By Michael Sacopulos
It was a difficult tax law question that had driven me to contact my former law professor. Lawrence Jegen, a god in the world of tax law and regulations, had led me through the legal maze. I felt like a child having a parent working out my math homework. I was both pleased and excited with my new knowledge, so effortlessly acquired. My client will be blown away by this, I thought smugly. Then Professor Jegen magnanimously stated, “You don’t owe me anything. Perhaps someday you will be able to assist me.”
Months later when the firm receptionist announced with German efficiency, “Your tax professor—line three,” I knew the separation between cause and effect had just been bridged. “Look, Michael, I want you to help some people over there by you. They run a rescue center for cats, big cats. They need a lawyer.” I agreed to see what I could do and asked the nature of their problem. “Oh some neighbors of theirs are upset, see what you can do. Call Joe at…”
I should explain that I spend my days working for physicians. As general counsel of a national group of physicians, I am charged with reducing medical liability risks and dealing with medical malpractice defense issues. Most of the doctors I work with are neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, or orthopedic surgeons. It is a “highly specialized and elitist little practice” as my father points out. More importantly, it does not involve cats.
Joe spoke softly and calmly. “The Exotic Feline Rescue Center has experienced an escape. Could you come out and meet with us?” I was now hooked on several levels. Pushed by both obligation and intrigue, I agreed to meet Joe the next morning at “The Center.” I mentioned my new client to my brother and partner, Pete. He smiled and let fly, “They say in Hollywood that your career is at rock bottom when you start working with animals. I wonder if it’s the same for law.”
Nothing in my life had prepared me for my first visit to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. In rural Indiana, situated on approximately 100 acres, sits a compound of dozens of large enclosures. Inside the 14-foot-high wire pens are over 200 tigers, lions, cougars and other cats. Joe and I drove the grounds in a small golf cart. “Here are Mary, Ted, Skippy, and Baby Doll,” Frank said. “Ted was removed from a basement in Brookline, Maine. He was in bad shape, but he is doing well now. The others were seized in Kentucky by the feds. Now here we have Josie and Archie. They were kept poorly by a drug lord in Texas. We had a hell of a time removing them…” And so it went for more than an hour. More cats and more stories of abuse followed by rescue; I was so stunned I had trouble asking intelligent questions.
Finally, we arrived at a large enclosure with a single cougar in it. “Jake’s brother climbed that tree Tuesday night and got out. We have been trying to get Donner back ever since. I reported it to the Sherriff’s office and that’s when it went from bad to worse.” I was still unclear why the Center needed a lawyer. A tracker yes, a lawyer no.
“I’m sorry Joe, I don’t understand how you would like me to help.” In a moment that I will never forget, Joe looked away and slowly said, “Sir, the State Police just sent me a $14,000 bill for the helicopter search, the USDA has issued multiple citations, and the County Commissioners want to close us down. The neighbors are talking about suing the Center and the press keeps calling. I have nothing but legal problems.” It was at that moment I realized I had just become the only lawyer in the world with over 100 plastic surgeons and 86 Bengal Tigers for clients.
Over the next months, I worked my way through a series of issues they don’t teach in law school. The County Commissioners took a tour of the Center and began to see it as a tourism asset, not a liability. The State Police backed down and withdrew the bill. The USDA (yes, the Department of Agriculture oversees exotic cat facilities nationwide) stopped threatening to close the Center. I used an old chestnut from the world of Finance: “When you owe the bank a thousand dollars and can’t pay, you have a problem. When you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem.” We have a lot of cats here, where would you like them delivered? Problem solved.
I am sorry to report that Donner was never found. The reported sightings continued for years thereafter. He was “seen” north of Chicago and by the Ohio River on the same day. Donner became the feline equivalent of Elvis. New problems come up from time to time, but nothing as exciting as a runaway cougar. To this day, I remain “Counsel to the Man-eaters” as my brother says. It is an honor and a pleasure that I owe to a law professor and, of course, to the elusive Donner.
Photo provided by Michael Sacopulos.