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Ex-circus's big cats escorted from rural Arkansas warehouse to airport

Arkansas wildlife officers hand off lions, tigers, leopard at Tennessee border

Wildlife officers on Tuesday escorted a transport containing 14 former circus animals from a warehouse in rural Poinsett County to Memphis International Airport, where they were then flown to Germany, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission spokesman Randy Zellers said.

Poinsett County sheriff's deputies, acting on an anonymous tip Saturday evening, found seven tigers, six lions and a leopard housed in cages in a large warehouse between Weiner and Harrisburg owned by Craig Keller.

The animals were in the possession of a Tampa, Fla., company that had contracted with the former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. The circus discontinued operations in May after performing for 146 years.

Zellers said the animals were owned by a man in London who had arranged to transport the animals from Florida to Arkansas before they were flown to Germany. Last week, one of the former circus tigers escaped from its transport in Stockbridge, Ga., and was shot and killed by police after it attacked a dog at a residence.

The animals' owner had proper documentation proving his ownership but failed to notify Arkansas officials that he would be transporting the animals in the state, Zellers said.

Poinsett County Sheriff Kevin Molder said he went to the warehouse Saturday with deputies and saw the animals. He said they appeared healthy.

"We didn't go inside much because we didn't want to stress the animals," Molder said.

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Keller, who owns an agricultural flying service, was not at the warehouse Saturday. Zellers said investigators are looking for him. No one answered calls at Keller's flying service Tuesday afternoon.

"He was trying to help them," Zellers said of Keller allowing the animals to be housed in his building. "The cats had no place to go."

Wildlife officers remained at the warehouse until the animals were taken to the airport Tuesday afternoon, Zellers said.

"Our No. 1 priority is safety," he said. "Our second priority is the animals."

He said Arkansas Game and Fish officers were still investigating and that he did not know if any charges would be filed.

Workers loaded the animals onto a large truck while four veterinarians watched Tuesday morning, Zellers said.

Officers escorted the truck to the Arkansas state line where it was met by members of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, who then followed the vehicle to Memphis International Airport.

"They brought them right to the airport," Zellers said Tuesday afternoon. "They're in the air on their way to Germany now."

State Desk on 09/13/2017

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