10 News Imvestigators addresses questions being asked about a $5 million non-profit that says it rescues abandoned and abused large cats.
Tampa, Florida -- It is a high-profile non-profit known for rescuing abused and abandoned tigers, lions and other large cats. But critics say Big Cat Rescue built its reputation by doing some of the same things it criticizes others for doing.
The organization says it is completely transparent, but a 10 News investigation shows that does not appear to be true.
Big Cat Rescue is close to being a $5 million Tampa organization that calls itself the world's largest accredited sanctuary for exotic wild cats.
Joe Schreibvogel says the organization is great at tugging on people's heartstrings.
"People love to help animals, because they touch their hearts."
It's clear that animal lovers who hear about the sanctuary are impressed. Last year, the sanctuary took in more than $1 million in grants and contributions to take care of the cats.
Schreibvogel, who owns his own zoo in Oklahoma, has issues with Big Cat Rescue and is involved in a lawsuit against the organization.
Big Cat Rescue says the animals they take in have been abandoned and neglected and say they are on a mission to save them. They believe the only way to end the abuse and neglect is to end the trading and breeding of big cats.
Schreibvogel says that the breeding and trading of animals is exactly what Big Cat Rescue did.
"Most of the cats weren't rescued. They were bought or they were bred at the facility. My biggest concern is, in the animal world, the misrepresentation as far as an animal sanctuary gives us all a bad name."
Schreibvogel isn't without his own critics, however, and they point to a $25,000 fine he received from the United States Department of Agriculture. Schreibvogel admits he received the fine when he first started out and he didn't know what he was doing.
However, he is correct about the cats being bought at the organization.
According to records the 10 News Investigators obtained from the United State Department Agricultural, up until 10 years ago cat after cat at the sanctuary was either bought by or born at Big Cat Rescue.
We asked Schreibvogel why someone would buy cats or breed cats and then tell people they were rescuing them?
"Well it's a multimillion dollar business to have a so-called 'save things' and it tugs on heartstrings from people all over the world," says Schreibvogel.
Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin wouldn't talk to us on camera, but her own video admits she did start out doing just that.
"[At the time] It made perfect sense to me that these animals needed to be bred," says Baskin.
Baskin adds she saw the light and hasn't bought or bred an animal in 10 years, but it was not entirely bad that she did it.
"We know from the inside out why those people are doing what they are doing."
Big Cat Rescue says it is transparent, yet they refused to be evaluated by the Better Business Bureau standard for charity accountability.
"When you first go [to Big Cat Rescue], you're so excited. You're going to get up close and personal with these magnificent animals and you really aren't paying attention to what is going on," says former volunteer Deborah Sandlin.
Sandlin at first thought the CEO was committed to rescuing abused cats, but she changed her opinion the longer she worked there.
"In fact, she was a private owner who found a way to get the public to finance her collection," says Sandlin.
Big Cat rescue has also had some run-ins with the USDA. The facility was cited in September 2010 and again in March of 2011 for having "either limbs or materials in the fenced-in area that would make it easy for an animal to climb and jump over the fence." Remember, BRC has 25,000 visitors a year.
The USDA also said "the fence wasn't constructed to protect the animals from unauthorized people getting to them."
Critics say Baskin, who they call a master marketer, exaggerates what the organization is doing, how she acquired the cats, and the condition they were in when she brought them to Big Cat Rescue. They say Baskin is routinely trapped in her own lies.
For example, Baskin once described on video how a tiger cub named Shere Kan was raised.
"He was bottle raised in a loving and nurturing home," Baskin is heard saying on the video.
But her website stated just the opposite:
He never got the vitamins and exercise he needed as a growing cub, so his back legs were badly underdeveloped. He was very sick for a long time and suffered major problems from calcium deficiency. X-rays showed that his baby canine teeth were rotting in their sockets from his malnourishment and they had to be excised because they had rotted through his face.
"I think she believes what she says, she does," says Sandlin.
In an e-mail the 10 News Investigators obtained, Baskin realized she was being hypocritical staging a cat rescue at some substandard facility for a TV show. However, she decided it was worthwhile, because of the national exposure it would give Big Cat Rescue.
"When you are truly in this for animals, it eats you up," says Schreibvogel.
Schreibvogel is talking about the more than 100 cats that have died after coming to the sanctuary. Big Cat Rescue points out it has been in existence since the early 1990s and cats don't have unlimited life spans.
Baskin's records show at least two died after their stomachs twisted from eating hay. Some have died from asthenia and there have been several cancer deaths.
Baskin thinks her critics are jealous of her success. It's clear the organization has gone through major growing pains and brings in huge donations from those who believe what Baskin says and don't believe what her critics say.
We have gotten a lot of reaction from our investigation on Big Cat Rescue in Tampa and there has been some confusion by some. To be clear, this story is about Big Cat Rescue in Tampa and not about Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Fl.