RUSSELL LALA: Lions, tigers and forgiveness - FOX 35 News Orlando

RUSSELL LALA: Lions, tigers and forgiveness

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One of the first things most people notice about Russell Lala is his passion for a nice set of wheels.

"I find the ones on the Internet that don't run, don't look so good," Lala explained. "Fix 'em up, get 'em to run, then sell it."

Lala spends most of his free time helping his friends or his father work on cars, but he uses a motorized wheelchair to get around himself.

"Basically, it's a big roller coaster," Lala told FOX 9 News, "having to overcome different things constantly -- but it all gets better eventually even though it doesn't seem like it, you know?"

Lala was just 10 years old when he became quadriplegic, unable to feel or move anything from his neck down. In 2005, he and his family visited his father's best friend, Chuck Mock, at Best Buy Auto Part Store in Royalton, Minn., just a few miles up the road. At the time, Mock had a collection of exotic animals that included 11 lions and tigers.

Mock unlocked a cage to show Lala and his father a tiger named Georgette and a lion named Leo inside a back room, but Georgette pushed past Mock and went straight for the boy.

"I was like, 'Woah! I'm going to die here!" Lala recalled. "I felt it. I'm like, 'Please, just take me now so I don't have to go through this misery.'"

Mock blacked out while his father and Mock struggled to get Georgette back in her cage. Lala woke up in a pool of his own blood before Leo grabbed him and dragged him to safety.

"When the lion came out, he bit down on the back of my neck like where the scruff would be on a cat," Lala remembered. "That's what caused the most damage. He was trying to save me, but he was kind of doing more harm than good."

Lala told FOX 9 News he doesn't remember what happened next, but he knows his father and Mock drove him to a nearby hospital in Little Falls because that's where he woke up the next day. When he came to, he was hooked up to a ventilator and couldn't move his arms or legs.

"I was just laying there, trapped in my head," Lala said. "It was scary at first."

Over the next few months, the 10-year-old underwent half a dozen surgeries to repair everything from a collapsed lung to a shattered eye socket. When he was released to go home, he still needed around-the-clock care -- and when he finally went back to school, the ordeal made it difficult for him to fit in.

"I suppose the word that would describe it best is 'awkward,'" Lala explained. "I have a ventilator in the background. I was still the same mentally, just not physically."

Lala said he came to terms with what happened during the next few years and helped his father convert an old van into a wheelchair-accessible ride. Eventually, his love of cars brought him right back to the place where his life had changed so drastically.

Lala hadn't spoken to Mock for years but after seeing a car he liked on the lot, he decided to give Mock a call.

"For the first few years, I just hated him," he admitted. "But one day, I drove by his place and saw a car that was one of my favorites -- an 80s Buick Regal. So, I decided to call him on that, and that all restarted again."

Their shared love of everything automotive helped them rebuild their unlikely friendship.

"I feel fortunate to be his friend, but I feel so much regret and shame," Mock told FOX 9 News. "It was my animal, my passion or thing that caused this. Russell didn't do anything to deserve this."

Mock still has one of the cages behind his shop, but both Georgette and Leo were put down and he gave his other exotic animals to a wildcat sanctuary. Although Lala has forgiven him, Mock said he doubts he'll ever forgive himself.

"I can never pay a price like Russell did. I can't even fathom the change to his life," Mock explained. "I felt like it was unforgivable. I can't tell you how bad I feel."

Yet, Lala believes living in the past will only hold him back -- and both would rather focus on the future instead.

"I just want to get the word out and maybe feel like I made a difference in some people's minds," he said. "Might change after hearing what I went through."

Now 18, Lala plans to finish high school next year. After graduation, he hopes to continue buying cars and fixing them up -- possibly for teens who need a safe first car.

As for Mock, he was never charged with a crime in the incident. All his animals were registered with the local Animal Control, and investigators didn't find any evidence of negligence.

Later the same year that Lala was injured, Minnesota passed a law prohibiting most people from owning exotic animals with some exceptions; however, there is no state agency that tracks problems involving them.

It's estimated that there are about 5,000 tigers in captivity in the United States compared to just over 3,000 in their native Asia.

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