My name is Carolyn Atchison. I am the owner of an animal sanctuary in Lawrence County, Alabama, an extremely rural
area located in the northwest portion of the state. My 60-acre facility is home to more than 150 different animals, many of
which were rescued from deplorable conditions. When animals end up in my facility, they live the remainder of their lives in
comfort and are treated with kindness, compassion and love. Each year, hundreds of people visit my park to see these rare
animals. It provides many people with the only chance they will ever have to see up close the beauty of these animals, many of which are endangered. What most people don't
realize, however, is this sanctuary, the only loving home most of these animals have ever known, was created as a front for
undercover investigations into the black market animal trade.|
My first encounter with federal investigations actually had nothing to do with animals. In 1975, I became aware of a counterfeit operation with several brand name items being produced in Atlanta, Ga., and in Corinth, Miss., items under the name of Panama Jack and Calvin Klein. I contacted Alabama Bureau of Investigation agent Johnny NeSmith and we set up an operation so that I was affiliated with them, buying and marketing their goods as they were manufactured. This gave me the opportunity to go inside their operation and see how this was done and where the mills were. The operation was a great success. All involved were arrested and charged and a story appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In 1977 and early 1978, I became involved with a federal agent who at that time was working with the Justice Department and several other investigative departments of government to investigate numerous illegal activities. The investigation encompassed everything from illegal trafficking in drugs to counterfeit money, firearms, bank robberies and homicides. The investigation lasted from 1978 until 1982 and exposed what later became known as the Southern Mafia, involving operations in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Florida, with connections to the outer Chicago area. This investigation gave me the opportunity to work with several governmental entities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, Internal Revenue Service, Drug enforcement Agency and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation.
From this investigation, a long-term relationship developed with an agent in the U.S. Department of Customs, Agent Rogers. We made an oath in 1982 that we would always be together and he would watch my back. I had a list of numbers I could call if something happened or if I ever needed someone. It was through this Southern Mafia investigation that I eventually became involved in my work with animals.
In 1982, I had inadvertently stumbled into the black market smuggling of animals. At that time, I was still in the clothing business and had made a trip into the Carolinas. I saw a billboard that said "Roadside Park: Tigers and Exotic Animals For Sale and to See. "I went there to visit and I was absolutely appalled by what I saw. The animals were living in unimaginable conditions. There were at least 20 plus tigers in 5x10 cages. Some were so thin they could hardly stand. There was a liger, which according to a sign supposedly weighed 1,100 pounds, in a 10x12 cage. The cage was filled with body waste and it was eating the remains of a dead horse's neck and head.
This "park" had numerous different species, from jaguars to leopards to primates. I talked to the family, who had several cubs for sale at that time. That was my first encounter with a tiger. I'd never experienced motherly feelings until that time, even though I had a son. When I touched that baby tiger that was just a few days old, extremely sick and had no hair, the feelings I felt were, I'm sure, what everybody feels when they have a child. I had feelings of overwhelming desire to feed and nurture and care for it. I hate to admit it, but I never experienced those feelings when my son was born. I purchased two two-week old cubs, Precious and Sheba. I came home and started building a facility to house as many as I could find and buy and bring back here. I continued to rescue animals and bring them to my home.
I purchased Sheba's mother, so I had an adult tiger in addition to three babies, making a total of four tigers. I had a six-week-old leopard and a 14-month-old leopard. I had bought two cougars, as well. Never once did I realize that what I was doing was illegal.
About six months later, I was contacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and asked if I had the required permits to own these cats. Agent Gary Phillips from Montgomery told me I'd broken the law. I had no idea there was any type of requirement. By this time, I had gone to several other facilities and familiarized myself with the activities surrounding the sale of these animals. I asked if the marketing of these animals was illegal, then why was it so widespread, why was it being allowed to go on? Agent Phillips informed me that without federal agents present when the deals took place, nothing could be done because there were so many snags and loopholes in the law. Budgets didn't allow enough agents to be in the field to track the sales and transfers.
I obtained my necessary permits and became legal and decided that I would do something to help. With my former experience in assisting with investigations, I realized I could possibly help with this.
In '82 and '83, there weren't many females involved. Most of the activity was being conducted by the "good ol' boy" system. Being a girl and willing to learn, it was easy for me to get involved with the men and learn how animals were bought, how paperwork was done, and how the animals were sold.
Getting in with five of the largest brokers in the 1980s was easy. I attended the auctions. I traveled to legitimate zoos with them when they made their pickups. I saw how it was all done. Doors were opening up to every avenue, from importers to brokers to breeders.
The biggest surprise I had was learning that the biggest portion of the black market trade was coming from the zoos. Animals were being purchased out of zoos and in some cases "donated" to brokers. They weren't always donated, but that was how paperwork made it appear. After the animals were transferred to the brokers, they were then transferred to breeding farms. These farms were in the business of mass producing endangered species to be sold as pets to the general public through the black market trade. I witnessed the illegal sale of everything from snow leopards and clouded leopards to cheetahs, antelopes, reptiles and primates of all types. Zoos were like a super discount store. Brokers could go in with wish lists and say, "This is what I've sold and this is what I need." In most cases, animals were sold before they were even picked up from the zoos. The brokers could go in and just get what they wanted. In most instances, they didn't even have the proper paper work.
By the mid-1980s, I had also stumbled into importers bringing in monkeys and rare, endangered animals, as well, to zoos in exchange for animals the importers wanted. Through the course of the investigation, we stumbles upon monkeys being smuggled across borders, using health papers from domestic dogs and cats. The more involved I became, it seemed as if one investigation linked to another as readily as night and day. At one point, I didn't even want to talk to anyone for fear that they too would either be involved in the investigations or linked to them. All hopes were fading that anything could or would be done, because so much money was being made off the backs of these animals. It seemed as if every avenue that we explored led to the beginning of another new investigation. There were not enough agents to handle the workload, and there was not enough in the budget to fund the investigations.
My home and park became central to the investigations as they progressed. Thousands and thousands of taped conversations beginning in 1985 and continuing through several years were copied, duplicated and sent to agencies I was affiliated with and working with. My house was at all times bugged, phone lines were tapped, and I was equipped with a briefcase and devices to record and document these transactions. Anytime there were threatening situations, agent's were present to step in if necessary. I was always under federal supervision.
By 1941 I was able to obtain access to the AZA (American Zoos and Aquariums) database of all zoo transactions, sales and purchases, which included the complete diary of all the trafficking. My park became an accredited member of AZA. Through this database, I stumbled upon the fact that a lot of monkeys were highly infected with various types of viruses and were being sold at auctions, pet stores, and through ads in magazines to private individuals. These monkeys were being sold as easily as you would sell a ferret, with no guidelines or restrictions.
In 1995, the investigation into the monkey trade had connected to several zoos which were selling infected monkeys. In 1996, I was accused of obtaining monkeys under false pretenses, although at the time of purchase, the Baton Rouge Zoo had released several infected monkeys to a broker. The monkeys were then placed in the Animal Finders Guide magazine to sell, weeks prior to my obtaining them. When the broker picked up the monkeys from the Baton Rouge Zoo, no tests were done on the monkeys. I was aware of these particular monkeys prior to the sale because I had been offered the monkeys. I had gone around through the network to another AZA zoo director and made arrangements to purchase the remaining monkeys at the Baton Rouge Zoo. The Baton Rouge Zoo sold the monkeys, which were spot nosed gueons, to the Birmingham Zoo, who sold the monkeys to me. I was personally buying the monkeys because money wasn't available in the federal budget to purchase them through the investigation. I was not aware that there was a young zoo keeper, Donna Chance, at the Baton Rouge Zoo who was also on the trail of the monkeys, one of which she had hand raised. Chance discovered that the monkeys were being sold at auctions. When Baton Rouge first sold the monkeys, the first load of monkeys went to a broker called Lyn Bone, and he made arrangements for another broker to buy them. I was contacted to buy them and another broker outbid me. The young zoo keeper, Donna Chance, had been told the monkeys were going to an accredited facility, but we later learned that they were actually going to a roadside park. Chance was calling around and causing "trouble" about the transactions, and I didn't know this at the time. Meanwhile, I had already made arrangements with Birmingham Zoo Director Jerry Wallace to purchase the remaining spot nosed gueon monkeys. In the meantime, Paul Price, the director of the Baton Rouge Zoo, was being questioned, and Jerry Wallace was being questioned, as well. It boiled down to this: Paul Price, the director of the Baton Rouge Zoo, had to get the monkeys back in order to cover his own illegal activity. The monkeys had to be tested to determine what viruses they had. I ended up being the scapegoat in the process, despite the fact that I was working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. I eventually ended up having to go to court and defend myself against a suit from the Birmingham Zoo. I was always in contact with the agents. All conversations were taped and all records were in order. No illegal transactions were going on whatsoever Dorothy Manera, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent from New Jersey, was aware of every transaction I made, although I didn't actually have to have permission because it wasn't an illegal transaction. The monkeys weren't endangered. However, the agents were aware that I believed these monkeys were infected.
While all of this was going on, I continued working with USFW. We were dealing with some bad guys, too. I had finally gotten my foot in the door with Matthew Block, one of the largest primate importers in the U.S. This gave us the ability to deal with his associates and expose him. Block had already been convicted of smuggling primates into Russia. During this time, he was also selling primates to private sectors. One of Block's associates contacted me and asked if I'd be willing to purchase a large group of monkeys and launder the paperwork through my facility, in exchange for a large payment. All conversations were taped and monitored. There were calls made to federal agents after each call I received. I was given the O.K. to start transactions and deal with Matthew Block through his contact. At this time, I received another call from another associate who told me the monkeys were highly infected and to stay away from them. This associate further told me the monkeys were infected with the Ebola Reston Virus, a mutated form of the deadly Ebola Virus which originated in Africa. The Ebola Reston virus was discovered in a lab facility in Reston, Virginia, in monkeys which had been imported from the Philippines. Studies later showed that, while Ebola Reston is deadly to primates, humans are immune to the disease. I informed my New Jersey contact of the call I received, and she told me to go ahead and make the deal. I then contacted the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and told them of the call I had received. The CDC told me there was no way the monkeys were infected because they weren't the same group of monkeys. They said it was a "figment of my imagination."
During this time, the deal with the Birmingham Zoo was going down. At this same time, in August of 1996, the deal was to go down from Miami to me, but I was on trial at the Lawrence County, AL. Courthouse for not paying fair market value for the monkeys I purchased from the Birmingham Zoo. It didn't matter that they were sick. The problem was that I just didn't pay enough for them. At the trial, I wasn't able to testify about anything. A federal agent contacted Lawrence County Circuit Judge Philip Reich and told him that I couldn't return the monkeys to Birmingham Zoo until the CDC testing was complete.
In the meantime, the shipment from the importer had dwindled from 43 to just 25. As I stated, I knew through a contact that somebody else had paid a better price for the monkeys that were taken out of the shipment. Also, seven or eight babies had been born. My contact didn't know anything about the babies' conditions. At the time the infected monkeys were to be delivered, my backup person, Agent Gary Phillips from Montgomery, didn't want anything to do with the monkeys. The shipment ended up getting in much later than originally planned. Phillips was supposed to be in the field to provide backup for me, but instead he was way down the road. The CDC called and told him not to let me go in with the monkeys because four or five of them tested positive and were sick. Phillips wasn't where he was supposed to be, and he let me go ahead and make the deal. I went into the truck with the monkeys and was bitten several times. Seven to eight days later, I became sick, vomiting with flu like symptoms. Dorothy Manera, the NJ agent, told me to contact USAMRID. They thought I was a nut case. I told them this was no joke. When they finally realized I was legitimate, they asked if I had a doctor nearby who could be trusted to do the blood work. I contacted my dear friend, Dr. Richard Gennell at the University of Alabama Birmingham Medical Center. Dr. Gennell said he would call USAMRID and find out what he needed to do and would be here at my home that night. He took the blood samples then packaged it up in bio-hazard packaging and sent it to USAMRID. He was then ordered to destroy all evidence. Dr. Gennell later received the paperwork informing him that I was clean, but antibodies were present. We didn't go public with anything.
In the court case. Judge Reich ruled against me, forcing me to return the monkeys to the Birmingham Zoo. During this same time, I had come into contact and made connections with groups who were booking "canned hunts" in Africa. We learned that in fact, the hunt providers were killing animals here to replace those allegedly shot there. For example, some of these hunts overseas where some of the endangered species were being shot, especially large cats, were limited to legal permits to hunt these animals. Their countries governments put a limit on the number of permits that were issued to each property owner to shoot the big cats. In reality it really didn't matter. This was how the hunts would go down: In Africa, the property owner owning X number of acres would be given one permit to kill a leopard. The outfitter booking this kill would contact the property owner, then they would sell that permit to 10 or more people or big game hunters in different parts of the U.S. without anyone knowing of each other. These cats could only be supplied from captive bred leopards on the ranch. People on the canned hunt would make the kill in Africa, get a photo made with their kill, and the outfitter doesn't have to worry about the permit to get the hunter across the border with the kill because arrangements had already been made with a breeder here in the U.S.
The scam worked like this: the outfitter contacts a U.S. breeder, giving him a complete description of the animal killed in Africa or a copy of the photo, and the order is filled by private breeders. A cat is shot and killed in the U.S. in a closed container. All body parts are distributed to the meat industry and jewelers (for the teeth), and a taxidermist mounts it and the outfitter sends it straight to the hunter without the hunter ever knowing it wasn't the same cat. Actually, two leopards would lose their lives for one of these schemes, and hundreds of these schemes go down yearly. These captive born cats, when they are too old to breed or for other health reasons, are then used to fill the orders for those wanting them mounted, for interior decoration in offices, homes, parks and museums. They are shot in containers or close quarters. Hunters needing specific animals for their collections and the black market trade contact taxidermists, who then contact breeders and suppliers for these orders to be filled.
By this time, we had several fronts established, so it was easy to get in with them, handle their paperwork and find out who the breeders were. We were also able to find out who were the buyers for the pelts and body parts and who the taxidermists were across the U.S. providing this service, as well as the states these illegal activities were going through. We uncovered how they were hiding the paperwork from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the places the killings were taking place, as well as to where they were shipping and hauling the bodies.
Countless thousands of these animals are killed after living in horrible conditions for most of their lives. Then they end up at the end of a gun, in a cramped cage surrounded by their own body wastes. The sad fact of the matter is, the budgets to the department that controls these angered species is so limited, they don't have funding for long-term investigations. They have to rely on individuals who have committed these horrible acts themselves for information. These individuals end up pleading down their own charges to turn in others. They usually walk away with no penalties or fines, to continue living this same lifestyle at a later time. Each party that is turned in and brought to justice are always pleaded down in exchange for more information.
In 2000, it was hard for me to understand how this could be, when thousands of animals ended up dying for what seemed to be no reason at all. It seemed the parties killing them were only punished for one tenth of what they had done. I understand that this system brings the authorities' attention to a larger number of people committing those crimes, and that this helps in future investigations. Still, I don't like it. Why put your life on the line if they aren't going to be punished to the fullest extent of the law?
At this time, it was like every avenue of my life where I thought was hope, was a dead end street. Even countless animal "sanctuaries" were pulled into the investigation. A lot of them were nothing more than money laundering fronts operating under non-profit tax shelters. The money made off the backs of these animals was still ending up in their back pockets.
The big cat black market industry stemmed from the overflow of zoo surplus, sold or donated to private individuals. This was the case with primates and other animals, as well.
My anger in the '80s was focused on them to begin with, because no one was watching the back doors of these zoos where these animals were being sold, traded or donated to these brokers. Follow ups were never being done. In was told in 1989 by a zoo official that they were trying to diversify the gene pools of these animals. I laughed and asked, "How can you diversify these animals' gene pools with these people if they have no concept of their own gene pools?" Their remark was, "We just believed in the honor system." My response was, "That's an even bigger joke." My question to individuals out there is, if we're told that rare cats like leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards and tigers are so highly endangered and protected, then how is it in the '70s, '80s and '90s they could readily be purchased through sale magazines across the U.S. from private individuals by the thousands. Definitely, they didn't have permits to bring these rare cats in, so where did they come from? Not just cats, but primates and all exotic and endangered animals are marketed on the internet and in magazines today as readily as you could buy a ferret at a pet store.
My facility, the Animal House Zoological Park, was established first to house the animals I discovered in 1982 through my investigations. The Animal House continued to grow as a front for me to use as I participated in investigations into the black market trade, allowing me a reason to deal with these people and interact with these people and do what I did. Those animals involved in some of these investigations are here and will live out their lives at this park. In these investigations, I paid my own expenses, from phone bills to gas to delivery expenses. No one covered those costs for me. The funds to build and maintain this facility come from revenue earned from my businesses and my personal earnings. Over the last 23 years, donations have been limited to less than $25,000. Each week, my big cats and other meat eaters, such as bears and wolves, consume a total of??? tons of poultry. Some of it is donated by a local poultry processing facility, but a great deal of it I must pay for. The primates and other plant eaters consume a total of ????? produce each week. I receive donations of out of date produce from local grocery stores, but I must subsidize this, too. I've given my life to these animals. Now, at 62 years of age, I have reached a point where my funds are becoming increasingly limited. All I can do is appeal to other animal lovers to help these animals, too.