By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Reitnauer did appoint two new board members to replace her husband and another board member who had resigned, but she also curtailed the free rein Dorfman and Cook enjoyed at the sanctuary--claiming she acted out of a concern for safety. The donors fought back, filing civil suits against her in September and October, accusing her of conspiracy to commit fraud.
The TEFF benefactors then took their grievances to the Texas Attorney General's office. In November, the attorney general's office filed suit against Reitnauer, accusing her of a slew of financial irregularities at TEFF, including misappropriating funds for her personal use, mismanagement, fabricating documents, and coercing witnesses to lie to cover up her misdeeds. In a maneuver TEFF volunteers liken to a drug bust, Department of Public Safety officers scaled the 10-foot iron fence that surrounds TEFF and, guns drawn, demanded Reitnauer and volunteers hand over the keys. The officers seized financial records and the foundation computer.
The issues are complicated by the fact that the money Cook says he donated for specific purposes was seldom documented. And Reitnauer's TEFF records are a mess.
A court-appointed receiver is now managing the assets of the foundation, which Cook is single-handedly funding through the end of the litigation. The receiver has stopped public tours and has limited personal interaction with the animals, which had been used to a lot of human contact. He has put the person who did the sanctuary's welding--he is a horse trainer by trade--in charge of daily operations. In a cruel irony, the receiver, whose billing rate is $150 an hour, is paying the welder in a week--with overtime--roughly what Reitnauer earned in a month to run TEFF.
At the root of all of TEFF's clashes is an obsessive love for the big cats. In their own ways, all the humans involved in the sanctuary are drawn to these wild predators who are mysterious and moody--capable of cuddling with humans one moment, slashing them to ribbons the next. For Cook and Dorfman, the big cats are perhaps a connection to some primordial state--allowing them to return to the jungle at least for a few hours. For Gene Reitnauer, the cats are her children.
Under these circumstances, it isn't surprising that the travails at TEFF have taken on the characteristics of a bitter custody dispute. For the past two months, the donors, embracing Reitnauer's ex-husband as an ally, have traded nasty accusations with her. In addition to the accusations of financial irregularities, Dorfman and Cook are now contending that the animals have suffered under Gene's oversight--that the cats are undernourished and suffer from worms. The benefactors have taken to describing the volunteers, who mostly remain loyal to Reitnauer, as cult members who have lied, destroyed evidence, and defamed the donors to protect Gene--and the volunteers' own access to the cats.
The volunteers believe that Cook and Dorfman are trying to grab control of TEFF for their own purposes and, in the process, are punishing Gene Reitnauer harshly for minor infractions. They fear the donors are harming the animals by limiting her access to them.
Many of the volunteers have gone so far as to characterize David Cook as a bully who hit and Maced cats unnecessarily. And they wonder why Robert Reitnauer, who has admitted to using thousands of dollars in TEFF funds for a fishing trip and to relocate to Belize and start a private business, is neither the object of the donors' lawsuits or even their ire.
It has gotten so bad, the donors are arguing over whom the animals liked best.
"She loves the cats, but she's scared of the cats and they know it," says Cook.
"Gene isn't good with [the cats]," says Dorfman. "Her abrupt manner, loud voice, and domineering manner make them nervous."
With no income and no car--she used to drive a Suburban that Cook had donated to TEFF--Reitnauer is virtually trapped in her home on the sanctuary grounds and has been depending on handouts from volunteers. She says she will be broke by the end of the month.
"All I want is to be with the cats," says Reitnauer, sitting in her house, anxiously awaiting the appointed hour she is allowed visitation with the felines. "I have no savings. Everything I had went to the cats. Which is why this whole thing is so ludicrous. I have done nothing wrong."
But Cook vehemently disagrees. "Is it OK to commit crimes if you're not getting rich from them?" he asks, surrounded by stacks of documents from the case in his Crescent office, which is decorated with a single painting of frolicking leopard cubs. "Is it OK to destroy evidence, to fabricate evidence, to ask people to threaten people who might sue you?"
For his part, Dorfman gives Reitnauer credit for founding TEFF, but he believes her goals got distorted. "She got diverted by status and power, and the effort to perpetuate her status became all-inclusive," says Dorfman. "Now TEFF has become a cult, with a cadre of volunteers that have become so brainwashed they believe we're the enemy, that we're trying to take the place over. That's missing the point. No one is supposed to own it. But she's treated it as her own and spent money with no accountability."