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Unlicensed zebras roam on billionaire hunting preserve for years with mere warnings

Neighbors say exotic animals pose dangers
florida FWC report showing Zebras.png
Posted at 12:28 PM, Oct 25, 2021

BRAHMA ISLAND, Fla. — Brahma Island is an exclusive private preserve owned by a sixth-generation local cattle farmer and leased by billionaire exotic game hunters.

Neighbors said wild animals have escaped from the island, potentially threatening their property and safety.

The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered the preserve has a history of wildlife law violations, but neighbors said the state has not held anyone accountable.

“I’ve seen fallow deer, sika deer, axis deer,” said neighbor Michelle Smith.

Smith said the wildlife roaming in the fields and forests around her rural Polk County home aren’t native to Florida. In fact, they’re normally found in Europe, Asia or Africa. But smith has a good idea where they’re coming from.

Bison, exotic deer, wild hogs and more

“These animals are just simply walking and swimming across from Brahma Island,” Smith said.

Brahma Island is a private hunting preserve composed of thousands of acres. It’s located just 350 yards from the shore of Lake Kissimmee, which Smith’s property faces.

“Florida Fish and Game have not required the owners of Brahma Island to put up the game fences that Florida law requires everyone to have,” Smith said.

According to the Florida Statute, 68A-12.010 (Regulations Governing the Operation of Private Hunting Preserves), “For the hunting of game mammals, the land shall be located wholly within a legally fenced tract.”

An exemption for Brahma Island was granted by a barely legible, handwritten note from 1987.

According to a 2021 inspection report, “An October 30, 1987 Florida Game & Freshwater Fish Commission record indicates that the then Bureau Chief, Major Kyle Hill, approved the lake as a water barrier in place of the required high fence.”

“I’ve been out here since 1997,” said neighbor Dee Swanson.

She blames the co-owner and license-holder of the preserve, Cary Lightsey, for what she said are ongoing problems.

“I’m always on the receiving end of what he does. Like when his buffalo end up in my yard. And I have a heard of buffalo and nobody comes and gets them,” Swanson said.

buffalo wading in water.JPG

Swanson has taken photos of bison wading through water, grazing on grass and coming within feet of her swing, dock, and porch. She said she contacted Lightsey multiple times and eventually his brother Layne, the island’s co-owner, came out to remove them.

The I-team obtained the Florida Wildlife Commission inspection report for Brahma Island from April.

Here’s part of that report:

Mr. Lightsey advised that those animals have been there for many years and have been hunted by members of the "Wounded Warrior Project." He went on to say that they all stemmed from an escape that happened at the Masterpiece Gardens Amusement Park decades ago. This park closed its doors in the 1970's and is now a religious organization known as "Masterpiece Gardens Assemblies." Mr. Lightsey advised that the mainland Sika deer that have been spotted are Japanese Sika and the deer on his island are Formosa Sika. He also stated that the bison spotted on the mainland are most likely from the nearby "River Ranch" community. He said he only has four bison on the island and they were all observed on this date.

The report also said Lightsey indicated he had an estimated inventory of five bison on Brahma Island when his permit application was received by the state eight days before the inspection.

Masterpiece Gardens assembly is located about twenty miles from Swanson’s home.

State inspectors pose for pictures taken by the man they’re inspecting

There was body camera footage from the latest inspection which was requested by the I-Team. It shows the inspection, with Lightsey serving as a gracious tour-guide of the property, telling stories about snakes, giant Indians and the men who lease the property.

Florida Wildlife Commission Officers pose for pictures near a Brahma Island sign and in front of a tree Lightsey tells them is the oldest tree in the Southeastern United States.

“Great picture,” Lightsey said, while taking a photo with his cell phone.

“Thanks,” an officer replied.

The officer wearing the body camera also stops to snap a picture of a historical marker commemorating a visit to the island by Zachary Taylor before he became President of the United States.

“Some pretty cool history,” the officer said.

“It is, real cool,” Lightsey replied.

Brahma Island is leased by three billionaires Lightsey said want to remain anonymous. Lightsey showed the officers a custom vehicle parked under a covered car shed he said cost more than $200,000.

“Everything inside’s like a Cadillac,” Lightsey said.

“Pretty nice,” an officer responded.

“I could use one of those issued to me next time you look at the budget,” he told his supervisor, who accompanies him on the inspection.

“Ok, put it on the list,” the supervisor jokes.

Those billionaires who lease the island hold private hunts from an inventory of thousands of wild game… including axis deer, sika deer, fallow deer, bison, water buffalo, antelope, red deer, white-tail deer, hogs, quail and wild turkey.

The ABC Action News I-Team obtained all inspection reports for Brahma Island for the past 10 years and we found Lightsey had violations during each inspection.

“This guy was a repeat offender on several of the things that they warned him about… signage, not having proper records,” Smith said.

Billionaire brings zebras to Brahma Island

The biggest problem surfaced in 2018, when inspectors found a dozen zebras without a license or proper containment.

Here’s part of that report:

There are actually 12 zebra roaming around and they've been there a couple years. Mr. Lightsey and Brama Island are not licensed to exhibit zebra nor is the island approved as containment for zebra. This was explained during the inspection. I later emailed the Class III ESC application and the CIDP along with caging specifications to both, Mr. Lightsey and Mr. Brammer. Mr. Lightsey conveyed through a phone call that they would be placing the zebra in a suitable pen and applying for the ESC license as soon as practicable.

According to the report, Lightsey told them during a follow-up call, “he plans to euthanize the zebras as opposed to providing caging." The next inspection was three years later.

“They do another inspection. And what do they find? 12 Zebras. Alive and well,” Smith said.

You can see the officers counting the zebras on the body camera video as they ride with Lightsey on an ATV. Lightsey received a mere warning from the state both times for the violations.

“There was another case in Florida where a man had one zebra and it wasn’t permitted. FWC told him to get it permitted. He tried to get a permit, FWC turned him down,” Smith said.

That zebra escaped from a farm in Nassau County in 2019. Its owner was forced to shoot it to protect the public. He was issued a misdemeanor citation, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“Why aren’t they being charged with all twelve zebras? The rules don’t seem to apply the same here. One person gets one set of rules and another person gets another. And that’s not the way our state government is supposed to work,” Smith said.

Lightsey: neighbors’ complaints may force zebras to be euthanized

We met with Lightsey at his ranch. He declined an on-camera interview but said the zebras belong to one of the men who leases the property and he is trying to get him to apply for a license and construct a proper containment area.

He said he and his attorney are working to bring the preserve into compliance.

Lightsey also told us his neighbors’ constant complaints to state agencies may force him to have to euthanize the zebras, which he says he doesn’t want to do.

“Hey, I’m gonna leave you with… this is just our rules. Just so you have the most current copy,” said one of the FWC officers, as they wrapped up the inspection.

Despite having four repeated rule violations, Lightsey only received another warning.

“I think the concern obviously is you don’t want the stuff to get on the mainland... established populations there,” the officer said. “But it’s a beautiful property and I appreciate you taking the time. It’s a pleasure meeting you.”

“There’s no consequences for this guy,” Smith said.

“Good to see you again. You take care,” Lightsey tells the other officer, as he shakes his hand.

“You too as always,” the officer replies.

Then Lightsey waves goodbye to the body camera, as the inspection comes to an end.

We contacted to the Florida Wildlife Commission to see if there have been any developments in that case, but we have not heard back.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com