Tiger creates tension

By Jim Ragsdale

Pioneer Press August 14, 2005

Minnesota’s Otter Tail County has had more than its share of troubles with exotic animals – and officials are still keeping a wary eye on one big cat. PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. – The last of the troubled big cats of Otter Tail County locked its eyes on the man who wants her out of town. “She’s a beautiful animal – an absolutely beautiful animal,” was all Wayne Johnson, chairman of the township that is home to 332 homo sapiens and one super-sized Bengal tiger, could say as he stared back in awe. The tiger, named Lilly, glared at Johnson from a corn-crib-like enclosure obscured by wild weeds and roofed with weathered plywood. No signs warned the visitors, who were standing on neighboring property, about 20 feet from the animal and a short walk from a busy county road. A low rumble, like the purr of an idling outboard, came from somewhere within the tiger’s wild essence. Her ears flicked, her tail danced, but her eyes saw only Johnson. Lilly’s teeth showed as he moved.

The secondary fence had worn-down openings and Johnson held a 9 mm pistol at his side. Welcome to Otter Tail County. Lilly is a privately owned tiger whose native range is in the forests and swamplands of Nepal and India. She was raised in a land of lush cornfields and quiet lake homes, a symbol of the exotic-animal anxiety that has spread across Minnesota. As the state suffered through a spate of maulings by such big cats – including three incidents in four months earlier this year – Otter Tail County became ground zero for big-cat hysteria. As many as 14 tigers and one lion, along with camels, lemurs, a Burmese python and an Asian leopard, were caged at various times on two private menageries within a 30-minute drive of each other. Three people were bitten or clawed. A lion ran loose and had to be shot. Tigers were found dead, half-eaten and frozen in the snow of Lilly’s cage. Criminal charges were brought against both owners. And neighbors who prized their rural isolation got used to living with stress. “I packed a gun all day long,” said Edward Law, who lives near the second menagerie in the Underwood area and who once considered shooting the animals himself.

All of the animals were supposed to have been removed. Lilly’s continued presence – nearly nine months after its owner’s guilty plea – came as a shock to township officials and prosecutors. Said a disgusted Johnson: “If it was an exotic plant, the (Department of Natural Resources) would be all over it … But I haven’t seen milfoil go and climb a fence and attack a child yet.” OWNING EXOTICS In Otter Tail County, as in other rural parts of the state and the nation, ownership of “exotic animals” outside the walls of zoos has achieved a kind of cult following.

A state law that took effect Jan. 1 is expected to limit future private ownership. Lilly’s owner, Roy Cordy, a 44-year-old physician, accumulated a collection worthy of Noah at his property along County Road 9 north of Pelican Rapids, about 200 miles west of the Twin Cities. Neither he nor his lawyer could be reached for comment. He told police during a search of his property last year that he had been collecting animals since the early 1990s and intended to raise them for sale to other collectors. About 30 miles to the west, on a scenic hilltop near the Otter Tail River, a local resident, Wendy Mears, 40, collected nine Siberian tigers and several other animals. She told police who seized her animals that her boyfriend, David Piccirillo, who used big cats in local magic shows, owned the tigers and left her with them when he left the state. Both menageries existed before Minnesota’s new law, and seem to have fallen through the regulatory cracks. “I’ve lost all respect for public safety because they allowed this to happen,” says Law, who lives near the Phelps Mill operation. “Where’s the common sense?”

COMING APART

Acting on a neighbor’s neglect complaint in February 2004, authorities raided Cordy’s property. They found some animals that appeared to be healthy and well cared for. Others were not. The tigers were in the latter category. In a series of circular cages connected by “guillotine gates” that can be lowered or raised, a sheriff’s deputy found a dead tiger partially covered with snow. He found a live tiger – Lilly – sitting near a tiger head and other body parts. “It was obvious that this live tiger had eaten the tiger that was in pieces,” he said. Cordy confirmed this. “Dr. Cordy stated that Lilly has a bad disposition and is a very mean tiger,” the deputy, Marv Robinson, wrote. He said he found more tiger body parts in Cordy’s vehicle. The final tally: four tigers dead, and one – Lilly – alive. Cordy was originally charged with six misdemeanor animal mistreatment counts. In November 2004, he pleaded guilty to one count and agreed not to possess exotic animals in the state and to “make all reasonable efforts” to transfer ownership of his current animals.

The public records show no reports of attacks on humans at the Cordy farm. But at the Mears’ property, the story was different. Three injuries were reported – bites sustained by workers in March and July of 2004, and an injury to a child who was scratched and bitten while visiting this spring. Diane Thorson, the county’s public health director, said the last injury convinced her to declare the property a public nuisance. But in June, before the animals could be seized, a neighbor reported finding a lion, a goat and other animals in her yard, not far from a bar and restaurant. Officers, unable to find a tranquilizing gun, shot and killed the lion. “We can’t really have a wild lion roaming the countryside,” said Otter Tail County Attorney David Hauser. Nine Siberian tigers from the Mears property were eventually dispersed to sanctuaries around the country. Piccirillo is believed to have taken a tiger cub and cougar cub with him to Florida, where he was arrested in a motel for possessing animals without the proper permits. Mears was charged with 12 counts, including mistreatment of animals and failure to register them under Minnesota’s new exotic animal law. Exotic animal expert Pete Bergerson of Plymouth, who is advising Mears, said she feels Piccirillo left her with the animals, the problems and the liability. Piccirillo, reached by telephone in Connecticut, said he transferred ownership to Mears, and the fate of the animals was her responsibility.

THE LAST TIGER

Back at the Cordy farm last week, Wayne Johnson, the township chairman, led a reporter and photographer across the main road, through an adjacent property and to a back corner of Cordy’s perimeter fence. There was no sign of Lilly in her circular enclosure, but the man on a mission to get her permanently out of tiny Scrambler Township hardly seemed pleased. An Otter Tail County judge has given Cordy a month or two to move Lilly to a new home. In the meantime, she was supposed to remain caged. Riotous weeds, the carcasses of what appeared to be store-bought chickens, and three doghouse-like cinderblock enclosures were visible. But no tiger. “It makes me more nervous not seeing it, than seeing it,” Johnson said. Concerned the animal may have escaped, Johnson dialed the sheriff’s department. He said he was initially told that the tiger had been removed. Later, the officers said they spoke to Cordy, who said Lilly was still in her cage. Johnson shot out a piercing whistle, and Lilly finally emerged from one of the enclosures, big-cat motor running, drawing a visual bead on all three visitors in succession. In a county where images of otters decorate the county courthouse, Lilly is a majestic outsider. Johnson, eyeing the weathered sheathing over her enclosure, hopes the boards hold until she is moved to a new home. “See how that roof is caved in,” Johnson said. “What is it going to take for her to get through that?”

Jim Ragsdale can be contacted at jragsdale@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5529.