By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When he went into a cat cage, he refused to carry a spray bottle of vinegar, which was the prescribed procedure. Spraying a cat with vinegar was a gentle way to discourage a cat from biting or jumping. Cook only carried pepper spray, which the volunteers were instructed to use only in emergencies.
Several volunteers report they had seen Cook hitting some of the cats in the face when he disapproved of their behavior. "Robert taught me to never let a cat get away with anything once," says Cook. "A 500-pound animal has to know what the rules are. If a cat bites you, you hit it and say no. It's drawing a line. It doesn't hurt the cat."
Some of the volunteers found another incident more insidious. Cook offered to help volunteer Annie Peterson clean the pool of the tiger sisters, Kashmere, Laxmi, and Khera, whose mother was abandoned in Roanoke after her owner was imprisoned for embezzling.
"The cats like to play with the hose like a giant string," says Peterson. "When you show them the vinegar bottle, they usually take off. David wanted to come in and help. He couldn't believe I hadn't 'hose-trained' them. He didn't want to go with established procedures. He lets the cats come up to him, he lets them grab the hose--and then he Maces them. These cats are not here to be trained. It's wrong."
The next day, Cook went back into the three tigers' cage to continue his hose-training. He says he sprayed the hose with pepper spray and let the cats grab for it. When they tasted it, he pulled it back and said "no." Still, one of the cats defied him, rolling on its back and snarling.
"It was a real standoff," says Cook.
Gene and Cook had words about his training techniques. Dorfman, too, talked to Cook, telling him that dominating the cats was an old-style approach. A final incident convinced Cook that perhaps he was going too far. He was in a cage with Shauna, a lioness, attempting to bond with her, when she suddenly lunged at him in a vicious, killing attack. She knocked him to the ground and, snarling and spitting, went to bite him.
As Robert had taught him, he blocked his neck with crossed arms. Shauna's teeth sank into his abdomen, ripping it open. Cook got up and lunged at her, and she jumped back.
"It was amazingly painful," recalls Cook. "I realized I had gone too far. The more chances you take, the further you'll go to make it interesting. I realized there was a difference between not showing fear and losing fear. I had lost fear."
A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning in May, the volunteers had asked Louis Dorfman to hold a seminar to teach them some of the things he knew about working with cats. Cook asked to address the group.
"I told them that my rough methods had to stop," Cook says. "I told them I had gone too far and I had violated the sanctuary concept."
Once again, Cook stayed away from TEFF for the next several months. He returned to TEFF to find Gene and Louis Dorfman snarling and spitting at one another, locked in their own battle of domination.
In late spring, Dorfman had agreed to fund $11,000 to build a cage for a lion named Simba2, to whom he had grown attached. Simba2 came to TEFF last February after escaping from a four-foot-by-four-foot cage behind a house in Collin County. An inexperienced vet involved in his capture over-tranquilized him, leaving him with nerve damage that causes him to twitch and walk with a halting gate.
When Gene informed him that another cat--a leopard from Detroit found tied to a radiator with a telephone cord in a suspected crack house--was going to live there instead, Dorfman angrily demanded his money back, according to court records.
There was a good explanation why Simba2 couldn't be moved into the new enclosure, but Dorfman didn't want to hear it, Gene says. TEFF vet Claudia Alldredge suspected that Simba2 had highly contagious canine distemper. Her suspicions were confirmed by one of the leading experts in the country, to whom Alldredge says she sent Simba2's lab reports. The cage the cat was going to be moved to was near a group of other lions--the ones from Mexico City--who would be susceptible to the virus that can linger in a cat's system for a year or more. Simba2's original cage was near a cougar and other cats who were immune to the disease.
In the beginning of July, Dorfman still thought enough of Gene and TEFF to purchase a baby snow leopard and place her at TEFF under the same arrangement he had with Sabrina, the white tiger. "She is being donated with the understanding that she will receive the same fine and professional care that all the animals at the foundation premises are receiving at the present time," Dorfman wrote on July 2. If conditions at TEFF deteriorated, ownership of the white tiger and leopard would revert to Dorfman.