By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I go to sanctuaries all over the country, and TEFF has got to be one of the best ones," says Travers.
While TEFF grew, Robert continued to support himself and Gene with his wild animal artwork. "Saving cats was really, for years and years, something she wanted and I helped her with," says Robert, who is temporarily living in Fort Worth as he travels to art shows. "It was nothing I wanted or craved or desired."
But increasingly, his time was spent caring for the animals and maintaining and building up the property--a job that quickly grew in scope when David Cook came into the Reitnauers' lives.
A reserved, slightly built man who favors khakis and sneakers to business suits, the red-haired Cook was a business wunderkind, a college dropout who became addicted to computers when he was hired as an accountant and bookkeeper at a computer company. He went on to start his own computer software company that he took public, then used the proceeds from a leveraged buyout of the company to start the video-rental giant Blockbuster.
Dubbed the "impatient entrepreneur" in a 1994 Forbes article for expecting quicker results from a company he owned called Amtech--its Tolltag technology would eventually make him $12 million--Cook expected equally quick results when he turned his attention to TEFF.
A lifelong lover of big cats, Cook took a tour of TEFF in 1992 and then began visiting four times a week. After a few months, he presented the foundation the deed to the adjoining 20 acres. Over the next three years, he contributed money to build a wrought-iron fence around the property, a volunteer center and cat hospital, several cat enclosures, and a pool that he eventually expected would be used by tigers and jaguars.
Gene called Cook her angel--and his generosity was extended to the Reitnauers as well. In February 1995, Gene absent-mindedly put her arm in the cage of Bruno, a tiger who had recently arrived. The tiger bit into her wrist and severed several tendons before Robert got him to release her by scraping his fingernails inside the cat's nostrils. Gene was in the hospital for 15 days, and Cook wrote a $26,000 check to cover the bill.
Gene went through a long, painful recovery--she never fully regained use of her left hand. Meanwhile, Robert continued to work with Cook on completing building projects.
"The place looked great," says Cook, "due to my money and Robert building the place up. It's probably the best facility in the country for big cats."
Cook gave his money anonymously, refusing to allow the Reitnauers to use his name in any promotional material. But everyone who volunteered at TEFF knew he was the person Gene referred to in newsletters as "DAD, Dallas' Anonymous Donor." It was obvious, because Cook had a key to the cages and enjoyed more freedom with the animals than anyone else.
For his part, Cook idolized Robert. "His knowledge and experience with cats was extraordinary," Cook says. "The cats adored and feared him. He taught me to never show the cats you're afraid of them, to never back away from them, and to never let them get the upper hand."
Until Robert left, the only issue Cook had with TEFF was that the Reitnauers--not the foundation--owned the property on which most of the animals were housed. Gene and Robert assured him that they intended to donate their property to TEFF once they paid off their mortgage and tax liens.
In a promotional video Louis Dorfman made last year to accompany his novel about a wolf, Dakar, Dorfman has himself described as a former Golden Gloves boxer and motorcycle racer who boasts four black belts in karate and who has romanced some of the most beautiful women in the world. This is a man who sleeps with tigers, the video proclaimed, and has a wolf as a pet. Modest, he's not.
The video goes on to boast that Dorfman once survived a fight with a leopard he kept at his North Texas ranch. He made the mistake of entering the leopard's lair at night, the time when the animal would normally hunt prey. The leopard sunk its fangs into Dorfman's face and neck, slicing his jugular vein and severing all the nerves on one side of his face, which required 1,200 stitches to repair. The leopard did not fare as well; Dorfman's girlfriend shot him.
The incident did not diminish Dorfman's love of wildlife. A cougar that he owned lived at the ranch for another 10 years until it died of old age in 1993. Dorfman was so distraught over the cougar's death, he says, that he sold the ranch. It was about this time that he heard about TEFF and attended a fundraiser at a restaurant in Highland Park.
He donated money to the Reitnauers and became a regular visitor at the sanctuary, where he was allowed to enter the cages. Dorfman always wanted a white tiger, the hot-house orchid of the feline family. The result of a genetic mutation, white tigers are bred only in captivity. Their breeding is ethically questionable, but they are sometimes acquired by zoos as conversation pieces and tourist attractions. Dorfman asked the Reitnauers if he could buy one and donate it to TEFF.