When Animal Activists Attack

Bitten on the set of a Rick Ross video, Mark McCarthy now squares off against animal activists.

Siam attacked, McCarthy believes, because a female cat in an adjacent enclosure was in heat. Still, he became leery of the animal, so Siam was banned from performing in any more animal shows. The cat lived out the rest of his life in McCarthy's backyard sanctuary.

Last August, McCarthy was in the news again. A lion and a tiger wandered out of their enclosures in his backyard while he was on vacation in Montana. A caretaker at McCarthy's place called Fish and Wildlife officials for help. The cats were sedated, still within the fenced property. But their escape prompted three nearby schools to go on lockdown.

Lisa Wathne, a specialist in captive exotic animals with the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote a letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in August that called for the agency to revoke McCarthy's state license to own and exhibit animals. She labeled the escape of the lion and tiger "one more example of Mark McCarthy's inability to safely handle dangerous animals."

Mark McCarthy and one of his charges: Getting bitten is "part of the job."
C. Stiles
Mark McCarthy and one of his charges: Getting bitten is "part of the job."
Sandy the panther:  "She's a lover, not a fighter."
C. Stiles
Sandy the panther: "She's a lover, not a fighter."

Accusations like the one from PETA make McCarthy's blood boil. McCarthy is furious that Baskin listed him on her animal abuse website. After all, the tiger bit him. None of his animals have ever bitten a child or a model or any other member of the public, according to wildlife authorities. McCarthy takes insinuations that he can't handle his animals as personal insults. "Don't tell me I don't know my shit!" he warns would-be critics.

McCarthy estimates that he has presented more than 6,000 shows at elementary schools, old folks' homes, parks, hospitals, and birthday parties over the past two decades. He charges $350 for a one-hour encounter with nine animals. Last year, he banked $75,250 from 215 school shows. He also rents out creatures for fashion magazine shoots, movie cameos, TV commercials, print advertisements, and music videos. And he relies on donations. The Batchelor Foundation, a charitable trust based in Miami Beach, donated $250,000 to McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary in 2007, according to the foundation's most recent tax return on record. He estimates it costs $200,000 a year to care for all of his animals; many were abandoned pets and rescued wildlife.

McCarthy could have another payday coming soon. He got a phone call recently from Picture Perfect Productions, producer of the Ross video shoot. The production company wanted to know if McCarthy would bring a white tiger to another video shoot. McCarthy says he's leaning against it because the bite at the first shoot led to too much bad publicity after years of his animal injuries staying out of the media.

On a chilly Tuesday morning in February, McCarthy loads animals into his 8-year-old Chevy Astro van for a show at Pine Grove Elementary in Delray Beach. The animal performers include: Louie the kinkajou, Norma Jean the scarlet macaw, Harriet the tarantula, Wally the baby gator, Snowball the Burmese python, and Sandy the Florida panther.

Recently, a principal at another elementary school asked McCarthy to leave the panther out of the show for liability reasons. "In the past, I would have argued with the principal. 'What are you saying, I can't handle my cat?' Now I just put my pride aside. It's easier for me, anyway, because I don't have to pick her heavy butt up," he says. "You know, some of the other animals are more dangerous. Norma Jean will take a chunk out of you. I'd rather get bit by a panther than a parrot. That bottom beak is sharp like a shovel to get pulp out of fruit."

The show at Pine Grove Elementary is held outdoors, under the shade of a pavilion. The audience consists of about a hundred kindergartners. Norma Jean kicks off every show. McCarthy lets a handful of kids approach, one at a time, to act as living trees for the bird. A little boy volunteers. McCarthy instructs him to extend his right arm as if it were a branch. But when McCarthy eases Norma Jean onto his arm, the boy pulls away. The bird, which has one wing clipped, careens to the ground. The kids in the front row scoot backward, squealing, to avoid getting hit by Norma Jean. She lands awkwardly on one side. McCarthy scoops her up without missing a beat.

The next animal interaction also misfires. One after another, the volunteers that McCarthy chooses to hold Harriet the tarantula back out. Finally, a seemingly brave boy steps forward. But the kid withdraws his hand just as McCarthy lets go of the spider; the animal handler catches Harriet just before she goes splat. "Don't drop the tarantula, OK, big guy?" McCarthy says. "If the tarantula fell on the floor, it would surely crack and die." He's speaking from experience. A kid once dropped and killed one of his tarantulas.

After holding the baby gator, a little boy announces: "I want a cheetah!" Another boy, after feeling the weight of the Burmese python on his shoulders, tells his teacher excitedly, "Most animals bite. But they don't!"

A true showman always saves the best for last. In McCarthy's lineup, the last performer is Sandy the panther. Most of the children have no clue she's even there. The big cat has spent the previous hour lounging silently inside her big crate, facing away from the audience. McCarthy instructs the children to back up.

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