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Animal Cruelty Jury Hears Keeper's Side

John Weinhart, at whose Riverside County compound dozens of dead tigers were found, says he conscientiously cared for the creatures.

February 10, 2005|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Testifying in his trial for the first time Wednesday, former animal rescuer John Weinhart told of breeding near-extinct Javanese tigers and storing their dead cubs in his freezer.

Weinhart, 62, former operator of the Tiger Rescue animal sanctuary in Colton, is charged with 61 counts of animal cruelty and child endangerment.

Riverside County authorities raided Weinhart's compound in Glen Avon in 2003, discovering 90 dead tigers, including 58 frozen cubs.

They also found Weinhart's 8-year-old son exposed to animal feces, full-grown tigers and two alligators in a bathtub. He was turned over to social workers.

On Wednesday, the German immigrant testified for several hours in his own defense, describing nearly 50 years of experience with exotic animals.

The jurors were shown pictures of seemingly undernourished or injured tigers as Weinhart explained the animals' conditions.

"We do everything humanly possible for them," he said.

Weinhart also told of a Javanese tiger he owned a decade after it was declared extinct. He said he kept the dead cubs in freezers so "at least a museum can have them on hand to show that they lived on the Earth at one time."

His attorney, R. Addison Steele II, said he hoped the jury focused "on the evidence that matters, not the frozen cubs." The charges deal only with live animals found on his property.

There was hardly any discussion in court Wednesday about how or why the animals sickened and died, but cross-examination by the prosecution is scheduled for today.

The jury of nine women and three men occasionally looked bored during the testimony. They did, however, laugh at a few of Weinhart's remarks, including his admission that, when traveling, he often sneaked a favored tiger, Nemo, into his hotel room for the night.

Essentially self-taught, Weinhart kept and trained exotic cats for Las Vegas acts, circus performances and, briefly, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, according to his testimony.

He said he introduced Las Vegas performers Siegfried & Roy to their first trained tiger and worked as a wild animal handler for TV shows such as "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres."

Weinhart's partner, Marla Smith, 49, pleaded guilty to the charges last month so that her 10-year-old son would not have to testify against her.

If convicted, Weinhart faces a maximum sentence of 16 years and eight months in prison.

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