By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
After the zoning board hearing, Cliff Davis began investigating the claims made by Neugebohrn and Addington, as well as other information about the cats contained in county reports and posted on the center's Website (www.bigcats.org). The state Game and Freshwater Fish Commission told Davis that the center did not own -- and was not permitted to own -- Florida panthers. Only the federal government can license such owners because the panthers are listed as an endangered species (only 50 to 60 are estimated to exist in the wild).
And contrary to their earlier pronouncements, Neugebohrn and Addington's felines were not threatened with death, game and fish commission Col. Robert L. Edwards assured Davis. Wildlife handlers operate 25 other rehabilitation centers in Dade County alone, and some 300 throughout the state. "We would not have to euthanize wildlife if [the Southern Florida Wildlife Rehabilitation Center] did not exist as there are other facilities to provide housing for wildlife at this time," Edwards wrote Davis this past June. As to the couple's heroic efforts to heal the animals, Edwards said that his department could "not substantiate" that any of them had ever been injured.
Addington and Neugebohrn now acknowledge they can't definitively prove that any of their cats are rare Florida panthers, though they suspect at least two are. But they do stand by their claims that they routinely receive and treat injured animals and that some of their cats would die if the center ceased operations.
Cliff Davis presented Edwards's letter and other damning documents to the county commission September 9 as part of his appeal of the zoning board's decision to grant a variance. He's not ecstatic about the victory commissioners handed him and his neighbors, but he's certainly relieved. "I don't deny [Neugebohrn] takes care of the animals. He takes care of them really well," Davis allows. "But his passion and his devotion -- it almost went to extremes. The passion overrode any consideration for the zoning codes, neighbors' rights, or basically, if you want to think of it, our health and welfare.