Despite Pahrump’s long-held reputation as a haven for oddballs, hermits, malcontents and rugged individualists, I will say this for the folks who live there — they most certainly are a forgive-and-forget kind of crowd. Especially the “forget” part.
It is astonishing, even by Nye County standards, that elected officials and government regulators could pretend to know little or nothing about the violent and tortured history of infamous animal trainer Karl Mitchell. Mitchell is the human equivalent of the herpes virus. He keeps resurfacing, a crusty canker sore that scabs over but never really goes away.
Now he’s back. To be honest, I can’t imagine why he would even bother to ask Nye County for permission to set up an exotic animal sanctuary. Mitchell has shown contempt for government authority and law enforcement for decades. He’s been arrested, fined, shut down, thrown into prison, exposed by media, hounded by animal-welfare agencies and organizations — and none of it has mattered to him one bit. No matter what an entity like Nye County decides regarding his sanctuary, he will do exactly what he wants and thumb his nose at everyone.
If the name Karl Mitchell sort of rings a bell, allow me to reintroduce him. I’ve been reporting on his outrageous exploitation of exotic animals since the mid-1990s. Back then, a Las Vegas animal-lover named Linda Faso told me about what she said was Mitchell’s inhumane treatment of numerous animals, including big cats, at a ramshackle compound in Pahrump. I checked it out and found despicable conditions for several tigers and other cats, including endangered species crammed into tiny cages, eating rotten food, tormented by flies and piles of feces and deprived of water in the brutal heat of summer. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued 45 citations for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Mitchell never missed a beat. In 2001, the USDA formally revoked his license to exhibit exotic animals, but Mitchell declared himself to be beyond the regulatory reach of USDA and continued to operate, charging visitors to see his animals, advertising them for use in film and photo shoots, squeezing every last dime he could get out of the magnificent animals. In 2010, a federal hearing officer ruled that Mitchell is not, in fact, above the law and fined him a whopping $68,000, which was added to a $27,000 fine assessed in 2001.
Oh, but his sordid history goes back much further. He’s been arrested at least a dozen times in Nevada and California, including a bust in California for trying to flatten two Fish and Game officers who suspected he was dealing in black-market exotic animals. California officials described Mitchell as a “threat to both animals and humans.”
In the weeks leading up to Mitchell’s appearance before the Nye County Commission, various officials in Pahrump have made statements that are simply jaw-dropping in their ignorance. Animal-control officials say they have no record of problems with Mitchell’s treatment of his critters, and the Planning Commission gave its preliminary approval to an exotic animal compound that would be home to eight tigers, a liger and other animals, saying they don’t see how it could pose a danger to anyone. Oh, really?
His previous Pahrump compounds scared the crap out of everyone who lived within a mile of his place. In 2002, Mitchell shot and killed one of his tigers because it got out. In 2004, his then-girlfriend had one of her fingers bitten off by one of Mitchell’s cats. Although he has no permits of any kind for exhibiting his animals, Mitchell has continued to charge $500 for an hour of close contact with his cats. His website still advertises the opportunity to “swim with tigers” or “romp with baby tigers.” He even refers to his place as a “unique tourist destination,” and his web page is packed with photos of dim-bulb celebrities who have lent their names and faces to promoting his pathetic paean to animal exploitation, including the likes of Paris Hilton and Megan Fox.
But here’s the topper. Hase everyone in Nye forgotten that Mitchell was hired as their head animal-control officer, and how that ended? Despite all of his problems and arrests, he got the job in 2000. Mitchell was arrested three times in one month while running animal control, was accused of stealing $40,000 worth of checks and was sent to prison for two years for stealing a vehicle from the county. I mean, does<em> any</em> of this sort of ring a bell, folks?
“I am always appalled whenever Karl Mitchell has anything with a heartbeat, because of his history of neglect and abuse,” says animal activist Linda Faso, who is once again asking animal groups to focus on Mitchell.
It boils down to this. Tigers and lions do not belong in tiny cages in a hot, dusty compound for the amusement of visitors just because Karl Mitchell can’t figure out any other way to make a living. Tigers and humans should not swim together, and if you think these wild animals can be trained to be perfectly safe, have a chat with Roy Horn. It is furthermore disgraceful to treat exotics this way, whether it’s tigers in Pahrump or elephants in a circus.
Mitchell was denied his conditional use permit because the commission deadlocked 3-3. How he could get three votes is befuddling, but it happened. He can appeal the vote in 30 days, though, the reality is, Mitchell doesn’t think he needs permission from Nye or anyone.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org