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    Geiger disputes charge over escaped bison

    The former basketball pro says his handling of the animal wasn't unsafe and he would never mistreat his animals.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 16, 2002


    The saga of Big Daddy the wandering bison moved Friday from the great outdoors to the halls of justice.

    Big Daddy's owner, former NBA center Matt Geiger, appeared in Pinellas County court to answer to two misdemeanor charges filed in mid February after Big Daddy's three-day romp in Brooker Creek Preserve.

    Geiger, 32, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of not having a valid state game farm license at the time of the incident. County Judge Thomas B. Freeman withheld a formal finding of guilt and fined Geiger $225.

    On a second charge, unsafe handling of captive wildlife, Geiger pleaded not guilty. In that case, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is seeking reimbursement for nearly $4,868 in investigative costs related to providing deputies and a sheriff's helicopter during the search.

    After a brief court hearing, Geiger said the money wasn't the issue. Rather, it was that he's been charged with a crime, a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum $500 fine.

    "If they want me to admit guilt in the criminal mishandling of my animals, I can't admit that," Geiger said. "That's exactly the opposite, the complete opposite, of why I got them. I love my animals."

    Big Daddy was one of 10 underfed and sickly buffalo that Geiger bought from a farm in Hudson about 21/2 years ago. Since then, Geiger has nursed them back to health on the grounds of the 26,000-square-foot mansion he is building on Keystone Road.

    Geiger's attorney, Robert D. Eckard of Palm Harbor, said his client has followed every animal care directive set down by the the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That makes the charge that Geiger handled the bison unsafely hard to live with, he said.

    "We feel (the prosecution) may be somewhat selective, because of who he is," Eckard said.

    A former Countryside High star athlete, the 7-foot-tall Geiger played professional basketball for 10 seasons. In 1999, he signed a six-year, $52-million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, but he retired last year because of an arthritic condition in both knees.

    Since then, Geiger said he has worked in the development business with his father and one of his brothers, and is looking forward to the completion of his mansion where he enjoys caring for his animals. He has about 40 animals, including long-horned cattle known as Watusi, a donkey named Mr. T, a miniature horse named Cherokee and a cow named Herman.

    "This is like an elaborate, luxurious, on top of the world resort for animals," Geiger said.

    As the alpha male of Geiger's herd of bison, Big Daddy ate first and monopolized the females. That changed, however, when a younger, more aggressive male got big enough to challenge Big Daddy.

    Bested by the new rival, Big Daddy jumped two fences and somehow got over two cattle crossings on Geiger's East Lake estate. Once out, he roamed the neighboring Brooker Creek Preserve and left hoof-sized indentations on three holes at the Crescent Oaks Country Club golf course.

    During his escape, Big Daddy was pursued by a posse consisting of, at various times, Geiger, his father, sheriff's deputies, state game officers, veterinarians and professional cowboys on horseback. That posse, in turn, was shadowed by news helicopters that often spooked the animal just as the human pursuers drew close.

    Big Daddy was finally herded into a cattle trailer after being shot with five tranquilizer darts, which was four more than anyone thought would be necessary.

    These days, Big Daddy is kept with the Watusi cattle. Geiger said he'll decide in a few weeks whether, and how, to try to reintegrate Big Daddy into the herd. Now that the tranquilizers have worn off, "he's doing awesome," Geiger said.

    Since the escape and capture, Geiger said he has heard from a lot of people, including school children, who were fascinated by Big Daddy's story.

    "He's a folk hero," Geiger said.

    -- Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or Danielson@sptimes.com.

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