Ellen Whitehouse flips through a photo album at her kitchen table, her eyes growing wide at the sight of Boomerang.
"Look!" she says excitedly, "there's Boomie with his Lion King."
In the picture, a lion cub stretches lazily out on a living-room floor, ignoring a stuffed Disney animal.
Whitehouse smiles. "Boomie really hated that thing."
Her eyes then land on a picture of Boomerang curled up on her sofa, peaceful as any sleeping infant.
"I'm sorry," Whitehouse says, her eyes starting to mist. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry, but this is very difficult for me."
She sniffs and blows her nose, then looks again at the picture.
Whitehouse, owner of the Noah's Lost Ark animal sanctuary in Berlin Center, lost custody of Boomerang in January, following a bizarre battle involving a New York Post reporter, a former Ohio State quarterback, and Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren. The lion now resides at the California sanctuary owned by Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller The Birds.
Whitehouse still mourns the separation.
"I feel like Tippi took a child from me," she says, closing the album with a sigh.
Until two years ago, Whitehouse quietly raised exotic animals with her husband, Doug, on their 30-acre wildlife sanctuary in Berlin Center, an hour east of Cleveland. A pink-cheeked farmer's daughter with hair as wild and curly as a lion's mane, Whitehouse acquired her first boarder at an auction 10 years ago. The tiger, sick with pneumonia, died in the car on the way home. Whitehouse has devoted her life to nursing exotic animals back to health ever since.
By 2003, about 65 animals called Noah's Lost Ark home, including a blind horse and a three-legged lion. Many came from owners who realized, soon after purchasing their exotic pets, that they did not have the wherewithal to care for them. (A recent acquisition came from eBay. "A woman was selling a tiger for one dollar online," Whitehouse says, shaking her head.) The sanctuary survived on donations and admission fees from the public; the Whitehouses were poor, but happy.
Then, one day in October 2003, Whitehouse received a call from an animal patrol officer in New York City. A tiger named Ming had been found living illegally in a Harlem apartment, and the officer wanted to know if Whitehouse would take it. She readily agreed.
In New York, Ming's story was front-page news. A man named Antoine Yates had been keeping the tiger, along with a 65-pound alligator, for two and a half years -- and might have kept it there forever, had Ming not taken a bite out of Yates' leg. Doctors didn't believe the lacerations were caused by a pit bull, as Yates had claimed, and contacted police. By the time a sharpshooter was dispatched to the apartment, the New York media had swarmed to the scene.
On October 7, Ming arrived in Berlin Center on a pickup truck. A dozen reporters followed.
Ming's story inspired Al Guart, a New York Post reporter, to pen a first-person story about how easy it is to purchase exotic animals. He headed to the place where tigers were rumored to be bought and sold like glasses of lemonade: rural Ohio. Unlike in other states, residents here need only an Ohio I.D. and cash to purchase exotic animals.
Guart had the money, but lacked the Ohio I.D. and a guide. So he turned to William Long, a former Ohio State quarterback turned animal activist. Long agreed to accompany Guart, provided that the animal would be transferred to the Shambala wildlife sanctuary in California.
"I knew Tippi Hedren's sanctuary was one of the best in the world," he says. And they had an ally in Hedren.
"When Al called me, I said yes, absolutely, I'll take the animal," Hedren says. " Al Guart was a hero in my eyes for trying and bringing attention to this issue."
On October 12, Guart, a Post photographer, and Long embarked on their trip. But their first animal auction offered only timber wolves, kangaroos, and llamas.
"I didn't want a llama," Guart recalls with a sigh. "It wasn't dramatic enough. I was looking for some sort of lion, tiger, or bear to catch people's attention."
The team located a breeder in Wapakoneta offering an eight-day-old lion cub for $1,000. Good enough, Guart thought. Long signed the purchase agreement. Mission completed.
Soon after, Guart called Hedren, who was appalled to hear that someone would dare sell an eight-day-old lion.
"The cub is too young to make the long trip to California this weekend," she told him.
New plans were needed. A friend of Hedren's suggested they temporarily house the cub at Noah's Lost Ark. Whitehouse agreed, though it later became clear that the two parties had misunderstood each other's intentions.
Whitehouse believed, she says, that the lion was to be left with her permanently, as Ming had been. Guart and Long thought it was clear to Whitehouse that her sanctuary was only a temporary stop for the lion.
Long drove back to Columbus, and Guart and the photographer delivered the cub to Whitehouse the next morning. But there were problems.
"When Boomie arrived," Whitehouse says, eyes watering, "he wasn't moving." Dr. Ryan Burger, a Canton veterinarian who was at the scene, wrote in his report that the cub was "not eating, dehydrated," and that the "skin had very little elasticity to it."
Whitehouse spent the next few nights nursing the lion back to health.
Five days later, Guart returned to pick up the cub. Whitehouse refused to let the animal go. Federal law, she told him, prohibits the transfer of cats over state lines. She had a Mahoning County sheriff standing by for backup.
Guart left the battle over Boomerang in Hedren's hands, returning to New York to write. But before his story went to press, The New York Daily News, the Post's arch-rival, got wind of the sick lion and wrote its own exposé -- on Guart, claiming that the reporter had almost killed a vulnerable animal for a story. At The Daily News' urging, readers sent the Whitehouses over $30,000 to support Boomerang.
Guart and Long were incensed.
"The cub already had a life planned for it. There was no need for fund-raising," Guart says. "It was not dying, either. The whole thing was a money-raising scheme."
With Guart back in New York, Whitehouse believed the drama would end. But a few days later, she found a message on her machine from Long: "I want my lion back."
Whitehouse did not return the call or Boomerang.
"If Long had kept the lion, it would have died," she says.
One month later, Long filed suit in Mahoning County against Whitehouse for custody of Boomerang.
"Ellen's place is adequate," says Long, "but I wanted the lion to have the best possible living place, and that was with Tippi."
Whitehouse argued that, when Guart dropped off the sick animal, he essentially abandoned it. But she lost the case and an appeal. In January, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and Boomerang was shipped off to Shambala.
Hedren says that the lion, renamed "Uhuru" -- Swahili for "freedom" -- is "doing just great. He's growing very, very quickly, getting a little mane. He's going to be a big cat. He's living with a little tigress exactly the same age. The two of them are getting along . . . they're just adorable. They're in a huge compound. We move them around so the two don't get bored."
Whitehouse isn't buying it.
"I saw a picture of Boomie," she says. "He looks so unhappy. I just know he's not doing well."
Meanwhile, the lion is gone, but the lawsuits continue. Long is seeking $25,000 in punitive damages from the Whitehouses. "If you take someone's property and hold onto it wrongfully, you should be compensated for that," says Long's lawyer, Jeff Holland.
The Whitehouses, in turn, are suing Long for $25,000 for Boomerang's veterinary care and expenses. A hearing is scheduled for April 21, but both sides hope to settle sooner.
Guart was fired from the Post in September, for reasons unrelated to the story. He has no plans to buy more lions.
"We did this for a good deed," he says. "Of course, good deeds never go unpunished . . . Unfortunately, the lion was hijacked by a newspaper, a money-hungry sanctuary, and a man who advocates private ownership of wild animals.
"Our message would have been stronger and clearer if it hadn't been mired for 15 months in the court system."
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