Trib reporter gets white tigers shut down at Navy Pier

Well, this is one example of a journalist making a difference. But did he want to?

When Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass showed up at the Navy Pier White Tigers exhibit on Tuesday, he came armed with questions and information – information that ultimately made the Pier authorities decide to shut the exhibit down.

What Kass had learned is that the owner of the exhibit, Marcus Cook, was in the midst of having his license revoked by the USDA.

This is what Kass had to say:

“According to court documents, the USDA found that Marcus Cook’s company ZooCats Inc. ‘willfully violated’ the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA has been hunting Cook for years now, alleging a long history of infractions. ‘There is evidence that ZooCats trainers did not handle the animals properly, at times, using physical abuse with a cattle prod to train, work or control an animal during an exhibition,’ USDA spokesman Dave Sacks told us.”

Indeed, a quick Google search on “Marcus Cook” or “Marcus Cook, USDA” turns up lots of stories on Cook’s alleged treatment of animals, and his various licensure run-ins with authorities.

“If you do a Nexis search on Marcus Cook, you find many states that took action, or almost took action, against him,” says Angie Leventis a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who did a lot of the legwork for the Kass column.

The Duluth News Tribune reported in 2008 that Cook was fined $100,000 by the Texas Attorney General for fraudulently operating various non-profit entities.

Says the News Tribune in a 2009 followup article:

“A Texas-based tiger exhibitor who visited Duluth two years ago has lost his license after a federal judge found him guilty of abusing his animals and violating the Animal Welfare Act. Marcus Cook holds one of four Royal White Bengal Cubs born in Duluth in July 2007. The four tiger cubs later died.”

Kass quotes Cook as saying that “activists with agendas working for the USDA” are behind the claims of cruelty. He denies using cattle prods or other devices.

Leventis says USDA representatives showed up at Navy Pier on Monday, after getting a tip that people were being allowed to touch the tigers. The USDA determined that was not the case; and Leventis has the USDA report.

She also said Navy Pier appeared not to know anything about Cook or his past. Calls to Navy Pier by Chicago Parent were not returned by publication time. But Pier spokesman Nick Shields told Kass: “Based on the information we received today, effective immediately we are ending the exhibit and our contractual relationship with Mr. Cook’s company.”

Meanwhile, Kass, in his column, seems a bit ambivalent about who to believe or whether the exhibit should have been shut down.

Writes Kass:

“…what worries me is that the crackdown on the white tigers may be used to condemn all zoos and exhibitions as inherently cruel, in part because they hold animals captive for our interest and enjoyment. I think saving such beautiful predators is more complicated than a slogan. If humans don’t attach themselves emotionally to the big cats, they will disappear. Their bones will be ground into powder and sold. Their habitat will be plowed and planted.”

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