Cat Fight

When a couple of wealthy benefactors took on the founder of the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation, they found themselves in a cat fight

When veterinarian Dr. Claudia Alldredge first saw the tiger, she was shocked. Too weak to roll over or stand up, all the four-month-old cub could do was lie in a little orange heap on the examining table and whimper an almost inaudible m-r-o-w-r.

Suffering malnutrition, the cat had been dumped by its owner at an Arlington veterinary clinic, then rescued by a volunteer at the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation, a sanctuary for abandoned, abused, or illegally owned large cats 35 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

TEFF's vet, Dr. Alldredge, examined the cub and gave a grim prognosis. She felt he had a one-in-four chance to live.

It was the kind of odds Gene Reitnauer, the co-founder and president of TEFF, has made a career of beating. As she had done countless times before, Reitnauer kept vigil, hand-feeding the cub six times a day. Every night for two and a half months, she slept with the tiger on a thin foam mattress inside a holding pen in the TEFF cat kitchen. The body contact, Reitnauer believed, would give the cub the warmth and security he needed to sleep.

After a week of care, the cub began to thrive. He put on weight and his bones--ravaged by rickets--grew more dense. By his 17th day at TEFF, he took his first step. The tiger named Noel--"He was my Christmas baby," says Reitnauer--is now a robust toddler, 300 pounds of frisky feline, who lives on top of the cage-covered hill right behind Reitnauer's house.

It was just another success story for Gene Reitnauer and TEFF. But today Reitnauer is prohibited from visiting TEFF's cat kitchen, much less caring for a cat in it. Her visits with Noel and the other 63 cats are restricted to a total of an hour and a half a day Monday through Friday. The rest of the time, though she lives on the property, she is forbidden from setting foot on the 35 acres that constitute the TEFF grounds.

If the Texas Attorney General and two wealthy Dallas businessmen have their way, Reitnauer will be permanently severed from any dealings with the cat sanctuary that she helped build into one of the finest in the country.

Gene Reitnauer is in the center of a legal battle over TEFF that grows uglier by the day. On one side is the 46-year-old Reitnauer, who by all accounts sacrificed everything she had, including her 17-year marriage, to save magnificent felines, most of which are endangered species, and give them a safe haven. Over the years, Reitnauer rarely took a day off and only recently accepted a salary--$18,000 a year.

However intuitive and nurturing she is with animals, Reitnauer has proven to be less successful in her relationships with humans, many of whom have found her arrogant and abrasive. Worse, she ran the nonprofit foundation with a single-minded devotion to the cats but an inattention to the fiscal and legal formalities required of nonprofit entities. Reitnauer treated her beloved TEFF as if she owned it, which may ultimately be her undoing.

Opposing her are TEFF's two major benefactors, who have their own complex emotional ties to the cats. Blockbuster Video founder David Cook's contribution of approximately $750,000 turned a once-humble cat orphanage into a showplace, allowing it to double its acreage and add a man-made lake, volunteer center, and guest quarters, among other amenities.

The second, local investor and author Louis Dorfman, fancies himself the Tarzan of TEFF. He believes he is blessed with a special gift for communing with wild animals.

In exchange for their financial support, these two donors made TEFF and its cats their personal playground. The bookish-looking Cook, 45, liked to have his favorite tigers take chicken legs from his mouth. He relished stepping into the cages and dominating the cats--a thrill that once almost cost him his life.

The 59-year-old Dorfman favored a gentler approach to the predators. When he wasn't watching television in his Preston Hollow mansion with his pet wolf, he often could be found at TEFF napping with a white tiger named Sabrina.

For three years, Reitnauer tolerated her benefactors' eccentricities, and they her laissez-faire management of TEFF--at least while her husband, Robert Reitnauer, was in the picture. In fact, Cook trusted Robert so implicitly, he usually gave him a free hand in spending his money--requiring neither plans nor detailed bids.

But after Robert's departure in the summer of 1995--he went to the jungles of Belize with a TEFF volunteer with whom he was having an affair--relations between Gene Reitnauer and the donors grew increasingly strained.

Angry about TEFF money Reitnauer had given her husband before he left, Cook and Dorfman joined together to insist she change her way of doing business. Among other things, they wanted her to create an independent board of directors.

Reitnauer, who had run TEFF with a free hand until then, ignored their demands. Finally last summer, after she and Dorfman clashed in an escalating series of arguments over money and management of the animals, Dorfman accused her of not running the foundation professionally or safely. He threatened to sue her if she didn't start instituting some changes.

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