Karl Mitchell has wild urges that include wild animals and celebrities alike. Having a tumultuous animal training career spanning 16 years, Mitchell was sent to prison five years ago, and some thought that would be the end of his troubles with animals.
But while searching for her new BFF, reality TV star Paris Hilton required contestants to pet a live tiger at the home of Wayne Newton. The tiger came from Pahrump, Nevada, one of five owned by the animal trainer.
What Hilton probably doesn’t know is that Mitchell is now using her name and likeness to promote his business, Big Cat Encounters. His website entices tourists to visit his “tiger reserve,” described as five acres of grassland, almost like a zoo, where tigers roam free and where paying customers can pet, photograph, and even swim with the large carnivores.
World-renowned animal expert? Many respond with an emphatic no.
“I’m always appalled whenever Karl Mitchell has anything with a heartbeat because of his history of neglect and abuse,” said animal activist Linda Faso.
Faso has shadowed Karl Mitchell ever since he first moved to Nye County in Nevada with his cats. Her concerns prompted a local news investigation back in 1996, which found horrible conditions at Mitchell’s previous animal compound — tiny cages, rotten food, flies, feces, and lack of water.
The USDA came in and cited Mitchell for 45 separate violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Mitchell didn’t miss a beat. “Someone like him who doesn’t respect laws at all is going to do what he wants to do,” said Faso.
Since arriving in Pahrump in the early 90’s, Mitchell has been arrested more than a dozen times and his arrest record in California stretches back even further. He was busted for trying to drive over two fish and game wardens who were chasing him. California officials describe Mitchell as a threat to both humans and animals.
Stylist Katie Taylor witnessed how Mitchell treated a chimp during a TV taping for Super Dave Osborne at the Rio hotel. “He started beating this chimpanzee. We were like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘That’s how I get him to do what I want him to do — beat him in the back.’ Punching the monkey in the back, he was just a jerk,” she said.
Mitchell lost one batch of big cats in 2005 while he was doing a two-year stretch in prison for grand theft, but now he has a new collection in the backyard of a rented house. He sells tours even though his exhibitor’s license was permanently revoked in 2001. “He didn’t seem concerned about not having one,” said Pahrump Valley Times reporter Mark Waite.
But the story came to the attention of the USDA, which has sent inspectors to Mitchell’s place three times in recent months. A formal complaint shows the government plans to come after Mitchell once again.
Faso worries it might come too late. Every time Mitchell conducts one of his tours, she says, he puts visitors at risk. As Roy Horn knows, tigers are unpredictable. “It is an accident waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of time,” she said.
The idea that tigers can get out of control isn’t an idle concern. Mitchell’s former neighbors say his tigers and lions got out of their compound several times and were running free. In 2002, Mitchell shot and killed one of his tigers that got loose during a move. Two years later, one of his cats bit the finger off of Mitchell’s girlfriend at the time.