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The ‘Reptile Man’ Responds

Terry Cullen tells his side of the story

Dec. 1, 2010
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Tears fill his eyes as he recalls the horrific events of this year. In May, Terry Cullen, a recognized reptilian conservationist, was branded with 12 counts of animal mistreatment, two counts of sexual assault and one count of false imprisonment. His neighbors scream obscenities at him from across the street, his friends can’t do anything to help, and his animals are either gone or shot dead.

When did you start working with exotic animals?

I’ve worked with wild animals, especially endangered animals, for a major portion of my life. I started working with animals when I was barely old enough to go to school. I wrote my first paper when I was about 15 years of age on the evidence of a particular type of snake being venomous. I was doing research work in South America and in the Caribbean in my teen years. I was working with the Cyclura, the giant rock lizards of the Caribbean. I was doing work in northern South America with the many constricting snakes, the boids, and I proceeded to get into more areas of herpetology. All of them focused on conservation one way or another, whether it was better husbandry in captivity or whether it was learning more about animals in situ in the wild, trying to find out as much as I could before these animals disappeared forever, and trying to find ways of preventing that from happening. All of the work I have done, one way or another, has focused on conservation.

Briefly, list some of your past and current involvements with reptiles.

I started the Chinese Alligator Fund in the U.S. and internationally. I started and continue to work on the Central African Crocodile Research Project. I served as a board member on various committees associated with the Crocodile Specialist Group. I worked with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and created their crocodilian school. I bred many critically endangered crocodilians when no one else could.

Approximately, how many animals were removed from your facilities? Did you own them?

About 230 total… One of the truly sad results of this is some of the statements that were made by the curator of the Bronx Zoo. I can understand she’s trying to cover her butt on this, but the realities are quite different from what she was stating in those various news articles. First of all, the Bronx Zoo did not own most of those animals; I did.

Second of all, regarding other animals that I had, I have clear ownership of them, including federal affidavits to show that… I was never even allowed to show my documentation. When it comes to the Blanding’s turtle and ornate box turtle, I didn’t own those animals, and I never claimed to. These animals were brought to me by the Wisconsin Humane Society because they were in bad shape. I was getting them rehabbed to the point where they could be released back into the wild, something I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of times before for that organization.

Of the 15 pending charges against you, which are you guilty of?

I was charged with 12 different counts of various forms of animal mistreatment, and I was charged with second-degree sexual assault, third-degree sexual assault and false imprisonment—all of which I am innocent of.

In your opinion, what went wrong? What led up to this raid?

I wish I knew. At worst this should have been someone knocking on my door saying, “Hey, we hear you have these animals in there and you have 30 days to get them out or we’re writing you a citation.” I have kept animals in the city of Milwaukee since 1958; I have never, in all that time, had a single complaint called in about my keeping of these animals. I kept them well, I kept them quietly, and I kept them securely. Not one person was ever harmed by those animals, and [there was] never so much as a complaint about an odor.

How has this situation affected your life?

It’s destroyed my life. It has quite simply ruined my life. The very things that make up who I am have been viciously ripped away from me. It is very difficult for me on a daily basis to find a reason to wake up in the morning. I have been terrorized. This has been a persecution, not a prosecution.

So what’s your next move?

I honestly don’t know. I have no source of income, and I have no contact with animals. I have no home, basically living like a homeless person—just trying to stay with people where I feel safe for a short period of time.


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