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JONESIE: My small role in shutting down B.C.'s Tiger King

April 14, 2020 - 4:30 PM

 


OPINION


If, like me, you followed the coronavirus backwards in time to discover China’s history of wildlife farming and wet markets, you were likely disgusted by the conditions those animals are raised in — in addition to the abhorrent slaughter conditions that created the coronavirus and others.

You likely saw photos of bears raised in cages before slaughter along with nearly any other animal you can find including snakes and turtles and birds (along with dogs and cats) and, like me, perhaps wondered how any society could treat animals this way.

But then if, like me, you also binge-watched Netflix’s Tiger King, hopefully you realized that American wildlife farming is even worse. We don’t call it wildlife farming because no one eats the animals — they’re bred in captivity simply to feed the souls of kids and families who want to pet tiger kittens and get their pictures taken with them.

We don’t have that problem in B.C. anymore and I’m going to tell you the very, very small part I played in the surreal story that started it.

In 2007, I was brought in as editor of the 100 Mile House Free Press for a few months, a somewhat recurring gig for awhile as they struggled to find and keep an editor. They put me up at the Hills Health Ranch, a bunch of cabins in the woods with a parking lot full of expensive luxury vehicles. It was a fat camp for wealthy people to get their stuff together away from prying eyes.

On May 10, 2007 I was set up in my room, TV on in the background and of course, the scanner behind it. It was part of my job during the day to monitor the scanner, but I was amused at how much more chatter there was in a small town compared to Kelowna so I often had it on. The scanner was once a staple of local journalism, and I shudder at the stories we are deprived of since they went dark. 

But what I heard that night was more than idle scanner chatter and when I heard the word ’tiger’, I shut off the TV. I was initially confused. Surely they meant a cougar?

I sat there for two hours gripped by heart-breaking drama and piecing together what was going on. The story I was hearing, I would learn later, wasn’t exactly accurate as was often the case with radio scanners. Police and ambulance were called to a remote farm near Bridge Lake, 30 or 40 minutes outside of town. Dispatch told them a tiger had escaped from its cage and mauled a woman who was injured. There were kids on the farm as well.

I listened to the paramedics who arrived first but weren't allowed in. They were ordered by the RCMP not to enter until they could make it safe from the roaming, mauling tiger. They had to round up a few other cops and figure out what they needed to bring down a Siberian tiger.

The paramedics sat outside the farm for at least an hour and at several times pleaded with dispatchers for clearance to enter. They were getting information from the farm — likely from the two kids — that the tiger had not escaped. They said the woman was grabbed by a tiger from under a fence.

But she was bleeding badly.

The paramedics were nearing panic, knowing she would die long before police arrived, knowing they could save her but were instructed not to. There was constant back and forth with a dispatcher telling them again and again no, they couldn’t enter.

She did die before they entered more than an hour later. There wasn’t so much chatter after that.

I took as many notes as I could about what I heard, knowing I would have to follow up in the morning and knowing my entire day was going to be chasing down this story.

But the next morning I had another problem. I had to speak to an editor at the Globe and Mail about a story I was filing on freelance.

“I have something else for you,” I told the editor. I explained my situation and that I couldn’t report the story. “But I think if you call the RCMP in 100 Mile House, they’ll confirm that a woman was mauled to death by a tiger last night.... No, not a cougar — a tiger.”

The full story, as it often does, came out over the next few weeks. And if you watched Tiger King, you’re going to recognize the characters. Kim Carlton was our Joe Exotic, except he fancied himself a magician. His exotic animal ranch was called Siberian Magic. He had a number of big cats and other exotics in tiny cages on the small acreage. Like Tiger King, people lined up to host his shows and visit his farm.

And yep, he was super weird. His marketing photos often included animal costumes and women covered in body paint to look like tigers or cheetahs.

He had met Tanya Dumstrey-Soos, 32, while walking his baboon some time before all this. Once she visited the farm and met the cats, she was hooked, as many are. They were later engaged and she and her son stayed with Carlton and helped care for the animals. She was feeding or playing with them that night while he was away and she broke a rule not to wear a skirt around the cages. The tiger grabbed at it from under a fence, perhaps playfully. He knocked her down and nicked the inside of her leg and caught an arterial vein. I can’t find an online source to confirm my memory but I recall she was on blood thinners at the time and bled out right there in front of the two boys.

Perhaps she couldn't have been saved. It wasn’t a mauling. The cat was put down anyway.

We were on the ground at the Free Press putting together the smaller details while running a parallel track as provincial and national media, along with the B.C. SPCA, that eventually led to B.C.’s ban on ownership, breeding and sales of some 1,200 species of exotic animals in 2009. I wish it were for the sake of the animals, not in response to the terrible loss of a young mother, but it was done. 

The first person to be convicted under the Act was the same who inspired it: A year later, Carlton was caught with two lion cubs. He was fined $500 and the cubs were relocated to a refuge.

What kind of society allows this treatment of exotic animals? Thankfully, not this one.

— Marshall Jones is the Managing Editor of iNFOnews.ca

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2020
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