By Chris Joseph
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By Deirdra Funcheon
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By Michael E. Miller
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.
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."
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.
He tugs on a leash. There's a flash of fur. He lifts Sandy by the underarms, just as a father would pick up a toddler from a play pen. For an instant, before McCarthy releases the panther on top of her green plastic crate, he is face to face with the enormous feline.
Sandy sits regally on her hind quarters and stares into the crowd as McCarthy hurries through some nuggets of information about her species. His spiel includes a reference to Roy Horn, half of Siegfried & Roy. "Here in Florida, you're not allowed to keep the big cats like lions and tigers as pets, for one good reason: They will kill you! Or if you're a magician, they might drag you all over the stage in a place called Vegas."
McCarthy grabs the cat under the jaw to plant a loud kiss on the top of her head. The panther nuzzles him back. "She's a lover, not a fighter, aren't you?" he coos, his lips a few centimeters from Sandy's nose.