A Fine Mess

A troubled wild kingdom looks to set up a SoFla outpost

The Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary might well be coming to town. The nonprofit Punta Gorda facility -- which houses some 500 animals, including lions, a tiger, and bears (oh my!) -- is looking to open a satellite operation in either Broward or Palm Beach county. The sanctuary's local representative, Carrie Bradford, says Octagon has grown so much, and so many of its exotic animals come from South Florida anyway, that she has been looking for a suitable spot for several months.

Is this good or bad?

Consider: In the world of captive wildlife, a place like Octagon can serve a purpose. Many of the animals there are sick or injured or have come from private owners who no longer want the expense or aggravation of caring for an exotic pet. Most zoos won't take such beasts; thus, it's either euthanasia or a private sanctuary like Octagon.

Yet for years, the two-decade-old Charlotte County reserve and its owner, Peter Octave Caron, have been mired in controversy, mostly having to do with Octagon's failure to meet the United States Department of Agriculture's minimum standards for wild animal care. In late 1994, the USDA shut down the place for repeated violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. According to news accounts at the time, a USDA inspector found not only shoddy record-keeping and inadequate cages but a cougar's tail and a dead turkey lying next to a walk-in freezer. There were also dead animals floating in a pond where deer, pigs, goats, and sheep went to drink.

Octagon ended up paying a $10,000 fine, according to the USDA, and reopened in mid-1995. Subsequent inspections have continued to find problems. Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the USDA, won't provide details but confirms that there currently are two open USDA investigations into Octagon for possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act. "Repetition and severity are generally what trigger investigations," he explains.

Little wonder, then, that Octagon is prominently featured on Wildlifepimps.com, a Website maintained by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that chronicles disturbing tales of roadside zoos. "The fact that [Octagon] is listed on that Website means they're one of the worst in the country," says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist at PETA's home office in Norfolk, Virginia.

And would you believe that one of PETA's biggest bad guys actually wears a black hat? Believe it: Caron -- whose usual outfit is described in one 1999 news story as consisting of "a black cowboy hat, a gold chain with a tiger tooth around his neck, a black shirt, black boots, and blue jeans" -- says he doesn't much care what PETA thinks about his operation.

"PETA attacks everybody in the animal industry and pays each other great big salaries to do it," Caron grouses. "Most of the time, they go off half-cocked, without any knowledge. They trespass; they do a lot of nasty things. It's easy to knock somebody who's doing something while you're doing nothing. If they really cared about animal welfare, they'd have a place to feed and take care of them."

He's similarly dismissive of the feds: "The USDA, I've been fighting with them for years," he sighs. "Everybody who has animals fights with them. There's no way anybody doing anything with animals can not get cited for something." He bemoans the degree of latitude the department grants its inspectors, using words like "devious" to describe the USDA's field workers. "When you have personal interpretation, there's no way you can make it through any type of inspection," he asserts. "Opinions are like backsides: Everybody has them, and sometimes the same thing comes out of them."

Caron maintains that Octagon is the last, best hope for animals with few other options. "We don't exploit them; we don't make 'em dance through fire hoops," he says. "We give them a good, healthy place to live. Some people, when they see things built to [federal] specifications, will say, "Hey, that's really great.' Somebody else will look at the same thing and say, "Oh my God, it's a prison; look how small that is.' Some people will say these animals shouldn't be in captivity at all; they should be free. We don't have all the answers; we just try to do the best we possibly can for animals in need."

Bradford, a manager and coordinator for Octagon who lives in Fort Lauderdale and commutes to the sanctuary, says that she hasn't found a Southeast Florida location yet but that she has a real estate agent looking for a five-acre to ten-acre plot of agriculturally zoned land in Broward or Palm Beach counties. The facility would likely serve as an intake center for new animals and would also be used for public lectures, education, and community outreach.

Undercurrents offers this bit of free advice to the Octagon crew: Before setting up shop in this neck of the woods, make sure you fix the problems that prompted these current investigations.

Before last Friday's fight, Hollywood boxer Andre "Tombstone" Purlett was 32-0 with 29 knockouts, ranked sixth in the World Boxing Organization. This was the big one -- Purlett's first major televised bout, and if he beat the more experienced Eliecer Castillo, he would have a shot at the WBO title against Wladimir Klitschko. Undercurrents had to be there.

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