Peter Renzo has spent more than a decade on the run with his harem of exotic big cats. And now the tiger whisperer is claiming two of his beloved Siberians met a tragic end during a routine visit to the vet that turned fatal.
In a lawsuit filed last week, Renzo alleges that homeopathic veterinarian Dr. Henry Kostecki euthanized Thor and Thunder by administering a lethal dose of sedative in 2013. Renzo says Kostecki had been hired to sedate the cats so that Renzo could clip their nails. But when Kostecki arrived at the big-cat sanctuary that Renzo runs in Nevada, the suit alleges he tranquilized the tigers with darts and injections of the drug Telazol. Over the following two weeks, the lawsuit says, the two tigers died the arms of the man who calls himself “Tiger Pete.”
Now, Renzo is asking for $10,000 in damages for wrongful death and medical malpractice. His attorney, John Arrascada, says this is barely compensation for Renzo’s alleged emotional trauma and the blow to wildlife conservation that the loss of Thor and Thunder has wrought. “They’re on the endangered species list,” Arrascada says. “The cats are priceless.”
For the past 15 years, Renzo has been battling legal hurdles to keep custody of the endangered creatures he says he’s been working with for three decades. He’s jumped from California to Nevada to Idaho and back to Nevada, chased out by county laws on keeping exotic animals and disputes over sanctuary building plans.
Renzo created his foundation, Siberians Are Becoming Rapidly Extinct, or SABRE, around 2000. It didn’t take long for his community to raise eyebrows at their new furry neighbors. He had been ordered to relocate from his home in California, and moved the beasts into a warehouse in Reno. Four months later, Renzo and his five cats were again evicted.
Given 12 days to leave, he packed his tigers in a U-Haul and brought them to an undisclosed location outside the city. But when this new county didn’t like him either, he was evicted twice more. He was finally told to move the cats out of the outdoor cages where they were being kept, a few blocks from a local school, and into a sanctuary set up on land in Silver Springs, Nevada. Renzo’s presence had irked residents—they reportedly started a petition asking to keep big cats out of residential areas. As a result, at least two Nevada counties began floating tougher laws for keeping exotic animals.
“People are not educated about tigers and they assume things and you know what happens when you assume things,” Renzo told local news during one legal battle in Nevada. “We’re the only zoo in Lyon County and you can come here and watch me hand-feed these tigers raw meat. That’s what I do.”
Renzo didn’t answer repeated calls or messages for comment, though his answering machine offered a chippy wish for callers to “have a very happy tiger day.”
A flier for his foundation posted on Facebook shows a man with a handlebar mustache, resting one hand on a great Siberian white. “Come see the Tigers eat with Pete!” the tagline reads. His album, titled “Thunder and Thor,” shows the two cats in their fenced in enclosure, Renzo posing behind them.
The tiger wrangler’s past is hard to piece together, but he appears to have written a book claiming to be a CIA agent who discovered evidence supporting a fringe conspiracy theory called the Gemstone File, which purports to trace a web of connections between the mafia and JFK’s assassination.
Beyond the Gemstone Files was published in 1980 and again in 1990 by Fighting Tigers Inc., which was apparently registered by Renzo that same year in California. “This is the story of how Peter Renzo discovered secret documents he felt the American people should know about,” the preface states.
That year, the Florida-based Globe magazine serialized some of his chapters. “Renzo’s book is mind-boggling entertainment, and Globe believes it is a brilliant spoof, so fascinating, we are publishing detailed extracts,” the tabloid wrote, according to a 1980 edition of Cosmic Awareness Newsletter.
“It’s not satire,” Renzo reportedly told the Globe. “This is all too real, unfortunately.”
Thirty-five years later, Renzo appears to have put aside authorship and devoted himself full-time to his tigers.
In 2007, presumably tired of bouncing around Nevada, Renzo began planning for a sanctuary in Idaho to hold his two Siberian tigers, two white Bengal tigers and one black panther. The $6.3 million tourist attraction was slated to include a 50-acre tiger habitat, a 60-room hotel and a 2,000-square-foot restaurant. But the Department of Agriculture ordered him to neuter the animals, which he refused to do, arguing that they’re an endangered species—there are only around 350 adult Siberian tigers left in the world.
For the next three years, Renzo fought a legal battle to approve his sanctuary plans, and ended up suing the state for $12.9 million. He ultimately lost the suit, though the department was ordered to review its rules.
“If we can save a cat, we’re going to save it,” he told the Idaho State Journal. “There’s also not that many Siberians left worldwide and it’s hard to keep count because they’re so elusive and stay in forested areas. We need to keep a viable population of them because we’re losing them.”
Meanwhile, as this fight raged in the courts, Renzo racked up another citation for not having the proper restricted-animal permit for his cats when he moved his facility to East Cougar Street—yes, really—in Silver Springs, Nevada.
When he challenged the citation, a Nevada Supreme Court judge in 2013 ruled that Renzo’s tiger habitat did not constitute a zoo (He has a 30-year license by the Dept. of Agriculture and permission to operate as a zoo) but also dismissed the citation. “Defendant is a good man and treats his tigers well, but his tigers are only a ‘token collection’ and are really more his pets than an exhibit of a permanent cultural institution…” the judge wrote.
Since then, SABRE has been allowed to operate unencumbered by legal drama—until, that is, the fateful visit in June by Dr. Henry Kostecki.
Unbeknownst to Renzo, two days before the nail-clipping visit in question, Dr. Kostecki had signed a public letter of reprimand issued by the Nevada State Board of Veterinarians after his treatment of two pet-store puppies was found to be in violation of the law, according to a copy of the report. Kostecki did not answer calls for comment, but told Courthouse News on Monday that he was unaware of the charges.
The two had worked together once before, in the 1980s, according to Renzo’s lawyer, John Arrascada, and Dr. Kostecki claimed he’d consulted with other veterinarians on the correct way to sedate big cats using the drug Telazol. But Arrascada now believes that’s untrue and says the doctor did not follow protocol that Arrascada says would have required the doctor to stay on site after the sedation and carry medications that could reverse the drug’s effect.
Now, Renzo is down two tigers. He lives on the same property as the sanctuary, a large rural swath of land, and is not married, nor does he have children. He raised the parents of the deceased tigers and delivered Thor and Thunder as babies himself, raising them using human-animal imprinting techniques, according to Arrascada. “To him it’s like losing a child,” he says. “They were not just property, they were his family and he’s devastated. I don’t think he will ever fully recover from this.”
It could also be a financial blow for Renzo, who apparently had a bite from a reality television producer who wanted to feature him and his tigers in a show about exotic pets, and had attracted supporters like Jonathan Goldsmith, also known as Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man Alive, who got involved in SABRE.
Now those dreams are dashed, his lawyer says. “You can’t go to Petsmart and replace them.”