Trouble in Wild Kingdom
Charismatic Karl Anderson comes across as a modern-day P.T. Barnum, whose natural history museum and traveling shows of cute live critters are embraced by teachers and groups as a kid-friendly blend of entertainment and education.
Yet, Anderson has also been dogged by embarrassing disclosures of past legal indiscretions and his failure to secure a range of permits from various government agencies for the dozens of exotic animals owned by the nonprofit group he heads.
His permit problems culminated earlier this month in five misdemeanor charges alleging illegal possession and failure to properly cage several exotic animals--criminal counts similar to those Anderson pleaded guilty to in 1994 when he spent a brief time in an Oregon jail.
Anderson could receive up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each of the latest charges against him. He has acknowledged violating the letter of the law, although he pleaded not guilty to the charges and faces a Nov. 3 jury trial.
Adding to the intrigue surrounding the 43-year-old self-styled naturalist--who has little formal zoological training--is a flair for Barnum-esque self-promotion verging on hyperbole. Even his detractors describe him as charming.
“I think he’s well-intended,” said Fillmore attorney John Scoles, while at the same time saying he assumes a “clerical error” is responsible for his being listed as a member of the executive board of Anderson’s organization. “I have never accepted a position on the board.”
Anderson, executive director of the Wildlife Educators of America, cuts a flamboyant figure in his blue-rimmed glasses. He said his experience includes stints as a nuclear security specialist, private investigator, scuba diving instructor, collector of marine specimens and journalist.
“I’ve done really unconventional stuff,” Anderson said. “I’ve had to find ways to support my life while performing the Indiana Jones part of my life.”
Meanwhile, his organization is short on cash, though he has ambitious plans that include using the menagerie housed at the Fillmore Museum of Natural History and his leased South Mountain Road ranch to teach a $2,900-per-person exotic animal training course. Anderson said he may be forced to take a night job handling airport luggage.
He blames overzealous government agencies and negative newspaper articles for many of his problems and contends some people are “out to get me.”
“There’s so much happening at one time, it makes me look bad,” he said, seated in his museum office jammed with mounted animal heads, tiger and other skins on the walls, a musk ox hide complete with head on the floor and a live two-toed sloth with a respiratory problem quarantined in a box.
“These articles out in the papers made me out to be a criminal, when the organization has had a couple of infractions,” Anderson said.
But even sympathetic officials, such as city Code Enforcement Officer Vance Johnson, whose employer has invested almost $100,000 in the venture, are unconvinced Anderson’s portrayal of himself as a victim is wholly accurate.
“For a long time now, we’ve heard that Karl Anderson’s being picked on and it’s everybody else’s fault,” Johnson said. “That’s not exactly true.”
What is undeniably true is this: While Anderson’s problems have some people questioning the credibility of the self-styled naturalist and his organization, others have rushed to his defense.
Councilman Roger Campbell, who was instrumental in attracting the museum, which he sees as an important element in Fillmore’s tourism development efforts, is among Anderson’s most fervent backers. Campbell has even paid for conceptual drawings to show potential corporate sponsors what Anderson’s museum will look like when complete.
“The thing I’m concerned with is he never ever gets an unpermitted animal again,” he said. “I’m totally committed [to the idea] that this museum is going to be a real positive thing for the young people of Ventura County.”
But a litany of negative reports about Anderson and his group has so far outweighed the positive.
Anderson’s 6,000-square-foot museum, housed in a former auto parts store, is open weekends and available for rent by community groups during the week only by the grace of municipal officials.
“Officially they’re not supposed to be open for business, but we’ve let them slide on a temporary basis,” planner Christine Silver said.
The facility has a combination of more than 200 stuffed heads and animals and almost 70 live creatures, including 20 species of poisonous snakes whose venom sacs were surgically removed on orders of municipal officials--after one harmless snake escaped and ended up in the yard of the city clerk. Tens of thousands of dollars must still be raised to complete dioramas that will depict such habitats as a rain forest.
Silver is forced to hold off issuing the museum a temporary operating permit because Anderson has not met several conditions, including approvals from the city’s building and safety staff.
Those approvals have not been forthcoming because Anderson has failed to meet conditions imposed by the City Council, including the removal of a Nile crocodile, which does not have a valid permit.
The crocodile is one of three animals that inspectors with the state Department of Fish and Game alleged Anderson possessed without a permit during a March 6 visit to his ranch. The two others are a wallaby and a type of flying squirrel known as a sugar glider that has since died but that Anderson said would have been destroyed by Long Beach animal control officers had he not agreed to take it in.
Anderson can’t get rid of the crocodile, which he said unexpectedly arrived by plane from a Florida dealer before he could get the necessary permit, because it is evidence in the case. And he can’t move the animal back to the ranch, because another of the criminal charges against him alleges the cage the animal was housed in did not meet state standards. Requirements include keeping the creature in an enclosed building, which is unavailable at the ranch.
Although the enclosure the crocodile is housed in now apparently meets state standards, state officials have told Johnson they cannot issue the necessary paperwork because of the pending charges.
“They’ve created a Catch-22 they could solve quite easily,” Johnson said. “Is the DFG here to solve problems or create the problems?”
Fish and Game officials could not be reached for comment.
Anderson’s permit problems don’t end there.
The 120-acre ranch Anderson started leasing last year houses about 45 animals, including a tiger, black bear, two lynxes and a pair of monkeys but has no permits for the various structures on the spectacular site overlooking the Santa Clara Valley.
Landlord Ron Merkord, who is listed as a member of WEA’s executive board, is facing thousands of dollars in fees and penalties for the numerous illegal buildings, said Gloria Goldman, zoning enforcement officer.
Anderson said the permits are Merkord’s responsibility, even though the cages he has erected don’t have the mandated paperwork either.
Still, such financial penalties are likely to further strain the finances of an organization that relies on Vons to donate the 200 pounds of produce the group’s animals eat weekly, and even uses donated fly and yellow jacket traps to reduce the insect population on the ranch.
Furthermore, Anderson has not sought permission to keep wild animals on the land.
“Here it is a year and they still haven’t filed for their permits,” Goldman said. “I would be very insecure about living next door to a lot of wild animals without knowing they were properly regulated. . . . They’ve got animals out there that can hurt people if they ever escaped.”
With few legal sanctions available, county officials say they are awaiting the outcome of the criminal case against Anderson, saying that if he is prevented from keeping animals on the property, that would solve the problem.
Some who knew Anderson when he operated a group called Wildlife Educators of Oregon--before changing its name and relocating to California after his wildlife violations in the neighboring state--aren’t surprised by Anderson’s latest run-in with the law.
Ron Pace, a biologist with the federal government who was curator of mammals for the Oregon group, said he resigned the day Anderson pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful possession of protected animals.
“As far as I’m concerned he was an animal trader,” he said. “I’m not fond of the person, I’m sorry. He jeopardized my career, my name.”
Anderson also has a knack for overstatement that occasionally gets him into trouble.
Prominently displayed on the walls of his Central Avenue museum are letters of recommendation and acknowledgment from the likes of Vice President Al Gore and pictures of Anderson and his animals with Jay Leno taken after an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
That tactic got him into trouble when he neglected to note that famed ape researcher Jane Goodall had withdrawn as an honorary board member.
Even Campbell, who is listed as a member of the group’s six-member executive board on its letterhead, along with Scoles, Anderson’s wife and his landlord, isn’t quite sure how he ended up in such an official capacity.
“I remember him saying he wants to put me on and I’ve never heard any more about it,” he said. “We’ve never had a meeting that I know of.”
Such incidents have some people, such as county Supt. of Schools Charles Weis, reserving their endorsement of Anderson until he works out his legal problems.
Still, Anderson and his organization are held in high regard by teachers and organizations who have experienced his wild animal shows.
Anderson is described as a “dynamic guy” by Brian Crater, director of camping for Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a charity that provides free camping for children with terminal illnesses and their families.
Last weekend, Anderson and several of his animals attended the camp’s 15th anniversary along with 1,700 people and actor Dustin Hoffman.
“He has a great presentation style,” Crater said. “I can honestly say we can’t get enough of their programs.”
Some people aware of his problems are still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think what he is doing is admirable,” said Sharon Hurd, a second-grade teacher at Fillmore’s San Cayetano Elementary School, who used a $500 Amgen grant to hire Anderson’s group for a wildlife presentation for 400 children. “He spoke very clearly, very scientifically, but down to the children’s level. . . . I hope he and the county and the city can work these things out.”
So does Anderson, who describes the museum as a dream come true.
“When all this started happening, there were rumors we were going to take off,” he said. “Do you know how long it would take to pack this stuff into a U-Haul? This is my home base. I’m here to stay.”