Going for the jugular

The battle over a North Texas sanctuary for wild felines grows cattier by the day

On April 1, Chewy, a rare Asian leopard, bled to death after being bitten in the neck by Sikio, a cougar with whom Chewy had shared a cage for 13 years.

Chewy's violent and untimely death makes him the latest casualty in the bloody, protracted war being waged for control of the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation, a Wise County nonprofit sanctuary for abused and abandoned exotic cats ("Cat fight," January 2). Until Chewy's death, it was just humans who were going for each other's jugulars.

The battle began last fall, when two wealthy benefactors of TEFF filed a civil suit in Dallas County against Gene Reitnauer, the sanctuary founder and executive director, accusing her of conspiracy to commit fraud. The benefactors--Blockbuster Video founder David Cook and investor Louis Dorfman--allege that Reitnauer gave $26,000 of TEFF's donated money to her ex-husband as part of a divorce settlement and then drew up documents to make it look like a grant from the foundation.

In late November, the Texas Attorney General's Office filed its own suit, accusing Reitnauer 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.

Since the suit was filed, a court-appointed receiver has been managing the assets of the foundation. A former employee of a Colorado tiger sanctuary has been caring for the cats since January.

An urn filled with the cremated remains of Chewy--the first feline Reitnauer ever rescued--now rests on the mantel in Reitnauer's house, which is situated on the TEFF grounds. Chewy's ashes are the closest Reitnauer has gotten to any of her beloved cats since March, when the judge in the attorney general's suit slapped her and 14 of the volunteers who used to care for the cats with a restraining order, forbidding them from setting foot on TEFF property.

Until then, the court had permitted Reitnauer to visit with the lions, tigers, leopards, and the like for an hour a day, but now Reitnauer cannot even do that. The restraining order was prompted by a heated confrontation Reitnauer and an ally, former TEFF volunteer Felix Laughlin, had with Charles Ashcraft, who works as a welder at the sanctuary.

In late December, Houston lawyer Ron Sommers, the court-appointed receiver for TEFF, instructed TEFF employees to build a 10-foot fence in Reitnauer's backyard, obstructing her view of the sanctuary's 64 cats, which are housed in cages on the hill behind her home. In early March, Sommers ordered the staff, who had complained that Reitnauer was belligerent, to cover the fence with opaque fabric, obliterating Reitnauer's view of the animals.

According to sources familiar with the case, the workers, including Ashcraft, arrived unannounced on Reitnauer's property after scaling the fence. She and Laughlin, an American Airlines pilot, asked the workers to leave the premises. Laughlin and Ashcraft had words, and Laughlin went into the house to phone the sheriff's office. When Laughlin came out of the house to tell Ashcraft that the sheriff was on his way, Laughlin was brandishing a gun.

The resulting restraining order, which is currently on appeal, also prevents Reitnauer from walking in her front and back yards. As a result, she was forced to give her four dogs away. "One dog is four miles up the road. Two others are 18 miles away. And another is 35 miles away," says Reitnauer. "How can this happen to a woman who has done nothing wrong?"

That Reitnauer lives on the grounds of TEFF complicates all the issues in the case, especially since Reitnauer's opponents maintain that she ran the foundation as if she owned it.

In court papers, Dorfman and Cook claimed that Reitnauer threatened the solvency of the foundation, as she still owed money on her 10-acre property, and there was a tax lien against the house as well. Cook, who has donated more than $700,000 to the foundation since 1994, alleges he gave Reitnauer money to pay off the mortgage and liens in exchange for Reitnauer donating the property to the foundation. Reitnauer denies the allegation, and Cook admitted to the Dallas Observer in an earlier story that he never put his intentions in writing.

Several months ago, Dorfman assumed the approximately $42,000 mortgage. But that arrangement lasted only a short while. Reitnauer, who found work as a substitute teacher after the state seized control of TEFF, presented Dorfman with a cashier's check for the entire note four weeks ago. Two former TEFF volunteers had taken out a bank loan on her behalf. As for the IRS lien, which is about $5,000, Reitnauer says she is paying it off monthly.

"Now I own the land, and most of the cats are on my property, but I can't step off my front or back porch," says Reitnauer. "This is all very sad and very sick."

As Reitnauer awaits a jury trial in Austin that will determine whether she will play any role in TEFF's future, she has other legal problems closer to home. On May 30, state District Judge Adolf Canales will hear final testimony in a motion for sanctions Dorfman filed accusing Reitnauer of committing discovery abuse by, among other things, allegedly ordering a TEFF volunteer to destroy computer records.

In the meantime, Reitnauer is mourning the loss of Chewy, whose death she blames on the stress the cats have been under since the attorney general's office filed its lawsuit. Their diets have been changed, and their physical contact with humans has been curtailed almost completely. The cat with whom Chewy shared a cage had been on medication for a liver ailment.

No one knows for sure what made Sikio kill Chewy. But one thing is certain. With all the legal wrangling at TEFF, it's a jungle out there.

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