This Former Cocaine Kingpin Is Lobbying Congress to Let Him Keep His Cheetahs (and Liger)

Ex-drug-lord Mario Tabraue has been compared to Scarface. Say hello to his little friend on Capitol Hill.

| Wed May 7, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mario Tabraue Sr. founded the Zoological Wildlife Foundation after getting out of prison.

Mario Tabraue Sr. was the Cuban American kingpin of a massive Miami cocaine empire. His palatial villa and ruthless multimillion-dollar drug syndicate evoked comparisons to Scarface. Tabraue's 1989 trial featured testimony that he'd once attempted to dismember the corpse of a federal informant with a machete. Now this 59-year-old ex-drug-lord, who spent more than a decade in prison, has gone from operating outside the law to attempting to shape it on Capitol Hill. Tabraue is quietly bankrolling a lobbying effort—mounted by a former Republican House staffer—to kill legislation that would crack down on exotic-animal parks, such as the one he currently runs on a five-acre ranch outside of Miami.

Tabraue's Zoological Wildlife Foundation (ZWF), a for-profit outfit that says its mission is to raise awareness about endangered species, has become one of the top destinations in South Florida for animal lovers in the 15 years it has been in business. Tabraue's preserve boasts a collection of rare animals, including two-toed sloths, peregrine falcons, a snow leopard, and a citron-crested cockatoo. He even has a liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger). 

But a pending bill could put Tabraue's operation—and others like it—out of business. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, first introduced in 2012 by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), would restrict the acquisition of big cats to accredited zoos and require private owners to register their animals. In response, Tabraue hired Frank Vitello, a former Republican staffer on the House Natural Resources Committee, to lobby against the legislation. Since 2013, the ZWF has paid Vitello's firm $80,000.

McKeon's legislation was motivated by a 2011 episode in which a Zanesville, Ohio, man released 56 exotic animals into the community before taking his own life. The animals, including 18 tigers and 17 lions, were on the loose for an afternoon as sheriff's deputies desperately tracked them through the countryside. Forty-eight animals were shot dead by local enforcement.

To animal rights groups, this was a teachable moment that illustrated the dangers of a lightly regulated system in which almost anyone can possess exotic animals. The Department of Agriculture, which regulates exotic-wildlife exhibitors, currently has no oversight over people who simply keep lions, tigers, and cheetahs as pets, and accordingly law enforcement agencies have no way of knowing what and how many animals are being kept in the vicinity of the public. While a licensing process exists for people who want to display and breed big cats as a business venture, it amounts to a rubber stamp.

Actress Tippi Hedren (of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds), who operates a preserve of rescued big cats in McKeon's district that includes a tiger that once belonged to Michael Jackson, convinced McKeon to take action to prevent future disasters like Zanesville. In 2012, she visited McKeon at his Washington office, screening for the congressman a four-minute video on the abuse of big cats. "He said, 'Oh my God,'" Hedren recalls. McKeon introduced his bill later that year. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced a similar version in the Senate. McKeon's bill would allow members of the American Zoological Association, the preeminent accrediting body for zoos and aquariums, to continue to acquire new cats. But it would put an end to the practice for everyone else. Existing collections would be grandfathered in—but their businesses would die off with their animals, and it would be illegal to breed new ones. "Our main effort is to go out of business," Hedren says. "Hopefully we never have to have sanctuaries to take care of these animals."

"Kenneth Feld has accused me of trying to stop his family business," Hedren says. "And you know what? I am. I hate the circuses with the animals."

The first version of the bill faced fierce opposition from the powerful circus lobby and went nowhere. In response, McKeon carved out an exemption for accredited circuses and reintroduced the legislation in 2013. But traveling road shows were still uneasy. So were private exotic-animal preserves and what activists derisively call "roadside zoos." Companies including Tabraue's ZWF joined Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., in opposition to the bill. "Kenneth Feld [the company's CEO] has accused me of trying to stop his family business," Hedren says. "And you know what? I am. I hate the circuses with the animals."

In the lobbying circus that has emerged over the legislation, Tabraue's own exotic past stands out. In the late 1980s, he was convicted on 61 counts of racketeering. The cover for his drug operation, according to the federal agents who spent a decade building the case against him, was an exotic-animal import business called Pets Unlimited.

Tabraue's lobbyist, Vitello, says his client's controversial background is irrelevant. "This is a policy bill," he says. "And it's bad policy, and that's why I have no reservations at all about opposing it." (Tabraue referred all questions about the legislation to Vitello and did not respond to email requests for comment.)

The feds first zeroed in on Tabraue in 1981. During a narcotics investigation dubbed Operation Giraffe, they raided his estate and found six tons of marijuana. But the case, spearheaded by Janet Reno, then a young Dade County state attorney, was tossed out by a judge after Tabraue's lawyer argued that the hundreds of hours of incriminating wiretaps amassed by investigators had been improperly obtained.

At the time, Tabraue had two cheetahs, five monkeys, six cobras, four rattlesnakes, a toucan, and several dozen other animals at his Coconut Grove mansion, a luxurious spread federal agents called the "Playboy mansion." He laid claim to the only living two-headed python in North America. Even by the flashy standards of Miami Vice-era South Florida, Tabraue's collection of exotic animals raised eyebrows among his neighbors, who also wondered why men with guns were patrolling the property.  

In 1985, federal agents again descended on his property. This time, the operation was conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which confiscated two cheetahs, charging that Tabraue illegally acquired the endangered animals. The cheetahs "were found to be in very poor physical condition," the agency noted in its annual report

 

Tabraue eventually fessed up about how he obtained some of his animals, telling federal investigators that he had once paid a writer and parrot activist named Tony Silva to smuggle 35 endangered hyacinth macaws into the US inside of PVC pipes. Tabraue lent some of his animals to zoos, he sold some at his store, Pets Unlimited, and he kept others as pets. (Silva, who pled guilty to the illegal importation of protected animals, now runs a small business in Miami helping people raise exotic birds.)

In 1987, Tabraue was taken down in Operation Cobra. According to federal prosecutors, Tabraue had been the "chairman of the board" of a cocaine and marijuana trafficking network worth $75 million. At one point, investigators charged, he had stored 10,000 pounds of marijuana at the Parrot Jungle, a Miami-Dade tourist attraction owned by a friend. As the FBI was arresting Tabraue and his crew, an associate tossed a bag containing $50,000 in cash out the window of Tabraue's house. A federal agent caught it. (Also nabbed in the operation was Orlando Cicilia, brother-in-law of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio; Cicilia was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement.)

Prosecutors alleged that Tabraue and his father, Guillermo, a Bay of Pigs veteran who ran a jewelry store in Miami's Little Havana, had masterminded the entire network. But Guillermo's charges were reduced to tax evasion, after a witness testified that Guillermo had been an informant for the CIA.

Tabraue was also implicated in the murder of Larry Nash, an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. According to trial testimony, Tabraue's henchmen murdered Nash in Tabraue's car and then brought the body to Tabraue, who attempted to hack it to pieces with a machete. When that failed, his associates used a chainsaw to finish the job and then set Nash's remains ablaze.

 

Tabraue was not charged in connection with Nash's murder, but he was charged with orchestrating the 1981 execution of his first wife, who had threatened to provide evidence of his operation to the feds. But Tabraue beat the charge. The Miami Herald credited his success to the skill of his lawyer, Richard Sharpstein, who popped his collar and smoked a cigar during closing arguments in homage to Columbo. The Herald reported that "Tabraue winked and smiled at his second wife, Diusdy, when the jury found him not guilty of ordering the 10-shot execution of his first wife, Maria."

Sentenced to 100 years in prison, Tabraue only served 12. Against the wishes of the federal agents who had locked Tabraue up and his trial judge (who'd since died), he was released in 2000 after testifying against other members of the Miami underworld. "He epitomized the most ruthless and violent of all the drug dealers during that time," an ATF agent who had helped bring him down said when Tabraue was released.

"I was crazy back then," Tabraue told the Herald in 2000. "I'm not proud of the crimes I committed. I'm not proud I had to cooperate with the authorities either, but there came a time when I had to come clean. I've learned a better way. It's not like I only did six months. I did 12 years hard time in a place where stabbings are a normal thing."

After his release from prison, he founded Zoological Imports 2000 Inc. (later changing its name to the Zoological Wildlife Foundation). Though he'd previously copped to acquiring animals from a smuggler—and using his pet business as a cover for a vast criminal conspiracy—thanks to the USDA's lax licensing standards, Tabraue was able to get back into the exotic-animals business.

For big-cat advocates, exhibitors like Tabraue make McKeon's bill necessary. "I'd say probably 10 percent of the people out there are causing 90 percent of the problems," says Carole Baskin, founder of the South Florida preserve Big Cat Rescue. 

Under current law, individuals who have been convicted on animal cruelty charges are prohibited from obtaining exotic-animal licenses for only a year. No other criminal convictions are considered disqualifying. "Older issues that have been resolved and are nonrecurrent may be evaluated, but do not by themselves provide clear regulatory basis for denial," says Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. To get licensed, Tabraue merely had to pay a small fee (about $485 annually) and pass an inspection in less than three tries. And regulators have their hands full—the illegal exotic animal trade is second only to the illegal drug trade in the United States.

Since returning to the exotic-animal business, Tabraue has drawn scrutiny from the USDA. In a 2009 consent decree, he admitted to having "knowingly made false and fraudulent statements" to a USDA inspector about the acquisition of two tigers and having "knowingly provided" the inspector with two "false and fraudulent" forms to back up his claims.

"I was crazy back then," Tabraue told the Miami Herald in 2000. "I'm not proud of the crimes I committed."

Routine inspections have also revealed infractions: electrical cords in the sloth enclosure; a white tiger that did not have regular access to potable water; "several toxic substances in the animal areas and the feed storage area"; missing acquisition records for an alpaca, gibbon, owl monkey, and six wolves; and tigers "at risk for escape."

To wildlife advocates, Tabraue's biggest sin is that he's branding himself as a conservationist. In an interview with the Hill last August—which did not mention his drug-running past—he warned that the McKeon's bill "would destroy conservation programs that we, as private individuals, have created." On Tabraue's website, he frames ZWF's work as a heroic struggle: "Help us save endangered species." Among the conservation "success stories" touted by ZWF are a baby tabby tigers and African white lions that his live at his preserve. Tabraue claims that these animals are "extinct in the wild." But tabby tigers and white lions are just regular tigers and lions whose recessive genes give them rare colorations; virtually nonexistent in the wild, their populations are sustained by (often deliberate) inbreeding by exotic-animal owners. The American Zoological Association banned such deliberate breeding by its members in 2008. 

Talk of protecting rare animals is a common marketing tactic. "Everybody wants to be a conservationist," says Tracy Coppola, campaigns director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a leading supporter of the McKeon bill. "To toss around the term 'conservation' in that context is really unfortunate."

McKeon's bill, meanwhile, is stuck in committee—and it seems likely to stay there for this session of Congress. With Congress gearing up for a nasty midterm election, there's not much appetite for a big fight over big cats. "It's a challenging time in Congress for bill movement," Coppola concedes. Even for ligers.

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