A man and woman who run a sanctuary for neglected animals in Chautauqua County face criminal allegations that they illegally purchased a leopard.
Jacqueline and Kenneth Wisniewski, operators of JNK's Call of the Wild sanctuary in Sinclairville, are charged with buying an illegally transported leopard from a former exotic-animal dealer in Fredericksburg, Ohio.
The former dealer, Brett A. Hewitt, 26, pleaded guilty last week to federal felony charges of illegally transporting protected wildlife. He admitted to illegally selling six African leopards, including one sold to the Wisniewskis for $1,300.
Charges are still pending against the Wisniewskis and several other people who bought leopards from Hewitt, Assistant U.S. Attorney MaryEllen Kresse said. The arrests resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Their attorney, Cheryl Meyers Buth, described the Wisniewskis as animal lovers who never intended to violate any laws. She said federal agents confiscated the leopard last year.
"They have run their sanctuary for rescued animals for about 15 years now. They've had about 100 different species over the years, including lions and tigers," Meyers Buth said. "They are well-intentioned people who love animals. They treat these animals like members of their own family."
According to Meyers Buth, the 54-acre sanctuary is a charity registered with New York State. She said she cannot discuss the couple's reasons for buying the leopard while the federal court case is still pending.
During a court appearance last week, District Judge Richard J. Arcara asked Hewitt, former operator of a company called West Wing Exotics, how he obtained the leopards. He said he bought them from several different sources but did not explain in detail.
Kresse said Hewitt sold three leopards to a man named Anthony Barone in Dix Hills on Long Island.
Barone, a tattoo artist, was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to four years in prison after an investigation by police and the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
SPCA officials said Barone kept the animals in a filthy basement room with poor ventilation and also used them to scare his estranged wife. The SPCA said Barone in 2005 chained and viciously beat his wife while two of the leopards sat nearby.
The Wisniewskis "would never" misuse any animal in that manner, their attorney said.
The leopards confiscated in this case are in "good shape" and will probably be sent to animal sanctuaries or zoos, "where they can help educate the public about endangered species," said Diana Weaver, spokeswoman for U.S. Fish & Wildlife.