Investigators who raided the property of a noted animal rescuer discovered more than 90 dead tigers, including 58 cubs stuffed into freezers, as well as other exotic animals suffering from malnutrition.
Officials who carried out the raid in Riverside County said they found tiger and leopard cubs crawling around the home's attic, two small alligators in the bathtub and two hungry tigers roaming around the porch. Behind a gate in the front yard, authorities said they came across 30 dead adult tigers, some with their legs tied together.
"The worst of it was that everywhere you went on the property there were dead animals," said Chuck Traisi, who took the live animals to his rescue facility in San Diego County. "Everyone was in a state of disbelief. There were cats that had long been dead and in various states of decay strewn everywhere."
Riverside County sheriff's deputies arrested John Weinhart, 60, who runs a well-known animal sanctuary called Tiger Rescue in nearby Colton. The facility serves as a home for tigers retired from the circus and entertainment industry and has long been a popular weekend destination for families who for a small fee can see the felines.
Weinhart is often portrayed in newspapers stories and his own promotional material as a dedicated protector of exotic animals.
But in November, the state Department of Fish and Game raided the Tiger Rescue headquarters. San Bernardino County prosecutors charged him with unlawful public display of tigers, breeding without a permit, failure to clean animal cages and supplying the animals with insufficient food and water. Weinhart pleaded not guilty to those charges and will face trial in late May.
The latest raid occurred a few miles away at Weinhart's home near the community of Glen Avon. Also arrested during that raid was Weinhart's wife, Marla Smith. Both were charged with one count of child endangerment because the couple's 8-year-old boy lived among the animals, said Paul Dickerson, a Riverside County deputy district attorney.
Wendelin Rae Ringel, a veterinarian who worked for Weinhart, was arrested and charged with animal cruelty.
Steve Jefferies, a spokesman for Tiger Rescue, strongly denied that Weinhart or the other suspects did anything to harm the animals.
The live cubs were placed at Weinhart's five-acre property because they had to be hand-fed every four hours, Jefferies said, adding that the alligators were personal pets.
He also said the couple's child wasn't in any danger. "I've known that kid since he was in diapers and he's always seemed healthy to me," Jefferies said.
Jefferies also disputed authorities' allegations that they found 100 dead animals at Weinhart's home. He said there were well under 30 corpses, and most of them had been dead for at least five years. He said he did not know why the dead animals were on the property or how they got there.
When asked about the 58 dead cubs found in freezers, Jefferies replied: "We keep them for research reasons."
Tippi Hedren, the former movie actress who runs a wildlife sanctuary in Acton, Calif., said she visited Tiger Rescue a few years ago when it was in Glen Avon. She said she was "disgusted" by its filthy conditions. The animals lived in their own waste, she said, and did not have enough to drink because the only water was placed in upside-down trash lids. Hedren said she called the U.S. Department of Agriculture to complain but is not aware of any action taken.
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