Six months after a former Tarzan actor's two tigers and leopard were seized in western Palm Beach County, a court fight has broken out over the return of the big cats.
Melanie Boynes, who lives on the five-acre Loxahatchee property with former actor Steve Sipek, has gone to court in hopes of reclaiming the animals seized Feb. 27 by officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She is appealing the commission's denial last month of a permit to own big cats for the non-profit Tarzan's Big Cat Sanctuary, which she and Sipek set up immediately after the raid.
The commission cited a history of inadequate care, poor food and lax security in denying the permit. But the lawyer for Boynes and Sipek, Rob Melchiorre of West Palm Beach, said the charges are false.
One cat is blind and another suffers from benign tumors.
"They care about the safety and well-being of the animals," he said. "They're not doing this to make a buck or anything. The thing my clients care the most about is the health of their cats."
Sipek, a body builder who won the Mr. Canada body-building championship, starred in a 1970 Spanish remake of the Tarzan story.
According to the sanctuary's website - which attributes the decision to cast Sipek as the jungle hero to his "good looks and chiseled frame" - his love of big cats arose during production of a second Tarzan film, when a fire scene went awry and a lion trained to save him in the film did so in real life. Since then, according to the website, he dedicated his life to taking care of mistreated big cats.
But there have been mishaps, most spectacularly the 2004 escape of the 600-pound Bengal tiger Bobo, which was shot to death by a wildlife officer after roaming the neighborhood for 26 hours. In 1996, a cougar escaped by leaping a fence.
In their February raid, wildlife commission agents seized the tigers Bo and Lepa, and the leopard Oko from Sipek's property on the 3300 block of C Road, saying Sipek had a long history of failure to comply with the laws protecting wildlife and public safety. He was jailed and released that day on misdemeanor wildlife charges.
The commission cited numerous incidents in its Aug. 10 license denial: A leopard bit a visitor on the head in 2010; large, decaying holes in the roof and rusted caging created the risk of escapes; water dishes contained yellow and brown slime; multiple piles of old feces stood in enclosures; and the cats were being fed turkey legs rather than red meat, creating the risk that sharp bones could tear their insides.
A tiger on the property had previously died from sharp bones tearing the intestines.
"The FWC removed Mr. Sipek's animals based on his facility's repeated failure to correct violations and follow current regulations," said spokesperson Carli Segelson. "Ms. Melanie Boynes applied for an FWC permit to establish the facility as a wildlife sanctuary. This request was denied due to past caging violations, failure to maintain control of the animals, incorrect dietary practices and the lack of required commercial activity with the tigers and leopard."
Boynes referred questions to her lawyer. But in her appeal, filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, she says the commission's accusations are untrue. The leopard bite did not happen. The cats' diet includes red meat, and none of them ever died from an improper diet. The caging was always adequate, and since the raid they have installed three brand-new cages. There are no sanitation problems.
"The bottom line is the FWC has it in for Steve Sipek," Melchiorre said. "The same day that they seized the cats was the same day they gave them the notice that their license had been revoked. They handled it in the worst possible way. Now they're wasting taxpayers' money seizing the cats, arresting a man with no criminal record of any kind and giving him criminal charges."
The case against Sipek is set for a hearing in Palm Beach County Court Oct. 11.