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Animal Trainer with Checkered Past Back in the Spotlight
By Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams on Channel 8, LasVegas.Now
The former sheriff of Nye County described Karl Mitchell as a man with a short fuse. His neighbors in Pahrump make no secret of the fact that they're afraid of him. He's been known to issue threats, point guns, and a lot worse.
The I-Team has followed his tumultuous animal training career for 16 years. When Mitchell was sent to prison five years ago, 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, one of five owned by the notorious animal trainer.
What Hilton 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.
Suffice to say, the description of the property is a bit misleading and so are the glowing accolades about Mitchell himself. A world-renowned animal expert? Notorious is more like it.
"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 with his cats. Her concerns prompted an I-Team 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.
"He threatened to hunt me down. I'm worried he will kill me," said Kari Bagnall. Bagnall married Mitchell, and then he put her in the hospital with broken ribs. She says her ex was barred from a film set after using a needle and thread to sew shut the mouth of a snake.
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.
When Waite spotted Mitchell exhibiting one of his cats in February, he wrote a story about it. Mitchell came unglued. "He was pretty angry. He implied I shouldn't write anymore about him. He used street lingo on me," he said.
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.
Mitchell declined an interview request but thanked us for our continued interest in his activities. Late Monday, he sent an email denying that he has ever been kicked off a set or that he sewed up the mouth of that snake. He also hinted there will be legal action against Eyewitness News.
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