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

It is up to a court of law now--a trial in the attorney general's suit is set for April 27 in Austin--to decide if Gene Reitnauer is a crook or just a bad bookkeeper.

Gene and Robert Reitnauer's early life together sounds like a page out of Isak Dinesen's diaries. Gene was working as an assistant public relations director for Frost Bros. department store in San Antonio when she met Robert Reitnauer at a fashion show she helped coordinate for members of Game Conservation International, a hunting organization. A dashing, well-educated man of German descent born in Tanzania, Robert flirted with her all night and told her he wanted her to come to Africa to help him document imperiled African tribes and wildlife.

"I was 22 and he was 39, and he said I was young enough for him to mold me to his way of thinking," recalls Gene. He also happened to be married, but Robert told her he and his wife were only staying together for the sake of their three children.

Robert went back to Africa, where he headed a successful safari business. Gene didn't hear from him again for six months. Then a first-class plane ticket to Africa arrived from Robert in the mail. She joined him in Kenya, and they traveled together researching various tribes.

Gene left after a year, about the time that Robert's safari business was undercut by the political changes in the country. Gene returned to San Antonio, and Robert ultimately moved to the United States, eventually divorcing his wife and joining Gene at the 10-acre piece of property he had bought near Fort Worth.

Gene and Robert married in 1978 and launched an art business from their two-bedroom stone house decorated with the mounted heads of more than 100 animals Robert had bagged in his career. Robert carved exquisite animal figurines and other objects from crystal. Gene helped get him get contracts with Neiman's, Gump's, Tiffany's, and Southland Corporation.

In 1983, a friend put them in touch with a man who wanted to get rid of an Asian leopard that he kept in his garage. Gene persuaded Robert to let her take the leopard in. For six months, she sat in the corner of the leopard's cage, reading a book, until one day the cat walked over and let her pet him. A few months later, Gene bought a cougar cub. The cougar, which they named Sikio--big ear in Swahili--kept the leopard company during the day and slept with Robert and Gene at night. Then came a blind snow leopard and a midget lioness named Sheba.

Someone who had heard about Gene's burgeoning menagerie had the lioness' owner contact her because the lioness was not faring well. Her teeth were abscessed, and her legs were bowed from rickets--a sign of malnutrition. Gene went over daily to feed Sheba, and finally the man just gave her to him. Permanently deformed, toothless, and incapable of jumping, Sheba has lived all these years in a grassy area just beyond Gene's backyard, encircled only by a short fence that Sheba could not clear if she wanted to.

As word spread among different humane societies and zoos in Texas and around the country, the Reitnauer home for wayward felines continued to grow, and so did its expenses. Feeding each cat a couple of pounds of raw meat every day is not cheap, and neither are spacious grass-filled cages covered with welded heavy-gauge metal. Gene and Robert created the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation as a nonprofit corporation in 1988 to allow them to solicit donations. Gene also saw as their mission trying to educate the public about the hazards of keeping exotic cats as pets. The Reitnauers also pushed for regulation of the growing exotic cat breeding industry, in which too many unscrupulous breeders sell cats to people who don't understand that the cuddly cubs grow into ferocious predators.

They staffed TEFF with committed volunteers who paid $20 a day--or the equivalent in meat--for the privilege of being allowed to care for the animals.

Chuck Kiefer, a deputy city manager in Arlington, has been volunteering at TEFF with his wife for the past two years, logging almost 80 days a year at the sanctuary, where he guided tours, cleaned cages, and drained pools. "I've always been fascinated with big cats--their size, speed, intelligence, beauty, and mystery," says Kiefer. "Working at TEFF is a passion. TEFF gives volunteers the opportunity to interact with the cats, to establish a bond with them when they're young. It's an awesome thing to establish a relationship with a predator."

Volunteer Robin Uhring, who makes a living as a manicurist, says, "This is the only place I know where you work your way up to scooping poop. That's a coveted job, because you're closer to the animals."

Over the years, TEFF grew in size as well as reputation. Kathi Travers, special director for exotic animals and animal transportation for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has placed four cats at TEFF in the last two years, including a bobcat found chained to a radiator on Long Island and three lions living in tiny concrete enclosures in Mexico, where they were going to be killed because the zoo didn't have the funds to care for them.

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