When Animal Activists Attack

Bit on the set of a Rick Ross video, animal handler Mark McCarthy now squares off against activists.

Rapper Rick Ross was not on the set of the Star Island music video shoot in May 2008 when Mark McCarthy led his 400-pound white tiger, Sabi, out of her crate. The producers had offered McCarthy $5,000 to use the big cat as a prop at a mansion. They'd make it look like she was Ross's very own bad-ass pet.

After McCarthy took Sabi from her cage, she decided to roll on the grass. The metal chain around her neck wrapped around her torso. The big cat couldn't breathe. She panicked. She dug her teeth into a nearby stair. She bit the chain. When McCarthy, who weighs 200 pounds and stands five feet four inches tall, tried to unravel her, she bit into his right calf. "Just a quick bite, then a release," McCarthy remembers. "But it hurt like hell."

Sabi's canines met in the flesh behind McCarthy's tibia. Luckily for him, the three-inch-long teeth did not take out a tendon or an artery, so he pretended everything was OK, despite his newfound limp and the blood seeping through one pant leg. He carried on with the shoot, loaded the tiger into his van, picked up the check, and drove back to his home in western Palm Beach County.

"A lot of the white tigers, in my opinion, are a little nutty in the head, a little unpredictable," says the 52-year-old McCarthy. The feline is one of nearly a hundred exotic animals he keeps at his five-acre spread. Indeed, a wild tiger typically downs its prey with a single bite to the neck. By holding tightly onto its victim's throat, the cat can strangle an animal six times its size. A tiger can bite with 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and kill with a single swipe of its paws.

McCarthy's nonchalance about a serious bite is one reason animal rights activists say his business of renting out big cats — and showing them at schools — needs to stop. Richard Farinato, a former zookeeper and director of the Humane Society's captive wildlife protection program, compares on-the-road animal routines to playing Russian roulette.

Adds Beth Preiss, director of the exotic pets campaign for the Humane Society: "It gives a false image that these animals can potentially be good pets."

Over the past two decades, McCarthy estimates he has presented more than 6,000 shows at elementary schools, retirement homes, parks, hospitals, and birthday parties. He charges $350 for a one-hour encounter with nine animals. Last year, he banked $72,250 from 215 school shows. He also rents out creatures for fashion magazine shoots, movie cameos, TV commercials, print advertisements, and music videos. And he relies on donations. The Batchelor Foundation, a charitable trust based in Miami Beach, donated $250,000 to McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary in 2007.

Among the animals he exhibits: Louie the kinkajou, Norma Jean the scarlet macaw, Harriet the tarantula, Wally the baby gator, Snowball the Burmese python, and Sandy the Florida panther.

Though he claims no spectator has ever been injured at his shows, he acknowledges being bitten several times. His worst experience came with a leopard named Siam, a 60-pound adult male that had performed well in many shows for kids. One day several years ago, the cat jumped on McCarthy's back as he knelt to pick up some feces inside the leopard's enclosure. Siam planted his claws into McCarthy's shoulders and long canines into his skull. McCarthy squeezed the cat's face until he finally released.

McCarthy escaped before the cat could come at him again. He was covered in blood from head to toe. The wounds became infected. A doctor stuck tubes in his head to drain the swelling. "I looked like a Rasta guy with all this shit hanging out the back of my skull," McCarthy remembers.

Last August, he was in the news again. A lion and tiger wandered out of their enclosures in his back yard while he was on vacation in Montana. A caretaker at McCarthy's place called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for help. The cats were sedated, still within the fenced property. But their escape prompted three nearby schools to go on lockdown.

Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist with PETA, wrote a letter to the state in August that called for revocation of McCarthy's license to own and exhibit animals. She labeled the escape of the lion and tiger "one more example of Mark McCarthy's inability to safely handle dangerous animals."

Recently, a principal at another elementary school asked McCarthy to leave the panther out of the show for liability reasons. "In the past, I would have argued with the principal: 'What are you saying, I can't handle my cat?' Now I just put my pride aside. It's easier for me, anyway, because I don't have to pick her heavy butt up," he says. "You know, some of the other animals are more dangerous. Norma Jean will take a chunk out of you. I'd rather get bit by a panther than a parrot. That bottom beak is sharp like a shovel to get pulp out of fruit."

Earlier this month, during a show at Pine Grove Elementary in Palm Beach County, about a hundred kindergartners watched as Norma Jean kicked off the entertainment. McCarthy let a handful of kids approach, one at a time, to act as living trees for the bird. A little boy volunteered but then pulled away when McCarthy attempted to place the parrot on his arm. The bird, which had one wing clipped, careened to the ground, and McCarthy scooped it up without missing a beat.

The next animal interaction also misfired. One after another, the volunteers McCarthy chose to hold Harriet the tarantula backed out. Finally, a seemingly brave boy withdrew his hand just as McCarthy let go of the spider, and the animal handler caught the creature just before it went splat. "Don't drop the tarantula, OK big guy?" McCarthy said. "If the tarantula fell on the floor, it would surely crack and die." He spoke from experience. A kid once dropped and killed one of his tarantulas.

Finally came Sandy the panther, who had spent the previous hour lounging silently inside her large crate, facing away from the audience. McCarthy instructed the children to back up and then tugged on a leash. There was a flash of fur. He lifted Sandy by the underarms, just as a father would pick up a toddler from a playpen.

For an instant, before McCarthy released the panther on top of her green plastic crate, he was face-to-face with the enormous feline. The trainer hurried through some nuggets of information about the species, including a reference to Roy Horn, half of Siegfried & Roy. "Here in Florida, you're not allowed to keep the big cats like lions and tigers as pets, for one good reason: They will kill you! Or, if you're a magician, they might drag you all over the stage in a place called Vegas."

Then McCarthy grabbed the cat under the jaw to plant a loud kiss on the top of her head. The panther nuzzled him back. "She's a lover, not a fighter, aren't you?" he cooed, his lips a few centimeters from Sandy's nose.

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