A Northern California couple and a taxidermist have been charged with importing aging wild cats, including mountain lions, Bengal tigers and spotted leopards, to their Lockwood, Calif., ranch and charging wealthy hunters thousands of dollars to shoot the caged animals at close range.
The Monterey County district attorney's office charged Floyd Lester Patterson III, his wife, Dawn Patterson, and taxidermist Kenneth Oravsky with 38 misdemeanor counts stemming from what California investigators called an "orchestrated big-game hunt" last summer.
The Pattersons were charged with catering to wealthy big-game hunters who made the 150-mile trip south from the San Francisco area to the sprawling, 4,000-acre ranch. At least six customers are believed to have paid the couple $3,000 or more for a chance to shoot one of the animals, believed to have been retired from zoos. One witness told investigators that some hunters paid as much as $10,000.
The Pattersons also raised cattle, wheat and barley on their sprawling ranch, tucked in the coastal foothills of southern Monterey County. In the past, the couple has allowed legalhunting of wild boar and sheep on the premises.
But since the severe California drought started, their business has fallen on hard times, and investigators said they believe the Pattersons may have turned to forbidden big-game hunting as an extra source of income.
Based on interviews and evidence collected during raids, officials said the couple started offering the excursions last May, and that at least six cats were shot in the following three months.
The Pattersons wheeled the big cats in boarded-up six-wheel horse trailers to a secluded hunting cabin about a mile from the main ranch operation, officials said.
"The cats were brought into the ranch and taken to the hunters," said Special Agent Bill Talkin of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Then the cage was opened and the cats were supposed to escape. They were never more than 100 feet away from the cage when they were shot."
Some of the animals, accustomed to being dependent on humans, refused to exit their cages, he said, and were shot execution-style while still confined. Hunters then dragged the carcasses out of the steel enclosure and had their pictures taken next to the dead "trophy," investigators said.