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Big Cats Are No Problem; It’s Laws He Can’t Tame

Times Staff Writer

Joe Maynard is a tough-talking trucker who loves exotic big cats but has a hard time getting along with the state officials who try to regulate how he cages and cares for his rare leopards and tigers.

“They try to tell us how to run things, but they’ve got no expertise whatsoever,” said Maynard, a wiry, bearded man who spends 14 days at a time as a cross-country truck driver.

Maynard and his wife Jeanne run the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound Inc. a private, nonprofit zoo located west of this small desert town in Kern County, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Many of the 40 wild cats caged here are endangered species, some are owned by zoos that have loaned them to Maynard for breeding.

State regulators say the Maynards are operating a zoo without proper accreditation and have been keeping wild animals without a state permit that has been required since 1985, when new animal protection laws went into effect. The facility does not meet new state standards, primarily because its cages are too small, state inspectors say.

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Prior to 1985, the compound was exempt from state regulation because it was classified as a private zoo, officials said. But under the new law, such facilities must meet standards set by the American Assn. of Zoos, Parks and Aquariums, a national organization created to upgrade animal protection and public safety criteria.

Already operating on a shoestring budget funded by donations and paid memberships in their zoo, the Maynards said, they want to upgrade their cages to association standards but have little money with which to do so. They have built one big new cage, for the snow leopards, but most of their funds must go for care and breeding, Maynard said.

“The bureaucrats in Sacramento are wrong. . . . We have a bona fide zoo,” Maynard argued, claiming that the compound should be exempt from state regulations because it is a designated federal research facility and has the necessary federal permits to handle and transport endangered species. State officials agree that he has the federal permits, but say the new state rules must be applied.

Maynard has little nice to say about state officials, but his whole demeanor changes when he walks among the big cats, talking about breeding programs and the need to keep the rare cats from becoming extinct. He is gentle with the felines.

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“All my life I’ve loved big cats,” he explained. He bought his first leopard 20 years ago for $600. The couple lived in Northridge then. “I wanted to breed . . . these leopards because they were being killed off and I wanted to do something to save them.”

The Maynards moved from Northridge to Simi Valley, then to Kern County in 1977, buying 68 acres to make room for their cats. Doing the work himself, Maynard built the cages and fenced off the compound. In 1983 the Maynards formed the nonprofit corporation and sold 2,000 memberships to finance the operation. Last year they raised $134,000, he said.

Although Maynard has no college degrees, he has a good reputation among zoo professionals active in the work of saving exotic cats. Breeding the animals in captivity is essential to the effort to save them from extinction, experts say.

The Maynards’ unusual collection includes seven North Chinese leopards, a pair of snow leopards from the Himalayas, on loan from the San Diego Zoo, several big Siamese tigers and three tiny Temminck’s Golden Cats. The compound--a haphazard mix of old cages, new construction and mobile homes--is open to the public, without charge.

“He’s got one of the best collections (of North Chinese) leopards in the country . . . in terms of genetics.” said veterinarian Allen Schoemaker of the Riverbank Zoo in Charlotte, N.C. Schoemaker keeps breeding records on the 90 Chinese leopards in captivity. No one knows how many of these rare cats still exist in the wilds of northern China.

‘Very Competent’

“His knowledge of (big cats) . . . is very superior from what you’d expect in the private sector,” said Pat Morris, a zoo veterinarian and assistant professor of wildlife medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Morris, one of Maynard’s medical consultants, added, “He is very competent.”

State Department of Fish and Game officials concede that Maynard cares about animals but insist that his facilities must now meet state standards.

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“In the past we had no serious problems with him, but the law has changed,” said Celeste Cushman, a department spokeswoman. The state’s caging and fencing standards had to be upgraded to protect both the animals and the public, she said.

Most of the Maynards’ cats are housed in cages that are about 10 by 20 feet. Each contains a heavy plywood shelter. The flooring is dirt and few of the cages have double-gated entryways to prevent escapes. As Maynard builds new cages, he is adding these safety features.

When the Maynards failed to comply with the department’s demands, the state Fish and Game Commission stepped into the controversy. At first the Maynards refused to participate in commission hearings, but in February they appeared to present their case. The commission gave the couple 90 days to come up with a plan detailing how they will meet state standards within three years.

“No one wants to take animals away from him,” said Harold C. Cribbs, the commission’s executive secretary. Cribbs said the department has been cooperating with Maynard on developing such a plan. If a plan cannot be worked out, the commission could seize the animals, Cribbs said.

In the meantime, state game wardens are asking the Kern County district attorney to file misdemeanor charges against the Maynards for importing a North Chinese leopard in January, in violation of a department order. The animal is on loan from the Omaha Zoo. The state had instructed the couple not to obtain any more animals until they are in compliance with state laws.

Maynard denied that he violated the law, saying that he had a valid federal permit to transport the leopard from Omaha.

“They (state wardens) came here with the cops . . . (and) said we’d brought that cat in illegally,” Maynard said. Zoo keepers who work with the Maynards on a regular basis say they are not put off by the compound’s physical facilities because the couple cares for its animals and works to preserve threatened species.

“It’s true their facilities . . . don’t meet (public) zoo standards,” said Dr. Lee Simmons, director of the Omaha Zoo. “But by all reports . . . Joe Maynard doesn’t fall short on animal care. . . . (He) really cares about his animals.”

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