Charlie Sammut, founder of the Monterey Zoo, was a Seaside police officer in the early 1980s when he started a pet collection that, he told the Weekly in 2017, “got out of hand.”
He started it, he said, because “I couldn’t stand being near people after work.”
The first of those animals was a cougar named Samson that, Sammut said, he discovered while on the job and was being illegally kept in a Seaside garage by residents who had grown eager to get rid of it.
As his collection grew, Sammut left police work and became an animal trainer providing animals to Hollywood films. A lion he owned named Josef is what launched that part of his career – he was the live model for Disney animators for The Lion King.
As his Hollywood career picked up momentum, Sammut bought 51 acres in the Salinas Valley along River Road and founded the Monterey Zoo – then known as Wild Things – and its parent company, Vision Quest Ranch, which also hosted bed-and-breakfast facilities that offered guests the opportunity to commune with captive wild animals.
Now, Sammut is in hot water: On June 28, he was named in a federal indictment with four other individuals, three from South Carolina and one from Texas. One, Doc Antle – who was born in Salinas – was featured in the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King, and a follow-up documentary, Tiger King: The Doc Antle Story.
The allegations relate to illegally buying or selling endangered species and transporting them across state lines. Two of the South Carolina residents charged – Antle and Andrew Sawyer, Antle’s employee – are also charged with money laundering allegedly done to disguise the income they generated when “bringing in or harboring” illegal immigrants. The total of that money, spelled out in the indictment, is $505,000.
They, along with Sammut and the other two suspects, are also charged with violating the Endangered Species Act – which prohibits one to deliver or receive an endangered species across state or federal borders for commercial activity – as well as the Lacey Act, which prohibits falsely labeling wildlife and knowingly buying, selling or transporting it.
The charges against Sammut relate to an allegedly illegal purchase of two red ruffed lemurs – an endangered species native to Madagascar – in 2018.
Other species named in the indictment (but not related to Sammut’s charges) are two cheetahs and a chimpanzee, both also endangered species.
Sammut says the allegations against him are a result of what he believes to be “several misunderstandings.”
He says he’s “in the process of ironing out the paper trail of those two lemurs,” and adds, “I don’t know the other people in the indictment. I’m as far removed as one could possibly be while being involved in it.”
He adds the investigators in the case haven’t spoken to him yet, and that his legal team is “trying to make that happen.”
Sammut’s arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 9 in South Carolina.