The cats of war

The co-founder of an exotic cat sanctuary loses everything, but did the punishment fit the crime?

Cook may have been upset about these issues, but he didn't do anything about them for more than a year--until Gene Reitnauer got into an ugly personality conflict with Louis Dorfman.

Dorfman had bought two exotic felines--a white siberian tiger and a snow leopard cub--and housed them at TEFF. Although using TEFF as a glorified kennel was technically a violation of the sanctuary's mission, the Reitnauers decided to accommodate the wealthy Dorfman, who was given keys that allowed him unfettered access to his cats.

In late summer of 1996, Dorfman and Gene Reitnauer had a series of spats. Dorfman, who found Reitnauer arrogant and abrasive, threatened to sue her if she did not develop an independent board of trustees who would institute tighter fiscal restraints at TEFF. Reitnauer did appoint two new trustees--a former TEFF employee with a bookkeeping background and a woman with a zoology degree who ran her own wildlife rehabilitation facility 150 miles away. But before they could make any changes at TEFF, Reitnauer provoked Dorfman into filing suit by demanding he return the keys to TEFF. He could still visit his cats, but only with a volunteer present.

Dorfman and Cook then brought their case against Reitnauer to the attorney general's office. The attorney general filed suit against her and appointed a receiver to run the operations of TEFF until the litigation was over. For the last several months, she has not been allowed anywhere near the cats, and the receiver had a 10-foot fence covered with an opaque tarp erected between her house and the cat cages.

For the past six months, TEFF has been run by Richard Gilbreath, a former Colorado furniture-store owner who co-founded a Colorado tiger sanctuary in 1994. It closed earlier this year because of financial problems and amid charges of animal cruelty. Gilbreath is being paid $60,000 a year, plus free board in the TEFF guest quarters and use of the TEFF Suburban. David Cook has been financing TEFF since the suit was filed.

The court ruling has left Reitnauer and the former volunteers reeling.
"We know Gene made mistakes," says Per-Ola Selander, a former TEFF volunteer, "but the punishment does not fit the crime. All her time and dedication was given to the animals. She was not a bookkeeper. Why hasn't Robert had to account for anything? He wasn't made to give back the money he took."

It will be up to the newly appointed TEFF board to decide whether to take legal action against Robert Reitnauer, says Soifer. "But the attorney general's office decided the wrongful actions were all done by Gene," Soifer adds.

"Were her mistakes so horrible as to totally ruin her and take everything she's worked for away?" asks Barbara Hescock, another longtime TEFF volunteer.

Bankruptcy lawyer Fuller finds it hard to believe that the jury found that Reitnauer had improved her property by building cat cages on it. "I think you could probably make a case that the cages decreased the value of the property," says Fuller.

For Gene Reitnauer, the hardest thing of all is the realization that she'll never see the cats again. "I cry every day and every night," says Reitnauer, who now supports herself as a substitute teacher. "It breaks my heart. It is like a mother being pulled away from 64 of her children.

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