Lightning Rod: RG Griffing draws a libel suit from the Wild Animal Orphanage

When it comes to headlines, no local watchdog has a sharper bite than the San Antonio Lightning's RG Griffing, and as those headlines are sometimes the story itself, it was only a matter of time before someone hired a lawyer.

And sure enough, last week, Carol Asvestas, executive director of the Wild Animal Orphanage in Bexar County, decided she'd had enough of being called "The Lyin' Queen," and accused of running an "animal Auschwitz."

In the complaint, Asvestas alleges that Griffing's negative reporting on her wildlife refuge has caused a drop in donations to the 26-year-old nonprofit, which, according to its website and, houses 500 or so animals (including 300 primates) on a 10-acre ranch near Helotes, and another 120-acre property in northwest Bexar County. According to the organization's 990 tax returns on GuideStar, WAO's total revenue in 2005 was almost $1.4 million, in 2006 just over $1.7 million, and in 2007 only $1.16 million. A 2008 990 was not available.

As early as October 2007, Griffing was questioning the fate of animals at WAO -- including as many as 100 pit bulls that may have been euthanized at the refuge and a large pack of unaccounted-for potbellied pigs -- and relaying dark and worrisome anonymous whistleblower tales. Earlier this year, Griffing wrote that federal authorities were investigating the refuge, and that there were reports of mass graves on its property. His citations, when he offers them, tend to be vague and /or anonymous.

Griffing says simply, "We stand behind our story."

Most recently, Griffing broke the news in mid-July that a young white Bengal tiger named Vi Vi, who was donated to WAO this spring, had died. In subsequent stories he reported that as many as eight cougars and a lion-tiger mix had also died this year. He cited the total number of confirmed animal deaths at WAO at 13 in the past 12 months.

Griffing wrote that he sought comment from Asvestas, with no luck, and obtained independent confirmation of Vi Vi's death from the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory.

At some point last month, Asvestas posted a note on the WAO website, dated simply July 2009, acknowledging Vi Vi's passing. "She died of pre-existing medical problems from poor nutrition when she was being cared for by her former owner," she wrote. "The damage sustained when she was very young could not have been undone. She did not suffer. She passed quickly."

In the same note, Asvestas promised to post a "complete veterinarian report on 'Vi Vi' within the next week." That report would help to answer some questions, including why a March 3, 2009 Associated Press story reported that veterinarian Loretta Ehrlund "says Vivi `sic` appears to be in good health."

Asvestas declined to discuss the suit with the Current, but said that she will hold a press conference at WAO's Leslie Road facility next Thursday, where we would receive a packet with the autopsy report for Vi Vi and the cougars. Veterinarian Ehrlund will be present, she says.

How many cougars have died this year, we asked?

"Off-hand, I don't know," said Asvestas.


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