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Rapper Rick Ross was not on the set of the Miami music video shoot in May 2008 when Mark McCarthy led his 400-pound white tiger out of her crate. The producers had offered McCarthy $5,000 to use the big cat as a prop at a mansion on Star Island. They'd make it look like she was Ross' very own badass pet.
McCarthy bought 4-year-old Sabi for $5,000 when she was four months old. She's one of nearly a hundred exotic animals McCarthy keeps at his five-acre spread in the Acreage in western Palm Beach County. But inbreeding has brought out a mean streak in white tigers.
"A lot of the white tigers, in my opinion, are a little nutty in the head, a little unpredictable," says the 52-year-old McCarthy. White tigers have been so inbred, he explains, that they're responsible for a number of high-profile maulings.
After McCarthy took Sabi out of her cage, she decided to roll on the grass. The metal chain around her neck wrapped around her torso. The big cat couldn't breathe. She panicked. She dug her teeth into a nearby stair. She bit the chain.
When McCarthy intervened to unravel her, she bit into his right calf. "Just a quick bite, then a release," McCarthy remembers. "But it hurt like hell."
Sabi's canines actually met in the flesh behind McCarthy's tibia. Luckily for him, the three-inch-long teeth did not take out a tendon or an artery. A tiger in the wild typically downs its prey with a single bite to the neck. By holding tight onto its victim's throat, the cat can strangle an animal six times its size. Among mammals, tigers have one of the fiercest bites, with an exertion of 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. They can also kill with a single swipe of their paws. McCarthy realizes that his 200-pound, five-foot-four frame is no match for a full-grown tiger.
McCarthy pretended that everything was OK, despite his newfound limp and the blood seeping through one pant leg. He carried on with the shoot, loaded the tiger into his van, picked up the check, and drove back to his home.
McCarthy's nonchalance to a serious bite is one reason animal-rights activists say his business of renting out big cats needs to stop. Critics also say McCarthy's long-running school programs, in which he gives elementary-aged students access to potentially dangerous animals, are irresponsible and run the risk of causing serious harm to the kids.
Beth Preiss, director of the exotic pets campaign for the U.S. Humane Society, worries that McCarthy's schoolhouse shows give kids the wrong message. "It gives a false image that these animals can potentially be good pets," she asserts, adding that she wishes schools would not contract animal entertainers.
Richard Farinato, a former zookeeper and director of the Humane Society's captive wildlife protection program, compares on-the-road animal routines to playing Russian roulette. The list of potential mishaps is long. The animals could escape if the van got into an accident. A kid could contract salmonella from a reptile. An animal could get loose inside a school auditorium.
Farinato says animal shows like McCarthy's also help feed the problematic sale of rare animals. "You cannot separate this animal 'edutainment' from the exotic pet trade because it stimulates it, it thrives on it, and it takes animals that are cast off by the pet trade and puts them into entertainment. It's a circle. Animals just travel through it."
Carole Baskin, who owns Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, lists the Ross video-shoot incident on her 911 Animal Abuse website as an example of animal abuse. The way Baskin sees it, McCarthy is taking advantage of animals like Sabi when he shows them to the outside world for a fee. Baskin is a former breeder and displayer of big cats who now speaks out against breeding them for life in a cage.
"He's been around as long as we have," Baskin says of McCarthy. "He should have grown and evolved by now. For people like this, it's all about control. They try to get respect from other people by demonstrating control over animals."
Officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote a report about the video-shoot bite, but they did not issue McCarthy a citation. "The public was not endangered at any time and Mr. McCarthy controlled the situation," Fish and Wildlife investigator Shannon Wiyda wrote in the report.
McCarthy maintains that there was nothing to the Ross incident. "I get bit frequently," McCarthy says. "Just playing with these kind of animals, you're gonna get hurt. When they play, they play very rough. But they have thick skin — we don't. I still have not had anyone get injured by any of my animals, other than myself. It's like a carpenter getting hit by a hammer or something. It's part of the job."
The worst bite came from a clouded leopard named Siam, a 60-pound adult male that had performed well in many shows for kids. McCarthy says he can't recall exactly when it happened, but one day, the cat jumped on McCarthy's back as he knelt to pick up poop inside the leopard's enclosure. Siam planted his claws into McCarthy's shoulders and long canines into his skull. McCarthy squeezed the cat's face until he finally released. McCarthy escaped from the cage before the cat could come at him again. He was covered in blood from head to toe. McCarthy refused medical treatment that time too. But the wounds got infected. A doctor stuck tubes in his head to drain the swelling. "I looked like a Rasta guy with all this shit hanging out the back of my skull," McCarthy remembers.