Since 1982 Dirk Neugebohrn and his wife Barbara Addington have collected and cared for cats. Very big cats. Now they own 23 cougars, 2 male lions, and a spotted African serval -- virtually all of which have come from Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission officers who have confiscated them from unlicensed owners, mostly in South Florida. Many have been declawed, but they all still have their teeth. In addition to the cats, Neugebohrn and Addington care for two monkeys and a dozen tropical birds. They call their menagerie the Southern Florida Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit enterprise that relies on private donations for its survival.
Neugebohrn and Addington have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past eight years building and expanding their facility (which is open to visitors on weekends) and nursing the sick and injured creatures they care for. In the process, they've also run afoul of local zoning ordinances, offended some of their neighbors, and evidently misled Dade County officials.
Last month county commissioners responded by refusing to allow them to continue operating a wildlife center in a residential zone, ordering Neugebohrn and Addington to relocate it within a year. But nothing seems to discourage the couple. Already they've gathered financial and moral support from friends and colleagues throughout Dade County, and this week they meet with their lawyer to plan a court challenge to the commission's ruling. "I save animals from humans, that's what I do," Neugebohrn says. "It's what I've always done. In front of a real judge, it will go through."
The 55-year-old Neugebohrn, a native of Germany, developed his fascination with great cats in Africa, where he worked in numerous countries as a mechanic for Mercedes-Benz from 1958 to 1973 and volunteered on weekends as an honorary ranger in various game reserves and national parks. In 1973 he opened a Mercedes-Benz repair shop in Kendall.
A decade later Neugebohrn obtained a license to keep a single big cat -- a cougar -- as a pet. Then in 1989 he and Addington bought a home and two large lots on SW 194th Avenue near SW 336th Street in deep South Dade. The rural setting and extra space would allow them to pursue their interest in big cats. By the time Hurricane Andrew destroyed Neugebohrn's auto shop in 1992, he and his wife had secured the necessary state licenses and expanded their collection of cougars to three.
Neugebohrn decided not to rebuild his shop after the storm and chose instead to devote himself full-time to the creatures. In 1993 he and his wife bought a large parcel of land across the street from their home so they could add more cages and more animals. They built a tall fence around the perimeter of their property -- and across the unpaved county road without permission, according to county records. The following year Neugebohrn and Addington received a state license that allowed them to more than triple the number of cats they could keep.
Maintaining the animals has proven to be an expensive undertaking. Neugebohrn says he's already spent more than $100,000 on cages alone. He and and Addington, a nursing administrator at Baptist Hospital, dug ponds, built walkways, and lushly landscaped the grounds. Neugebohrn figures land acquisition and preparation have cost another $100,000. Together the couple, along with a number of volunteers, works constantly -- cleaning cages, feeding, and otherwise ministering to the animals, who devour 300 pounds of chicken and turkey each day, a cost of more than $2000 per month.
During the night the center's neighbors occasionally hear the animals' throaty cries, an eerie sound that some find frightening. Other concerns are less exotic. "There's the smell, the flies -- it's quite aromatic," says adjacent neighbor Cliff Davis, a 44-year-old water-treatment specialist at the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority in Monroe County. "It stinks. I don't know how else to describe it."
The center was incorporated as a nonprofit organization at the end of 1994. Shortly after that, when Neugebohrn and Addington invited the public to visit, Davis and his wife Betsy and a handful of other nearby homeowners realized for the first time that they had a wildlife center in their neighborhood. At least a dozen of those neighbors were displeased with the revelation.
Betsy Davis, a 43-year-old private-school teacher, says she's afraid the cats could be released accidentally if a storm destroyed their cages or if someone simply neglected to lock them properly. "Today my son said to me: 'Mom, what do I do if I get attacked by a lion?' I had no idea what to tell him."
When neighbors discovered the wild animals in their midst, they alerted county officials. As a result the county fined Neugebohrn and Addington $500 because they did not have a permit to operate the center in a residential area. County code inspectors then ordered the couple to replace three acres of pine trees that had been cut down. (Neugebohrn insists that Hurricane Andrew destroyed the trees.) Inspectors also informed them they'd have to secure a variance from Dade County's Zoning Appeals Board if they wanted to continue operating.
The quest for a variance culminated in a hearing this past May, at which Neugebohrn and Addington told the Zoning Appeals Board the cats would be put to death if their center closed. County planning and zoning officials, working from information supplied by the rehabilitation center, added that endangered Florida panthers were among the animals being kept on the property. Apparently moved by the specter of dead panthers, the board granted a variance that would allow the center to stay open five more years.
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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.