COLORADO SPRINGS––If the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center, of Calhan, Colorado, had only nine lives, it might have been closed already.
But if big cats really had nine lives, the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center might still have the 138 animals it claimed to house circa 2010, instead of the 113 it had in 2014, according to USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service data.
Alleges the PETA2 web site, “This roadside zoo’s own records show that between 2008 and 2013, one out of every three animals at the facility died. According to the USDA, most of these deaths were the result of improper handling or a lack of veterinary care.”
Death rates at zoos and sanctuaries can be quite misleading, if the facilities in question house mainly geriatric animals, acquired long ago or “donated” or “retired” after years in private hands or economic use.
But many of the tigers and other animals at the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center are only kittens. A tiger kitten, for example, was advertised on the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center web site as “available for photos as of June 6, 2015.”
Reported Marylou Doehrman Bride in the June 2015 edition of the New Falcon Herald, published from nearby Falcon, Colorado, “PETA’s latest cause for concern came after the organization obtained photos of children handling a 10-day-old tiger cub, barely weaned.”
PETA in January 2015 complained that “Serenity Springs also invites the public to visit its Calhan facility to take photos and interact with lion cubs who appear to be younger than eight weeks old,” Bride wrote. “Serenity Springs’ website lists photo opportunities with cubs at $25 for up to four people.”
Continued Bride, “Serenity Springs has already taken some heat from PETA regarding issues of neglect and violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including the deaths of animals at the facility.”
Several times PETA has asked USDA-APHIS to deny the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center permits to breed exotic cats, with some apparent success, despite the frequent arrivals of kittens.
Serenity Springs Wildlife Center operations director Julie Walker “said Serenity Springs gets the cubs from facilities all over the country. One of those is GW (Garold Wayne) Exotics in Oklahoma, which is being investigated by the USDA for the deaths of two tiger cubs, improper handling of animals and inadequate facilities,” Bride wrote.
“Breeders have excess––they sell cubs for exhibits, zoos … but we have never purchased them,” Walker claimed.
Of note is that American Zoo Association-accredited zoos are not allowed to buy animals from non-AZA sources.
Alleged failure to provide vet care
Now, reported Chhun Sun of the Colorado Springs Gazette on June 26, 2015, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service is pursuing allegations the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center has committed federal Animal Welfare Act violations including “failure to provide adequate veterinary care to sick and underweight tigers.”
“The complaint,” continued Sun, “filed in May 2015, came to light after a news release from the PETA Foundation said the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center failed to give government inspectors access to the ‘facilities, animals and records’ on nine occasions since 2011 and didn’t notice a dead cougar until an inspector pointed out its body covered in snow in April 2013.
“In a phone interview,” Sun added, “sanctuary operator Nick Sculac called the allegations ‘lies.’”
Sun said the most recent allegations have been consolidated with previous Animal Welfare Act charges, according to USDA spokesperson Tanya Espinosa, some of them pending since May 2011, and are awaiting review by an administrative law judge.
Denver attorney Duane Barton, representing Sculac and Big Cats of Serenity Springs, told Sun that they had “filed a federal complaint against the USDA and two inspectors two years ago for unreasonable searches and seizures,” also still pending.
“Sculac is considering selling the wildlife center,” reported Emily Allen of KRDO News 13 on June 23, 2015. “He would not give a reason, but Barton said it’s in part because of relentless pressure from the USDA. South Carolina business owner Jeff Lowe is in talks with Sculac about purchasing the property. Lowe would not tell KRDO NewsChannel 13 his plans for the wildlife center. Sculac said the animals would not be moved out of Colorado.”
Long history of busts
Sculac, 65, and the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center have had a long history of legal issues. Notably, Sculac was in October 2010 sentenced to serve six years in a halfway house, with probation possible in six to eight months. The conviction was Sculac’s third for felony theft, but Colorado mandates a life sentence for a third felony conviction only if the felonies involve violence.
“When a volunteer was mauled by a tiger in 2009,” explained R. Scott Rappold of the Colorado Springs Gazette, “Sculac bilked the man out of $40,500 by falsely claiming––according to court documents––that he faced fines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that amount was his share. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the sanctuary $7,000,” Rappold added.
The volunteer, Michael McCain, of Telluride, was hurt in April 2009. In May 2009, wrote Rappold, “according to an arrest affidavit, Sculac told McCain that the sanctuary would be shut down and the animals killed” if an escrow account was used to pay the fines. “The next day,” Rappold summarized, “McCain, pooling money from his business and friends and family, wired Sculac the money.”
“Court records show Sculac was charged with theft in 1984, 1991, 1993, 2001 and 2002,” Rappold continued, “and he has repeatedly battled with creditors.”
In the 2002 case, Rappold summarized, “Sculac was accused of taking money for projects in his (former) contracting business and not carrying out the work and also taking payment for medical supplies in another business and not delivering. The charges were eventually dropped and Sculac paid restitution.”
Sculac’s medical supply firm, Colorado Medical Equipment, was subject of further complaints between April 2005 and May 2006 from customers who said they bought items they did not receive, but were billed for extra shipping and storage fees due to alleged complications in delivery.
Began as breeding facility
Nick Sculac, a former exotic animal trainer, for a time operated a livery stable in Central City, Colorado, with his wife of 27 years, Karen Brill Sculac. They cofounded the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center in 1993 as Big Cats of Serenity Springs in 1993, initially to breed and sell exotic cats.
Taking 12 big cats from a facility called the Alamo Tiger Ranch that was closed in 1995 due to 50 alleged violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, the Sculacs announced that Big Cats of Serenity Springs had become a sanctuary. Within 10 years Big Cats of Serenity Springs housed at least 85 cats, and was still rapidly expanding.
But in June 2003 two Bengal tigers mauled the only sanctuary employee. Always struggling to raise operating costs of more than $250,000 a year, the Sculacs sold 303 acres of their 320-acre property, piece by piece, then lost their home to foreclosure in 2005. Karen Sculac said at the time that Nick Sculac had suffered a major heart attack obliging him to give up his contracting firm.
Karen Sculac died in 2006, at age 47, from complications of pneumonia. She had concealed the illness from others until two days earlier, her daughters told Denver Post staff writer Claire Martin.
“Nick Sculac decided to keep the sanctuary going, ” Rappold of the Colorado Springs Gazette recounted when Sculac was sentenced in October 2010. “But financial and legal problems continued. He was sued in 2007 by a former attorney, who claimed he owed $5,794 in legal bills. In 2008, Memorial Hospital sued him for $2,700 over unpaid medical bills. In April 2010, a motorcycle he bought for $14,000 was repossessed. The sanctuary property has been in and out of foreclosure several times. Sculac no longer owns the property,” Rappold added. “The name was changed from Big Cats of Serenity Springs to Serenity Springs Wildlife Center, formed in 2008 by Julie Walker,” the operations director, “who owns the home that Sculac listed as his home address in court records.”
Walker is also “education director” for the U.S. Zoological Association, described on the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center web site as an entity formed “to support and unite commercial zoos, breeders, private owners, and sanctuaries” to “give us the credibility we need to work strongly with lawmakers.”
Lawmakers over the past several decades have addressed “commercial zoos, breeders, private owners,” and quasi-sanctuaries operating as roadside zoos chiefly to stop them from breeding, selling, and otherwise transferring young animals of species which are already over-abundant and frequently problematic in captivity.
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