Legendary for deeds with ASPCA & WSPA, but worked nearly twice as long for the British Columbia SPCA in St. George
PRINCE GEORGE, British Columbia, Canada––If Kathi Travers, 69, could still shout aloud, she might be shouting yet, more than six months later, about the first sentence of her Prince George Citizen obituary.
Belatedly reaching ANIMALS 24-7 in mid-April 2020, the obituary was the first we had heard of Travers’ death.
Considered “animal rights advocate” an insult
“Kathi Travers, an internationally recognized animal rights advocate, died suddenly on October 12, 2019 at her Prince George home, her spouse Jo [Joachim] Graber confirmed,” the obituary began.
Travers herself had authored a weekly column, “Animal Tracks,” for the Prince George Citizen, beginning in February 1999.
Specified Travers in her “Animal Tracks” column installment of May 12, 2005, “Whenever someone calls me an animals rights advocate, I take it as an insult. Almost my whole adult life I have been working to help animals: saving them from overcrowded zoos; placing what one person considered a ‘pet’ lion cub into an as natural an environment as possible [at actress Tippi Hedren’s Shambala sanctuary near Acton, California]; getting abandoned animals off an island [Montserrat] that was almost blown away by a volcano. Even by writing, I feel I save or help animals in some way by educating the public.”
“I am an animal welfare person”
However, Travers stipulated, “I am an animal welfare person,” after taking a few random shots at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder Ingrid Newkirk and former Beatle turned vegan animal rights campaigner Paul McCartney, and alleging––erroneously––that “animal rights people don’t even think we should have companion animals,” a position taken by only a very few people among the broad spectrum of self-defined animal rights activists and philosophers.
Concluded Travers in that rant, “I don’t drive around in a pickup with my dogs flopping around. I try my best to keep them safe. All my pets are vaccinated yearly and every one of my four-legged friends are spayed or neutered. They have good food and a safe space of their own in our house.”
“What’s wrong with chicken?”
The overwhelming majority of animal rights activists could say the same, but Travers, who excelled for decades in hands-on animal care roles, never was known for attention to accuracy and detail––or moderation––in expressing her often self-contradictory opinions.
This included publishing outspoken defenses of eating animals and animal use in biomedical research, at the same time as vehemently denouncing anything that Travers did recognize as cruelty.
Among Travers’ more memorable self-contradictions was her February 1995 rant about Le Cirque, a fashionable New York East Side restaurant, after it served ortolans, a tiny and now protected bird species, who were roasted and eaten whole to mark the 20th anniversary of the restaurant opening.
“I’m no vegetarian,” Travers told Associated Press, “but what are we coming to when we have to eat these little things? What’s wrong with chicken?”
Worked with stars
“Born and raised in the Boston, Massachusetts area,” originally as Kathleen Waldrop, Travers “went on to live in New York and Los Angeles,” recounted the Prince George Citizen, “as she developed her career in animal welfare, specializing in exotic animals.
“During those years,” the Prince George Citizen said, “she collaborated with world-famous conservationist and primate expert Jane Goodall, consulted with Michael Jackson on the proper care necessary for the animals he kept at Neverland Ranch, and worked with Mary Tyler Moore, Tippi Hedren and other Hollywood stars noted for their animal advocacy.
Hosted radio talk show
“She came to Prince George in 1998,” through marriage to Graber, a prominent local environmentalist and community activist, “and used her American connections while working at the Prince George Film Commission,” the Prince George Citizen continued.
“Shortly after her arrival, she began writing about animals in a weekly column in The Citizen,” the obituary acknowledged, also mentioning that Travers served for more than 20 years in volunteer capacities with the Prince George branch of the British Columbia SPCA, including as a longtime board member, and hosted a weekly morning talk show on the community radio station, CFIS 93.1 FM.
That was just a quick surface summary of Travers’ more-than-50-year career in animal work.
Father left mother & took the dog
Explained Sarah Schweitzer in profiling Travers for the online magazine Medium in March 2019, “When she was a girl, her father left her mother and took the family dog with him. Helping distressed animals was a way of filling the hole.”
The then-Kathleen Waldrop appears to have begun working with animals circa 1967 as a teenaged stable hand and groom at thoroughbred racetracks, first in New York state and later in Maryland.
Through racetrack work she met her first husband, thoroughbred breeder, owner, and trainer George R. Travers.
Travers, 24 years her senior, had raised funds for the American Red Cross as a volunteer and had been fined in April 1976 for illegally selling lottery tickets, but he appears to have been associated with horse racing for most of his life, both until their marriage and for years afterward.
George Travers was identified by Associated Press as trainer of a horse named Tele’s Daughter who was among 43 thoroughbreds and five ponies killed on January 31, 1966 when a pre-dawn fire raced through five barns at the former Bowie Race Track in Bowie, Maryland.
The thoroughbred racing data source Equibase, however, documents George Travers training career only from 1976 to 1987. During those years, George Travers trained 20 horses who won $600,441 total, with 59 firsts 66 seconds and 71 thirds in 672 starts.
George Travers’ earnings fell by more than half in 1982, however, after Kathleen Waldrop became Mrs. Kathleen Travers in June of that year in a trackside ceremony held between races. He was 55; she was 31.
The next year, 1983, was George Travers’ third most lucrative, and his 1984 winnings of $125,000 were three times as much as he won during his last three years of racing combined.
By 1986 Mr. & Mrs. Travers were having hard times.
“Four years ago, having moved to the New York area,” Kathi Travers “applied for a job at the Animalport,” at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, “feeding the guests and shoveling manure,” recounted Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Michael Vitez in a January 1991 profile.
“Within a year,” Vitez continued, “she rose to the top job, the first woman ever to do so.”
Opened in 1948 as the New York International Airport, but better known as Idlewyld until renamed in 1963 after the assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the airport in 1958 added the Animalport to the cargo area to quarantine animals in international transit, and to look after animals in domestic travel between flights, if the animals would have long holdovers.
Similar facilities were opened at the international airports serving Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston, operated by independent contractors, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals won the Idlewyld contract.
Vitez described Kathi Travers’ excitement when one of her guests was Sunday Silence, the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner, who “was on his way to Japan, where investors had purchased him for $11 million, hoping he would sire equally successful offspring,” as indeed he did, becoming the most successful stud horse in Japanese horse racing history.
“Common mule would get the same treatment”
Sunday Silence got red-carpet attention, Vitez observed, “but under the care of Kathi Travers a common mule would get the same treatment. In 1990 more than 14,000 monkeys, horses, dogs, cats, birds––and an occasional lion, tiger, bear or camel––cooled their hooves, wings, paws and claws at the Animalport,” Vitez wrote, adding that the Animalport was unique not only in being run by the ASPCA, but also in being “the only one run by a woman who lives in a condo with 20 birds, three monkeys, a dog and a husband, and who believes that Providence has given her this job, as well as a mission: to make the world safe for animal travel.”
Travers began expanding her mission from just providing animal care after a 1989 incident in which USDA inspectors found eight dead monkeys and 22 more barely alive in a shipment from Central America. She soon enlisted help from August E. “Gus” Whitcomb, a career troubleshooter for airlines, most recently for Cathay Pacific Airways and Air New Zealand, but then with American Airlines.
Together Travers and Whitcomb developed protocols for safe animal handling that were soon adopted throughout the airline industry.
“We need realists”
“There are enough people out there fighting for people,” Travers told Vitez. “We need more people working seriously for animals. We have a lot of extremists out there. We need realists, people who can do achievable things.
“I want to be known as someone who made a difference in the transportation of animals,” Travers declared. “For years animals have been treated horribly, packed in small crates, starved and tranquilized. More animals die as a result of over-tranquilizing than of airline negligence.
“I can make it safer for pets to travel,” Travers continued. “Animals have rights, too,” a statement which would appear to have made Travers an animal rights activist of sorts, whether or not she accepted the definition.
“The airlines stand to profit from this,” Travers emphasized. “If the word gets out that it’s fine to ship your animals, then people aren’t going to be afraid to do it, and the airlines are going to make money,” as they have, flying ever more animals in almost every year since.
Much of Travers’ work at the Kennedy Animalport involved handling transport of animals on their way to laboratory use. Travers thereby became the first of four animal caretakers to develop antibodies to the Ebola-Reston virus, probably in 1988, after having contact with monkeys imported from the Philippines.
The other caretakers worked at quarantine facilities in Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Travers and the rest were tested for exposure to Ebola virus in 1988, leading to the identification of the Ebola-Reston strain, now known to infect both pigs and monkeys in the Philippines.
“The Ebola virus, or a close relative from the filovirus family, first turned up in the United States in fall 1989 when it was identified in a shipment of dying Philippine cynomolgus monkeys [longtailed macaques] sent to a Hazleton Research Products facility in Reston, Virginia,” reported D’Vera Cohn in March 1990 for the Washington Post.
Travers survived infection
In January 1990 the Centers for Disease Control said that none of 149 Americans tested after having possible exposure to the dying monkeys had developed antibodies to Ebola, meaning none had become infected.
Travers, however, “said federal officials told her the results of her blood test,” which confirmed her having been infected, “on Christmas weekend,” Cohn wrote.
Said Lloyd Tait, by then an ASPCA senior vice president, who in 1968 became the first ASPCA director of shelter medicine, “All you have to conclude is, they are lying.”
First the New York State Health Department and then the Centers for Disease Control responded by introducing restrictions that temporarily stopped the import of monkeys into the U.S.
Animalport was doomed
By 1991, Travers’ sixth year as director, the Kennedy Animalport was doomed by a combination of circumstances beyond her control.
The Ebola incident had convinced the John F. Kennedy International Airport management and the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) that the 1958-vintage Animalport building urgently needed to be replaced with facilities offering stronger biosecurity.
In addition, USDA-APHIS had (and still has) an animal quarantine station of its own to keep filled, opened in 1980 at the Stewart-Newbergh International Airport in Orange County, New York, 75 miles north.
The John F. Kennedy International Airport wanted to use the Animalport space to expand cargo operations.
Upstaged ASPCA president Roger Caras
The ASPCA, meanwhile, was experiencing operating losses in running the Animalport, compounded by activist objections to the degree of ASPCA cooperation with animal use industries that managing the Animalport necessarily involved.
Travers fought to keep the Animalport open by becoming a New York City media celebrity, always ready to tell stories about unusual cases. This increased public support for her work, but also increasingly antagonized then-ASPCA president Roger Caras (1928-2001).
Caras, before his 1991-1999 tenure as ASPCA president, was a longtime television program host, reporter, and ringmaster for the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in Madison Square Garden. Reputedly the role model for the vain Mary Tyler Moore Show character Ted Baxter, Caras was notoriously jealous of the limelight, and resented being upstaged––especially by Travers, whose status and pay grade at the ASPCA were that of a master sergeant, not a member of the officer corps.
Tabitha the Flying Feline
The last straw for Caras came in July 1994, when a tabby cat named Tabitha, belonging to actress Carol Ann Timmel, escaped and disappeared aboard a Boeing 747, on a Tower Air flight from New York to Los Angeles.
Travers was enlisted to help find the cat, but failed.
“Cats are the toughest to find,” Travers told United Press International reporter Tracy Connor. “Even monkeys are much easier. It’s a huge plane, and you know cats. If you have a studio apartment, you might not see the kitty for a month because she’s curled up somewhere. So imagine what it must be like in a plane this size, where there are all kinds of cracks and crevices.”
“To coax the ‘fraidy cat out of her corner,” wrote Connor, “Travers set out seven booby-trapped cages filled with ‘great smelly tuna,’ Tabitha’s favorite meal. ‘The passengers will probably be stunk off the plane, but at this point I don’t care,’ Travers said. ‘Hey, the tuna’s probably better than what they’re eating.’”
Thirteen days and 30,000 air miles after Tabitha disappeared, owner Timmel herself finally heard Tabitha mewing and scratching behind an aluminum wall, and the cat was rescued.
Timmel wrote a book about the experience, Tabitha: The Fabulous Flying Feline (1996).
Exiled to Los Angeles
Caras simultaneously gave up the New York City animal control contract that the ASPCA had held since 1895 and closed the Animalport, both effective at the end of 1994.
Travers remained with the ASPCA as “Special Director of Animal Affairs, Exotic Animals and Animal Transportation,” but was exiled to head the ASPCA branch office in Los Angeles, succeeding former ASPCA special counsel Madeline Bernstein.
Bernstein had herself been exiled from New York City to Los Angeles in 1993, soon after she advised the ASPCA board that Caras and several board members had acted illegally in deputizing themselves as cruelty law enforcement officers in order to obtain permits to carry concealed firearms.
Caras apparently regarded Los Angeles as Siberia, but for both Bernstein and Travers the transfer brought new opportunities.
Bernstein in April 1994 left the ASPCA to head the Los Angeles SPCA, soon renamed spcaLA. Twenty-six years later, Bernstein remains spcaLA president.
Walt Disney Inc.
Travers during 1995, her first year in Los Angeles, was instrumental in persuading the Walt Disney corporation to stock the then-new Walt Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom zoo in Florida with older animals from northern zoos who would be more comfortable in a warmer climate, rather than with younger specimens who would live longer.
The Walt Disney corporation unfortunately paid a high public relations price for the decision, since stocking older animals raised their mortality rate. This in turn became a cause celebré for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.
Also at Travers’ urging, the Walt Disney corporation offered to buy from South Africa several whole family groups of elephants and hippos who were otherwise to be shot as “surplus” in national parks. The deal fell through when the International Fund for Animal Welfare donated land enough to the South African wildlife department to enable the elephants and hippos to remain in the wild.
After the South African government cancelled plans to cull the elephants and rhinos, Walt Disney Inc. withdrew the purchase offer.
This did not stop Friends of Animals and the International Wildlife Coalition from “exposing” the deal that was already dead, initiating public protest against it.
Zoo & sanctuary inspections
For much of 1996, Travers’ second year nominally spent in Los Angeles, she was actually on the road, inspecting zoos, sanctuaries, and exotic animal parks around the U.S. as part of a multi-organization task force also including representatives from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), the Born Free Foundation, the Humane Society of the U.S., and the Massachusetts SPCA.
The inspections were modeled after a 1994 “Zoo Inquiry” that the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Born Free Foundation had conducted in Europe. The inspection tours were originally to have been done by British WSPA staffer Stephen Ormrod, a globally recognized zoo expert, and his longtime friend and colleague Sue Pressman, a U.S. wildlife consultant who also happened to be Roger Caras’ first cousin.
Ormrod, however, severely depressed after viewing zoo conditions in eastern Europe, killed himself in May 1995. Pressman withdrew from the project.
Defended Texas Exotic Feline Foundation founder
The major outcome of the U.S. inspection tour was to win closure of the Steel City Petting Zoo in Cottondale, Florida, for alleged cruelty and multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Owner Romulus Scalf, 54, was jailed in lieu of $10,000 bond for allegedly feeding live puppies to snakes.
Travers was not involved in the Steel City Petting Zoo closure, but did produce a scathing report about the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The often controversial facility is still operating under Tanya Smith, who founded it in 1992.
Travers also issued a spirited defense of Texas Exotic Feline Foundation founder and sanctuary operator Gene Reitnauer, about a year before Reitnauer was in November 1997 evicted from the sanctuary, located in Boyd, Texas.
The property, which had been held in Reitnauer’s own name, was forfeited to the foundation in partial payment of almost $1.8 million in punitive damages and costs of prosecution assessed against her, after a jury ruled that Reitnauer had unjustly enriched herself by spending $323,000 on permanent improvements to the property, including a swimming pool, and improperly used more than $121,000 in donations for personal purposes including mortgage payments and income tax liens.
“She’s an animal person. She’s not a thief”
Reitnauer held that all of the property improvements were for the benefit of the 64 big cats in her care.
Reitnauer began the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation in 1988 with her former husband Robert Reitnauer. According to Ann Zimmerman of The Dallas Observer, who investigated the case for almost a year, Gene, then 22, met Robert Reitnauer, then 39 and married to the mother of his three children, at a fashion show she helped coordinate for members of Game Conservation International, a hunting organization.
Eventually divorced, Robert Reitnauer married Gene in 1978, but in August 1995 skipped to Belize with a TEFF volunteer. Gene Reitnauer gave him $26,000 from TEFF funds to study native cats in Belize as part of their divorce settlement.
Amid a dispute over access to the resident big cats, two high donors, Blockbuster Video founder David Cook and financier Louis Dorfman, sued Gene Reitenauer for alleged misuse of funds. Then-Texas attorney general Dan Morales filed a parallel case two months later.
Argued Travers, “She’s an animal person. She’s not a thief. This all boils down to her husband leaving.”
Renamed the International Exotic Feline Foundation, the sanctuary is still operating under Dorfman, board president since the 1995 settlement
Also while visiting Texas, Travers spoke up for the South Texas Primate Observatory, in Dilley, near San Antonio, after the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department authorized hunters to shoot escaped and feral Japanese snow monkeys seen for years nearby.
“Shame on the people of Texas if they allow it,” Travers told media.
Founded in 1972 as a behavioral research colony, the South Texas Primate Observatory in 1999 became the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.
The most enduring and certainly most costly consequence of Travers’ 1996 round of zoo and sanctuary inspections––for the ASPCA––turned out to be a May 5, 1996 memo she wrote to Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, praising “the magnificent job you are doing at the new elephant breeding facility” and “the professional and extremely humane conditions” provided for the elephants at the Ringling compound in Florida.
Nearly four years later, after Travers left the ASPCA in April 1997 to join the staff of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the ASPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Fund for Animals jointly sued Feld Entertainment for allegedly keeping and using elephants in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
ASPCA & HSUS paid Ringling $25 million
The Humane Society of the U.S. became involved in the long-running litigation after the Fund for Animals merged into HSUS in 2005. The Born Free Foundation was brought into the case after absorbing the Animal Protection Institute at the end of 2007.
Travers’ May 1996 memo was reportedly among the key documents that in December 2012 obliged the ASPCA to pay $9.3 million to Feld Entertainment in settlement of a countersuit arguing that the original case had been filed in bad faith.
After the ASPCA settled with Ringling, HSUS and the other codefendants in May 2014 paid Feld Entertainment $15.75 million to settle parallel Feld claims against them.
“I survived Ebola. What’s a little volcano?”
Travers’ debut as special projects director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals came literally under volcanic fire on August 20, 1997, when courtesy of Caribbean Aviation, she flew in and out of the Caribbean island nation of Montserrat to deliver 32 rescued dogs and two cats to the Broward County Humane Society in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they were adopted within days.
Travers flew back to Montserrat to retrieve more animals on August 30, 1997.
“I survived Ebola,” she told ANIMALS 24-7. “What’s a little volcano?”
But the Soufriere Hills volcanic eruptions in the middle of Montserrat in April 1995 and again on June 25, 1997 were hardly little. They remain the biggest volcanic eruptions in the Americas since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Oregon.
“Boston Irish with a New York attitude”
Two members of the World Society for the Protection of Animals team arrived ahead of Travers: the legendary John Walsh (see Time Is Short And The Water Rises), who as usual was first in and last to leave, and Costa Rica-based director of Latin American programs Gerardo Huertas.
“In her apartment under the Hollywood sign, Kathi Travers threw a few things in a bag and headed to Los Angeles International Airport,” narrated Sarah Schweitzer for Medium, describing Travers “as a brassy blonde in her mid-forties,” who “talked fast and defended animals zealously. She was a master of theatrics,” Schweitzer wrote, “always ready with a quip for newspapers and magazines, e.g. ‘I’m Boston Irish with a New York attitude,’ and never without a prop for the TV cameras, often a monkey on her shoulder.
“Arrived toting dog food”
“Against the exodus [of refugees from Montserrat],” Schweitzer recounted, “Travers arrived toting pallets of donated dog food.
“Like Walsh, Travers was an improviser.,” Schweitzer continued. She worked her way into the good graces of a helicopter pilot in the employ of volcanologists. After his day’s work was done, he would take her up to surveil for animals. She learned to find cattle by scanning for swimming pools, where the animals gathered to lap ash-feathered water.
“Donkeys were often in the worst shape,” Schweitzer summarized. “The helicopter brought her to one donkey whose legs were burned to his knees. Travers applied an equine antibiotic ointment. They loaded the donkey into the helicopter and flew him to a property with a makeshift heliport. There, the donkey joined other wounded animals — dogs, cats, goats, tortoises — biding time in a quickly crowding space until they could be relocated.”
Travers soon ran into conflict with the other rescuers, Schweitzer confirmed of decades of rumors.
“The others worried she was drawing too much attention to their rescue efforts,” Schweitzer wrote. “The authorities had allowed them to enter the exclusion zone [around the eruption area] and continue their work with the tacit understanding they would do so quietly. It was best to keep their heads down, but Travers knew no such method.”
Karen Corbin, founder of the Antigua/Barbuda Humane Society, “who aided the group from time to time, recalled that Travers jumped out of a helicopter in high heels, an exploit Corbin felt garnered needless attention,” Schweitzer reported. “Travers denied the claim,” credibly, since she was rarely if ever known to wear high heels.
“Meanwhile,” Schweitzer finished, “Huertas said Travers made unnecessarily costly bargains for emergency food items, a claim Travers also denied.”
Fired––but that was just another beginning
Then-World Society for the Protection of Animals founder Andrew Dickson fired Travers on August 21, 1997, with a terse fax to staff that within hours had reached animal welfare organizations around the world, possibly all of the then-400-odd WSPA “member societies.”
That, for all practical purposes, was the end of Travers’ career in U.S. animal welfare work. Her marriage to George Travers had also ended within approximately the same time frame.
But Travers’ 21-year marriage to Jo Graber and 20-plus years of service to the British Columbia SPCA were still ahead.