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

The Reitnauers discussed it for several weeks, concerned that it went against the mission of TEFF to save abused and abandoned cats. But they conceded on the theory that the tiger might attract more visitors and donors and that they would be rescuing her from a life of breeding.

When David Cook found out about the white tiger donation in early 1995, he was livid and didn't visit TEFF again for a few months. But when he returned to the facility in the spring of 1995 and began having serious disagreements with Gene Reitnauer, he quickly forgot his qualms over the white tiger and enlisted Dorfman as an ally.

The first problem was over a pool Cook built that he alleges in court documents Gene converted to her own personal use. Robert Reitnauer had been trying to devise a solution to a drainage problem in the middle of the property that left a pool of stagnant, mosquito-breeding water after every rainfall, according to Wayne Snodgrass, a local contractor who built most of the TEFF facilities. After a couple of failed attempts at fixing the problem, the only solution seemed to be building a swimming pool on the site, complete with a waterfall. The pool was completed in the spring of 1995 and was landscaped and set off by gazebos on each side--for a total of about $50,000 paid for by Cook.

Cook and Robert Reitnauer claim that the pool was envisioned to be used by the cats through controlled access from their surrounding cages, which were to be built several years down the road. Robert says the idea was for experienced cat handlers like himself to go into the pool and work with the cats as visitors looked on.

When he was on the property in April 1995, Cook says, Gene Reitnauer announced to him that she did not want tigers swimming in the pool--that it would be used for the volunteers and herself, because "she deserved it." Gene Reitnauer denies making that statement.

Cook says he didn't press the issue at the time because he does not like confrontations, and he wanted to maintain a good relationship with TEFF. So he devised a way to ensure the pool was the property of TEFF and not the Reitnauers. Over dinner one night, Cook made the Reitnauers a generous proposal. He offered to give them enough money to pay the mortgage and liens for the parcel of property on which most of TEFF, including the pool, was built, plus an additional $50,000 in profit. Robert declined the offer, saying he didn't want to make a profit on the cats. Gene confirms that the offer was made, but denies that a squabble over the pool prompted it.

A short while later, Cook contends he gave Gene a check for $50,000 to cover the mortgage and liens, which Gene told him came to about $42,000. In exchange, Cook says, he was willing to sign an agreement giving them lifetime rights to live in the house. But Gene claims the money was given to the foundation to complete works in progress--the sprinkler system, lighting, trees, and the like--and was followed by another donation from Cook for $71,000 to complete additional projects. No paperwork for the alleged mortgage buyout proposal was ever produced. The house and property remain in Gene's name today, a point of contention in the pending litigation.

Asked why he didn't pay the money directly to the mortgage company and why he gave more than what the property was worth, Cook says, "I always rounded off the figures. That's the way I did things. I trusted these people and never asked for an accounting. I just wanted it done."

The next conflict Cook had with Gene came in August of 1995, shortly after Robert Reitnauer--who was tired of being "the TEFF maintenance man 365 days a year"--had left for Belize. Cook says Gene told him and the board secretary--a Southlake CPA named Robert Richey--she was going to send her husband money from the TEFF account in the hopes he would come back to her. They strongly urged her not to do it, saying that it would be a misapplication of foundation funds. The donors say she came back later and told them her estranged husband deserved the money because of years of hard work. She also told them he had threatened to harm her if she did not send him money. Robert Reitnauer denies making any threats.

Cook drafted a letter of caution to Gene and claims he read it over the phone to her after first consulting with Louis Dorfman and Robert Richey. In the letter, Cook wrote that taking money from the foundation for her personal use was the same as robbing a bank.

Dorfman was outraged. He says that during this conversation with Cook he also first learned that the cage he had built for Sabrina--in fact, the lion's share of development at TEFF--was on property owned by the Reitnauers. He felt this endangered the permanence of the facility, since the property was subject to foreclosure. Richey was out of town and could not be contacted by the Observer. His wife, Donna, says he has been instructed by his attorney not to talk to the media.

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