News Column

Former Sasquatch Zoo owner charged in hyena case

May 29, 2014

By Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach



May 29--Debbie Mattox, who owned the Sasquatch Zoo for 23 years before selling it last year to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, was charged late Wednesday with cruelty to animals.

She is the second to face multiple misdemeanor charges in a case involving two juvenile African spotted hyenas brought from New Jersey to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Zoological Park in Crestview.

Amanda Wilkerson, the executive director of the Wildlife Refuge, was served with a summons for nine charges May 16.

Mattox faces five charges, all misdemeanors, that include cruelty to animals, possessing wildlife without proper permitting and three violations of caging requirements.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission brought the charges in late April. Summons were served by the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

Read the summons. >>

A probable cause affidavit states that Mattox was unaware hyenas, one of nature's most dangerous predators, were being brought to Florida until they arrived at her doorstep July 31.

They wound up in Crestview after a Georgia man who had originally offered to take them on a temporary basis reneged when he saw the animals were "older and bigger than he expected," the affidavit said.

"Amanda Wilkerson persuades Deborah Mattox to take and continue to keep the hyenas at her property," the affidavit states. "Everyone involved with the hyenas took instructions from Amanda Wilkerson."

Stan Kirkland, spokesman for Florida Fish and Wildlife, said the cage was too small for the animals placed inside and offered no "safety entrance."

"The safety entrance provides an area where you can lock the animals down to clean the cage," he said.

Wildlife Refuge staff were afraid to enter the cages, as well they should have been, Kirkland said.

"Hyenas have the strongest biting pressure of any mammal on land," he said.

With no one willing to enter the cage, feces had reached ankle height during the three months the hyenas were housed on Mattox's property, Kirkland said.

Permits similar to what animal handlers must have to keep lions and tigers are required to house hyenas, Kirkland said. Both Wilkerson and Mattox face charges for not possessing the proper permits, documents show.

An effort to reach Mattox Thursday afternoon was unsuccessful.

Matt McGee, president of the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge board of directors, acknowledged that an "informal meeting" of the board had been held in the last week at which the charges Wilkerson faces had been discussed.

Meeting minutes were not kept, McGee said. He provided a statement.

"We are extremely proud of our record of stewardship under the direction of Amanda Wilkerson. We invite all members of the public, including local officials, to see for themselves the substantial improvements to the zoo facility in Crestview since falling under the direction of the ECWR," it said.

"We continue to be proactive in our investigation of the allegations relating to hyenas," it said. "We encourage all interested parties to allow the legal system to perform its function, which will include a full presentation of all facts and circumstances, before rushing to judgment."

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin at 850-315-4435 or tmclaughlin@nwfdailynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMnwfdn.

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Source: Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach)