TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A Polk County court has become the stage for a lawsuit between a Polk County man and Big Cat Rescue, made famous in recent years by Netflix show “Tiger King.” Big Cat Rescue is a registered non-profit in Citrus Park.
Big Cat Rescue, and CEO Howard Baskin, faces a lawsuit over custody of a 4-year-old lioness, named Juma, or Koda, depending on who is speaking about the lion. Roy Pinson, the plaintiff, calls the lioness Juma, while Big Cat Rescue renamed her Koda upon taking custody of the animal.
At the center of the lawsuit is the ownership of Juma or Koda. Pinson alleges in his lawsuit that after directly and personally caring for the lioness since 2018, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took her from his custody due to issues with a bureaucratic process, and delivered the lioness to Carole and Howard Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue.
Pinson said, via legal brief, that “because of issues with paperwork that FWC and I were having, I needed to file an appeal,” to FWC taking Juma. “I filed the appeal, but they came in and took Juma.” FWC told Pinson that he had not filed the appeal, according to Pinson’s complaint. When he showed them evidence of the filing on his phone, FWC allegedly told him that it was not filed in the correct court, and took the lioness to Big Cat Rescue.
Pinson filed the lawsuit, allegedly fearing that Juma would not do well at the non-profit due to change in routine and lack of “getting loved regularly” by Pinson, who says he still hand-feeds her. “Juma will be deprived of all of my physical human contact” while at Baskin’s animal sanctuary.
Pinson also said in his brief that he had never abused Juma, and that his “worry is that she may get depressed.” Pinson said Juma was “not eating like she should” since being taken to Big Cat Rescue.
“Both Juma and her owner were caught in the crosshairs of Carole Baskin’s corporate roadside zoo’s greed and FWC’s desire for an inequality of power among FWC, the legislature and the Florida Supreme Court,” according to Pinson’s lawsuit.
On the Big Cat Rescue website, they describe their taking in Koda as aid to law enforcement in a seizure. According to Big Cat Rescue, Koda is being monitored but allowed to explore and “has since recovered nice and easy” after being transported to the sanctuary under sedation.
The first update of Koda at Big Cat Rescue was published on March 2.
In subsequent postings, the non-profit has shared photos and videos of the lioness at the Sanctuary.
On April 18, Carole Baskin made a post discussing Pinson’s lawsuit. “Never before has a former owner been successful in getting a court to compel the wildlife agency to send a cat to a place of their own choosing, after the cat was sent to us, but this one has. We have no other choice than to comply with the court order and FWC’s demand that we catch her and deliver her to that facility. We don’t know if we can reveal where she’s going yet.”
Big Cat Rescue’s web page about Koda states a set of health concerns they noted upon veterinary exam of the lioness. According to their site, “We renamed her Koda to comply with the FWC’s desire that we not share online any details of their pending criminal case.”
Those criminal charges have reportedly been dropped, according to Big Cat Rescue. As a result, Pinson was able to have Juma, as he calls her, moved to a different licensed facility.
The Baskins, on their web page for Koda, allege that Pinson does not have the proper licensure to own Koda, and does not provide adequate healthcare.
“Pinson claims that he has three veterinarians that he uses to provide care for Koda. In our opinion, the preventable issues the lioness suffered should be a violation of both the Florida and USDA rules requiring that owners provide proper veterinary care,” the Baskins claim on their Koda page. Their blog states their belief that Pinson’s facility has “no access to water or electricity,” leading to “acute kidney disease and a severe parasitic load.”
On the site, they allege Pinson wishes to breed the lioness. The blog says there are different types of licenses individuals can get to care for big cats in Florida, including one called a “sanctuary license,” allowed by FWC rule 68A-6.006.
Due to Pinson’s apparent interest in breeding Juma, Big Cat Rescue said online that they are concerned about which type of license to get.
“We believe Pinson has voiced an interest in obtaining this kind of license,” the Big Cat Rescue blog reads. “But in court documents Pinson claims Koda has value because of the value of cubs she could produce, which appears to us to indicate an intention to breed her.”
Pinson’s filed legal complaint does state that “to the best of Plaintiff’s knowledge, information and belief, the value of the property exceeds $30,000.00 based upon an 18-20-year lifespan with a potential for producing 8-18 cubs” each with a market value of about $14,000 to $112,000 or as high as $22,000 based on litter.
The document, however, also includes allegations by Pinson that the Baskins and Big Cat Rescue received the lioness through a “clandestine arrangement” between FWC and Big Cat Rescue to provide a lion to the sanctuary for fundraising purposes.
“At some point prior to Oct. 6, 2021, Plaintiff had been targeted by Co-Defendant, Howard Baskin and Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue Corporation to ensure that FWC assisted her in acquiring an African lion by whatever means necessary, including by unlawful and unconstitutional means,” Pinson’s complaint reads.
Additionally Pinson alleges “the evidence shows that the reason Lt. Louis Hinds interfered with and discouraged the USDA licensing inspection is because Lt. Hinds had made a clandestine arrangement to ensure” that the Baskins “would be first in line to select and take possession of an African lioness, at no cost to the Baskins.”
Pinson also maintains in his brief that FWC used “unprecedented extraconstitutional powers” against a legally operating animal enterprise, and that by doing so, FWC commissioners had made “a direct challenge to the American founding principles of governmental checks and balances” through their conduct in the case of Pinson and Juma.
The plaintiff accuses FWC of “abusing its quasi-judicial powers in a manner that threatens the independence, authority and the principal role of the Florida Supreme Court” and judicial branch of government in the state.
Pinson said Big Cat Rescue continues to “exploit” the lioness for fundraising purposes.
The complaint by Pinson also alleges a “nefarious agenda” between the Baskins and Big Cat Rescue, and the FWC, to “falsely conclude that Plaintiff lied to FWC” while showing the agency evidence of his appeal. Pinson alleges that “FWC abused their police powers to unconstitutional overwhelm the Plaintiff with force and executed an armed ambush, unlawful armed raid and violent seizure of Juma at her home facility.”
His complaint says FWC’s actions are a threat to law and order, and a threat to the public, as well as a threat to representative democracy in a constitutional republic.
Pinson is seeking damages for the loss of valuable property, fees for boarding of Juma, and attorneys fees. Court records show the case is listed in a range for damages sought over $100,000.
WFLA.com reached out to all parties mentioned or involved in the litigation, including Pinson, the Baskins and Big Cat Rescue, and FWC.
“It is our policy not to comment on ongoing litigation,” Howard Baskin said in response to WFLA.com’s request for comment.
FWC gave a similar statement, telling WFLA.com that “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will not be commenting on Mr. Roy Pinson’s personal opinion of the agency or the pending lawsuit. The FWC removed a lion from Mr. Pinson and transferred it for temporary boarding to a licensed facility, Big Cat Rescue. The lion was released to Mr. Pinson for placement at a licensed facility approved by the Commission.”
Representatives for Pinson have not yet responded to request for comment on the litigation.