By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Suffering malnutrition, the cat had been dumped by its owner at an Arlington veterinary clinic, then rescued by a volunteer at the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation, a sanctuary for abandoned, abused, or illegally owned large cats 35 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
TEFF's vet, Dr. Alldredge, examined the cub and gave a grim prognosis. She felt he had a one-in-four chance to live.
It was the kind of odds Gene Reitnauer, the co-founder and president of TEFF, has made a career of beating. As she had done countless times before, Reitnauer kept vigil, hand-feeding the cub six times a day. Every night for two and a half months, she slept with the tiger on a thin foam mattress inside a holding pen in the TEFF cat kitchen. The body contact, Reitnauer believed, would give the cub the warmth and security he needed to sleep.
After a week of care, the cub began to thrive. He put on weight and his bones--ravaged by rickets--grew more dense. By his 17th day at TEFF, he took his first step. The tiger named Noel--"He was my Christmas baby," says Reitnauer--is now a robust toddler, 300 pounds of frisky feline, who lives on top of the cage-covered hill right behind Reitnauer's house.
It was just another success story for Gene Reitnauer and TEFF. But today Reitnauer is prohibited from visiting TEFF's cat kitchen, much less caring for a cat in it. Her visits with Noel and the other 63 cats are restricted to a total of an hour and a half a day Monday through Friday. The rest of the time, though she lives on the property, she is forbidden from setting foot on the 35 acres that constitute the TEFF grounds.
If the Texas Attorney General and two wealthy Dallas businessmen have their way, Reitnauer will be permanently severed from any dealings with the cat sanctuary that she helped build into one of the finest in the country.
Gene Reitnauer is in the center of a legal battle over TEFF that grows uglier by the day. On one side is the 46-year-old Reitnauer, who by all accounts sacrificed everything she had, including her 17-year marriage, to save magnificent felines, most of which are endangered species, and give them a safe haven. Over the years, Reitnauer rarely took a day off and only recently accepted a salary--$18,000 a year.
However intuitive and nurturing she is with animals, Reitnauer has proven to be less successful in her relationships with humans, many of whom have found her arrogant and abrasive. Worse, she ran the nonprofit foundation with a single-minded devotion to the cats but an inattention to the fiscal and legal formalities required of nonprofit entities. Reitnauer treated her beloved TEFF as if she owned it, which may ultimately be her undoing.
Opposing her are TEFF's two major benefactors, who have their own complex emotional ties to the cats. Blockbuster Video founder David Cook's contribution of approximately $750,000 turned a once-humble cat orphanage into a showplace, allowing it to double its acreage and add a man-made lake, volunteer center, and guest quarters, among other amenities.
The second, local investor and author Louis Dorfman, fancies himself the Tarzan of TEFF. He believes he is blessed with a special gift for communing with wild animals.
In exchange for their financial support, these two donors made TEFF and its cats their personal playground. The bookish-looking Cook, 45, liked to have his favorite tigers take chicken legs from his mouth. He relished stepping into the cages and dominating the cats--a thrill that once almost cost him his life.
The 59-year-old Dorfman favored a gentler approach to the predators. When he wasn't watching television in his Preston Hollow mansion with his pet wolf, he often could be found at TEFF napping with a white tiger named Sabrina.
For three years, Reitnauer tolerated her benefactors' eccentricities, and they her laissez-faire management of TEFF--at least while her husband, Robert Reitnauer, was in the picture. In fact, Cook trusted Robert so implicitly, he usually gave him a free hand in spending his money--requiring neither plans nor detailed bids.
But after Robert's departure in the summer of 1995--he went to the jungles of Belize with a TEFF volunteer with whom he was having an affair--relations between Gene Reitnauer and the donors grew increasingly strained.
Angry about TEFF money Reitnauer had given her husband before he left, Cook and Dorfman joined together to insist she change her way of doing business. Among other things, they wanted her to create an independent board of directors.
Reitnauer, who had run TEFF with a free hand until then, ignored their demands. Finally last summer, after she and Dorfman clashed in an escalating series of arguments over money and management of the animals, Dorfman accused her of not running the foundation professionally or safely. He threatened to sue her if she didn't start instituting some changes.
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."
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.
"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.
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.
About this time, board secretary Richey, according to court documents, discussed legal ways a foundation could give someone funds. According to the TEFF charter, Gene was allowed to disburse funds for research.
A few days later, Gene sold a new tractor Cook had bought for the sanctuary. Cook believes all or part of the proceeds went into the $26,000 check she made out to Robert. Gene insists the money was a grant for research Robert was going to do in Belize on endangered cats such as margays, ocelots, and jaguars. Robert was also going to make contact with the Belize zoo in the hopes of getting a companion for a margay TEFF was about to acquire from Fossil Rim Wildlife Park, Gene says.
A notation on the check says "R & D," and board minutes from meetings in August and November discuss approval for the grant. In a sworn affidavit, Richey says that the meetings never happened and that he wrote the minutes months later to help Gene, who said she needed them for her divorce proceedings. The $26,000 Gene gave Robert shows up as part of their property settlement in the divorce decree.
Robert himself calls the grant explanation "a cockamamie story. I needed money to move to Belize, to find a place, to build me something. That woman was in charge of all the banking. She had a qualified CPA on board. If she couldn't do it legally, it is not my business to advise her how to spend the money." Robert says he used part of the money to launch a river tour and fishing business. (Robert may not have been in charge of the finances, but he certainly knew how to access them. Evidence from the donors' suits against Gene uncovered a $7,000 check from the TEFF account Robert wrote to himself, which he used to a fund a fishing trip to Belize before he moved there. "At least he was honest about it when we confronted him," says Cook.).
When Cook learned Gene had sent Robert the $26,000, he says that, at the time, he felt he had a choice of suing Gene and run the risk of bringing down the foundation or just walking away. He chose the latter.
"I quit going out [to the sanctuary] on principle," says Cook. "I couldn't deal with her. There was a bit of sympathy involved. She had just split with her husband. What she did was wrong, but thinking maybe the divorce was making her act irrationally led me to a more sympathetic position than I should have taken."
Gene's angel didn't set foot at TEFF again for more than six months, and he stopped donating money.
In the year and a half since Robert left TEFF, the place fell apart or has never been better, depending on whom you ask. MCook, obviously, falls in the camp that believes TEFF deteriorated. "Nothing new has been developed there, and Gene became more tyrannical than ever," he says.
But Rocky Miller, a regional sales manager for a litigation support firm who has been volunteering at TEFF with his wife for three years, says that nothing changed for the worse in Robert's absence and that some things have actually improved. "The number of tours actually picked up, and we got several more cats." One of them, in fact, is the margay that arrived in May, on permanent loan from Fossil Rim Wildlife Park.
To the trained eye, the sanctuary was in excellent shape. "We were very comfortable with the type of facility and level of care at TEFF," says Bruce Williams, vice president for conservation at Fossil Rim. "And she [Gene] had an interest in sharing information about endangered cats in Texas."
In February, Cook started visiting TEFF again. Despite their disagreements, Gene had written him numerous letters throughout last winter, asking him to come back. "The animals miss you. And I miss you," she wrote in one missive.
Cook says Gene badgered him for money and he explained that her actions the past summer had caused him to lose confidence in her. He once again told her that she needed to form an independent board of directors who would prevent her writing checks over $500 without a cosignature. (Cook and Dorfman have stated under oath that they do not want to run TEFF or be on its board of directors.)
Cook says he also learned that Gene had not turned over her property to TEFF and admonished her at least to make provisions for the animals in the advent of her death. She claims her will always stipulated that her property would go to TEFF, and after her divorce was final in March, she changed the beneficiary of her life insurance from her husband to the foundation.
After that conversation, Gene had Robert send Cook a letter admonishing him not to abandon TEFF. Robert told Cook that the success of TEFF was not the result of just Robert's efforts and that he shouldn't be angry about the $26,000, because Robert had earned it through years of hard work.
If Cook thought TEFF had changed, the volunteers detected a change in him as well. Always rough with the animals, they say when he worked with them now, it was as if he was trying to prove something.
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.
Two months after writing that agreement, Dorfman would allege in his lawsuit that the two cats were in danger of losing their lives because of Reitnauer's "incompetence in handling wild animals" and the "legion of untrained volunteers" on whom she depends.
The tension mounted between Dorfman and Gene right before Katrina arrived, toward the end of July. Dorfman purchased Katrina from John Ames, a well-respected breeder in Oklahoma who is a participant in the Species Survival Plan and an associate of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Because Dorfman did not have the necessary license to buy Katrina, Ames devised a compromise whereby Dorfman could donate $6,000 to his company and he would donate the leopard to TEFF.
"I actually turned down a lot more money from another buyer, because I thought the leopard would get better care at TEFF," says Ames. "I don't think people realize what a stellar reputation Gene has in the professional community."
Gene wanted to tout that Ames had donated the cat to TEFF in the belief that it would give her foundation increased credibility with other associations around the country. But Dorfman got mad and demanded she make clear that Katrina was his.
Tensions escalated soon after, when a volunteer accidentally left a tiger's cage open and the tiger escaped. Dorfman says Gene got "hysterical and incoherent," and yelled at a visiting vet who did not know how to use the tranquilizer gun. Gene and the foundation welder coaxed the tiger into a nearby empty cage, and the affair ended without incident. But a shaken Gene chewed out the volunteer and told him she ought to shoot him.
"I had nightmares that it could have been Sabrina," says Dorfman. "That was a time Gene needed to stay calm and collected, and she did just the opposite. She doesn't learn from her mistakes."
"I did get mad at the volunteer. Are women not allowed to get mad?" Gene says.
Their growing enmity came to a head in mid-August. On a Friday morning, Sabrina vomited a puddle of blood. Gene called the vet--Claudia Alldredge's husband, who is also a vet--who said he would be out by early afternoon. Gene went out to feed the cats and had a volunteer call Dorfman to inform him of Sabrina's condition.
The volunteer paged Gene several times to say that Dorfman was upset and had called repeatedly to talk with her. When Gene got back to the office after feeding was complete, an irate Dorfman was on the phone demanding the color of the blood, because his local vet had told him that bright red could mean just a bone scratched the cat's stomach, but dark red could signify something more serious like a tumor.
"It was red, Louis, blood is red," Gene snapped.
"I don't have time for your arrogance today," said Dorfman, who was going in for eye surgery that afternoon.
Two days later, when Dorfman came out to TEFF to check on Sabrina, he and Gene began arguing about the issues that had been simmering--including appointing a board. "Take a month, get an attorney, work out something that is acceptable," Dorfman said. "We'll have a standstill agreement until then."
The truce lasted less than three weeks. Gene had installed two new board members: Becky Hammond, a woman who had previously worked at TEFF and had a background in bookkeeping, and P.C. Haynes, a state-certified wildlife rehabilitation specialist with a master's in zoology who runs a small nonprofit foundation for wildlife rehabilitation and community wildlife education in Hamilton County, 150 miles south of Fort Worth.
In addition to setting up a new accounting and budgeting system, they decided, in the interest of safety, to ask Dorfman, who told Gene he was ready to enter the cage of the fiercest lion at TEFF, and Cook to return their keys to the cages. A volunteer was to be with them at all times when they were in the cages. Gene told Dorfman the news.
"I decided at that moment to file suit," says Dorfman. "She was completely out of control. Anything short of an aggressive action is considered a sign of weakness by her. She does not understand accommodation."
Dorfman got an injunction preventing any of the volunteers from interacting with Sabrina and Katrina and from letting a vet declaw Katrina--an issue Gene had been pressing as a safety issue. In response to the injunction, Gene's lawyer drafted a letter saying that it would be best for Dorfman to remove Katrina and Sabrina, because under the circumstances, she could not guarantee the same care afforded the other animals.
"Moving Katrina and Sabrina was cruel," says Cook. "She was hurting the animals because of a human problem. I got a message to her that if she didn't remove the request by the end of the week, I would sue."
Cook actually filed two suits. The first one demanded that Gene return two parcels of empty land he had donated because they had not been actively used for TEFF purposes. During the first few weeks in October, Cook had his attorney ask the foundation to send him an account of how his donations had been used and offered to have the TEFF books audited at Cook's expense. Dissatisfied with the documents he received, he filed a civil suit against Gene, accusing her of a conspiracy to commit fraud.
Cook recently filed suit against three volunteers who he claims committed crimes of perjury and destruction of evidence in order to cover up for Gene. He sued one volunteer who phoned Robert Reitnauer after Dorfman filed suit to ask Robert to verify in writing that the money Gene sent him had been used for a grant. He sued a volunteer who Cook alleges made massive deletions on the TEFF computer and possibly destroyed crucial evidence in the case. And he sued a third volunteer, a 52-year-old probation officer from Tyler, who testified that she saw minutes from the November board meeting showing the grant was discussed months before the board secretary claims he had written them.
"It would have been a whole lot easier if she [Gene Reitnauer] would stand up and take responsibility for what she has done," says Cook. "Now she's gotten three more people in trouble for doing things."
"She antagonized her two biggest donors," says Dorfman. "What does that tell you what's in the cats' best interest? If I had someone who gave me $700,000, I would be out there washing his car."
Not all the donors see it their way.
"Dorfman and Cook are bullies," says Fred Brodsky, owner of a real estate investment company who organized the massive effort to bring the Mexico City lions to TEFF. "This is a power play about ego."
And the power play continues to escalate. The welder recently kicked the volunteers off the TEFF property. Only a few will be allowed back on, after first submitting to an interview.
"This is ludicrous," says Brodsky. "The socialization and level of care provided by the volunteers is what made TEFF a first-class facility."
It's 9 p.m. two nights before Christmas, and Gene is sobbing. Sikio, the cougar she raised from eight weeks of age to keep her pet leopard company, is out in the sanctuary deathly ill. She has heard that they might have to destroy the cat, which has liver problems. She can see lights on at his cage where the vet is examining him. But she is not allowed to be at Sikio's side.
"This is criminal," she says. "It is insensitive and demeaning and cruel. They are not just punishing me. They are punishing the cat. It is as if they are trying to keep a child away from its mother." A few days later, Sikio was operated on and, as of this writing, is still alive.
After several experts, including Dallas Zoo director Rich Buickerood, testified that the cats could be adversely harmed by being separated from Gene, Cook and Dorfman are now trying to press a case that is the equivalent of saying Gene is an unfit mother. They claim that the cats are too thin, that the cats' coats lack luster, and that 10 or so of them are suffering from worms not uncommon in exotic cats. To add insult to injury, they had Robert Reitnauer tour the place; he says he was shocked to find the condition the animals were in.
But veterinarian Claudia Alldredge, who treated the animals at TEFF for five years until she moved to San Antonio at the end of the summer, says the cats are "unbelievably healthy." She came back to consult on a case and saw the cats in October.
"This is not a personality contest, but I'm afraid it is turning into one," Alldredge says. "She's done a wonderful job with the animals, and many of them wouldn't be alive if it weren't for her. I'm just sick about this. But I'm afraid the time for compromise is long past. This won't stop, because they have enough money to get it done. And she's made enough people mad through the years.