long, and I see them having to live in these conditions.That's why for the first time in a long time I'll have a smile on myface when those cats are on the road heading up north.''

Images: Photos: One of the 39 adult tigers at the Tiger Rescuecenter in Colton, Calif. Last year, the State Fish and GameDepartment confiscated the site, a former sewage treatment plant inSan Bernardino County. (Photographs by Jamie Rector for The New YorkTimes)