Incorporated in 1995, the stated purpose of Wildlife On Easy Street was to acquire, shelter, feed, breed, and socialize animals (source). And breed and socialize they did.
During their early days, the privately owned wildlife attraction mostly operated as what could only be described as some sort of combination between a bed & breakfast and petting zoo. Thrill seekers looking for a once-in-a-life-time experience could interact with many of the feline residents that called Wildlife On Easy Street home (source). If visitors were feeling a bit adventurous, they could shell out extra cash for the opportunity to sleep with exotic cats.
According to a page on the now defunct Wildlife On Easy Street website (source), tourists were given the option of spending a night in a cabin with a bobcat, serval, caracal, or tiger (emphasis added):
The bizarre bed & breakfast was slowly growing in popularity partly due to being featured in several news publications.
Mary Lou Janson and Lee Foster wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune in which they said (source), "Allowing overnight guests to share quarters with one of these cats is part of this conservation organization's effort to raise consciousness as well as cash. Carole Lewis, who started Wildlife on Easy Street with her husband, Don, insists that close contact with the wild cats helps the public understand the need to protect them."
Some of the cats utilized in the aforementioned cub petting sessions were even featured in the May/June 1997 edition of Palm Beach Illustrated (source):
Despite their overall success, Wildlife On Easy Street's days were already numbered. That's because on August 18, 1997, Jack Lewis mysteriously vanished without a trace (source).
To this day, Lewis' disappearance remains unsolved by law enforcement and has unsurprisingly spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories. A popular theory among those familiar with the case revolves around a protection order Mr. Lewis tried filing against his wife (source).
Before he disappeared, Mr. Lewis filed for a protection order against his wife, Carole Lewis, because she allegedly threatened to kill him (source). This interesting piece of evidence was even featured in an article by PEOPLE magazine (source).
Not too long after Jack Lewis' disappearance, the practice of breeding, selling, and allowing the public to handle exotic cats eventually came to an end when the roadside zoo converted their business model to match that of a sanctuary.
By that time, Carole was already married to Howard Baskin (source), a former employee of Citicorp. They first met at a party in 2002 and later married in 2004 (source).
With Howard now in the picture, transparency became a thing of the past and a new era of wildlife exploitation emerged. It was at this time that Wildlife On Easy Street now became known as Big Cat Rescue (source).
In 2003, Big Cat Rescue published a newsletter (source), which explained the reasoning behind the sudden changes:
Those weren't the only alterations to be made.
Big Cat Rescue now had unwavering support from people that were duped into believing they were an innocent sanctuary that was dedicated to rescuing animals from abusive situations.
But that's where the story just begins.
DID YOU KNOW?
Big Cat Rescue was built on a dump. According to the Wildlife On Easy Street website, "12802 Easy Street was a 40-acre dump site, with a small house with a caved in roof and a borrow pit out back. Carole’s mother cried when she saw what her daughter was moving in to, but they needed the acreage for all of the animals. Over the next five years, the junk was hauled away, the house made livable, and the cats moved up from cages to Cat-A-Tats. Today the former borrow pit is a beautiful lake in which Tigers and Swans can swim. The former mountains of trash and construction debris have been converted to a park like setting by Vernon Stairs, (Carole’s father) who does the work of ten men." - source
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