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Trial focuses on cougar's treatment

A witness says the defendant, a wildlife activist, punched, kicked and tormented the big cat.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 27, 2002

TAMPA -- When veterinarians examined a 16-year-old cougar called Old Man in late 2001, they found his rear feet so badly neglected they were on the verge of rotting off.

The cougar, which had to be euthanized, belonged to controversial wildlife activist Bert Wahl, a man some authorities have long feared is more menace than friend to the animals he takes in.

As Wahl's animal cruelty trial began in Hillsborough County Court Wednesday, prosecutor Martin Hernandez argued that Wahl was responsible for Old Man's death, that he beat the cat and deprived it of medicine.

Hernandez told the jury that Wahl beat the old cougar with his fists and a shoe, assaulted it with a broom handle and dragged it by the choker until it was unconscious. The cat's hindquarters became infected by dying tissue in the manner of gangrene, he said.

Public defender Mark Gilman countered that the cougar's gangrene-like condition was caused by a blood clot, and an expert found no evidence of trauma on the cat's body.

Wahl, 46, was housing Old Man at the Tampa residence of wildlife rehabilitation activist Sherie Frost. Testifying for the state, Frost said last Nov. 4 she saw Wahl twisting the cat's ear so badly it required stitches. Days later, she said, she saw Wahl punching the cat in the face, dragging it 25 feet and kicking it about the body, groin and head.

When the cat's ear began bleeding, she said, Wahl starting mopping up the blood, but he turned on the cat again when it took the mop-end in its mouth.

"He was trying to jam the mop down the cat's throat," Frost said, adding that Wahl later did the same with a broom.

Wahl, the founder of Wildlife Rescue Inc., an urban wildlife preserve, faces up to a year in jail, as well as a $5,000 fine, on a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty.

Ray Thunderhawk, who runs a big cat rescue facility in Sharpes, testified that it is only necessary to strike a cat if your life is at stake.

At the prosecutor's request, Thunderhawk hauled one of his cougars to the courthouse Wednesday, a 200-pounder named Nunpa. The state intended to show the jury what a live, well-treated cougar looks like, but decided late in the day not to do so.

In the summer of 1994, Wahl was found guilty of abandoning a gopher tortoise at this Sulphur Springs wildlife preserve and of violating state regulations on housing otters. He got a year of probation for each of those charges.

Closing arguments in his latest trial are expected to start this morning before County Judge Nick Nazaretian.

-- Christopher Goffard can be reached at 813-226-3337 or

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