Does translocating animals solve the problem of failing sanctuaries?
TAMPA, Florida; SPEARFISH, South Dakota––The Lions, Tigers & Bears rescue team early on October 18, 2016 unloaded four bobcats, two pumas, and a leopard from the failed Spirit of the Hills sanctuary in Spearfish, South Dakota at Big Cat Rescue, on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida.
“The Lions, Tigers & Bears rescue team is now making the 2,000-plus mile trip back to South Dakota to load up the hauler for the third leg of this rescue and head off to Shambala Preserve in Acton, California,” posted LTB founder Bobbi Brink to Facebook, “where LTB will be rehoming several more surrendered big cats from Spirit of the Hills.
“Part of our rescue team has remained on site in South Dakota,” Brink said, “to ensure all animals on site are receiving proper care, as needed.”
Heroic effort, for what?
While the Lions, Tigers & Bears rescue team was beyond doubt making a heroic effort, putting 8,000-plus miles on the LTB truck in under two weeks again raised the question recurring time and again in recent decades as to whether relocating animals from one struggling sanctuary to another is really accomplishing much beyond moving problems from place to place.
Reality is that more nonprofit exotic animal sanctuaries of former note have failed over the past 30-odd years than are still operating. Some animal lives are saved for a few years each time animals are moved from a failed sanctuary to another which may be assuming a greater financial burden than it can meet, but often the moves in the long run look much like falling dominoes, with each new failure appearing to trigger others.
The delivery of the Spirit of the Hills animals to Big Cat Rescue, probably the most successful and stable big cat sanctuary in the U.S., came as founder Carole Baskin was already expecting four tigers from a failed sanctuary in Colorado on the very same day.
Of note, Baskin has also for many years been perhaps the most active U.S. sanctuarian on the legislative and litigative fronts, trying to shut down the exotic animal breeding and trafficking industry that fuels the need for sanctuaries.
Keepers of the Wild
Also of note, the Spirit of the Hills animals reached Big Cat Rescue just three days after Lions, Tigers & Bears delivered three lions, two pumas, two leopards, and a Siberian lynx from Spirit of the Hills to the Keepers of the Wild sanctuary in Valentine, Arizona.
Founded and directed by former entertainer Jonathan Kraft, Keepers of the Wild has reportedly had issues itself similar to those that closed Spirit of the Hills, including at least four serious injuries to staff over the past 18 years.
Most serious were the maulings of veteran animal handlers Charlie Stagnaro in October 1996 and Sarah Roy in October 2003.
The Shambala Preserve has also had problematic history, evolving out of a failed filmmaking venture by actress Tippi Hedren and her then-husband Noel Marshall. Released in 1981 after almost a decade in development, the film, Roar, lost $15 million, grossing just $2 million.
Several members of Hedren’s family including Marshall and daughter Melanie Griffith were meanwhile mauled by the big cats, and three big cats escaped during a 1978 flood. The nonprofit ROAR Foundation, begun as umbrella for the film, eventually became instead the umbrella for a 60-acre exotic cat sanctuary within the confines of Hedren’s 180-acre former ranch.
The Shambala facilities have housed as many as 150 exotic cats plus two elephants, but Hedren, now 85, gradually downsized to about 80 by 2000, and fewer than 70 by 2010.
A tiger mauled a caretaker at the Shambala Preserve in 2007, and it was threatened by the 2009 Station Fire and July 2016 Sand Fire, both of which roared down out of the neighboring Angeles National Forest, also imperiling at least three other sanctuaries, but Griffith has taken an active interest in continuing Shambala after Hedren’s time.
Shambala, like Big Cat Rescue, is therefore also seen as one of the most stable of the notoriously shaky constellation of big cat sanctuaries, along with the others involved in the Spirit of the Hills shutdown. And Hedren, like Baskin, has actively pursued legislation to slow exotic animal breeding and selling: the federal Shambala Act, passed in 2003 to regulate interstate commerce in large and exotic cats, was named in Hedren’s honor.
Bad times in the Badlands
Spirit of the Hills imploded more-or-less simultaneously with the collapse of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, about 140 miles northeast (see 810 allegedly starving horses impounded from Wild Horse Annie’s charity) and amid the months-long ongoing standoff between the Native American tribes and the builders of the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline (see Security guards set dogs on Sioux demonstrators at Standing Rock and Standing Rock: who let the dogs out).
One effect of the Dakota Access controversy has been to bring thousands more visitors into the region with cameras than normally venture into the remote and sparsely populated Badlands––and more media and law enforcement.
“Routine inspection” became complicated
Whether that has anything to do with the collapse of probably the two best-known animal sanctuaries in South Dakota is unclear, but both the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros and Spirit of the Hills struggled for years.
Founded in 1999 by Michael Welchynski, Spirit of the Hills reportedly housed as many as 160 animals of a wide range of species. The big cats were just the headliners.
A USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service team had arrived on September 28, 2016, reportedly to conduct a “routine inspection,” but the situation soon became complicated, reported Mark Watson of the Black Hills Pioneer.
Surrendered hungry animals
Over the next few days, Watson wrote, “Welchynski voluntarily surrendered 18 animals consisting of nine tigers, one African lion, four black bears, one grizzly bear, two Syrian brown bears, and one wolf-hybrid,” who were “transported to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, northeast of Denver.”
Sixteen of the 18 animals taken to Keenesburg were found to be underweight. “There was a general decline in the body weight of most of the animals at the facility,” but none were “emaciated or severely malnourished,” Wild Animal Sanctuary founder Pat Craig told Watson.
Four animals euthanized
In addition to the 18 animals who were sent to Keenesburg, four animals were euthanized, Watson reported, before the Lions, Tigers & Bears rescue team arrived to begin their placement efforts on behalf of the rest.
Euthanized, Watson recounted, were “Hercules, the sanctuary’s signature animal, a large Barbary lion; Turbo, a mountain lion; and two sheep. Hercules had suffered from a long-time illness and Turbo, the three-legged mountain lion, has had ongoing health issues. The sheep had age issues.”
Keenesburg facility had trouble too
Craig founded the Wild Animal Sanctuary, currently housing about 320 animals, in 1980. Originally it was called the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Conservation Center. In August 2006 Craig told media that the 140-acre facility, then housing about 150 animals including 75 tigers and 30 bears, would close in two weeks due to lack of funding.
Two other Colorado sanctuaries had failed and relocated their animals earlier in 2006.
Renamed, the Wild Animal Sanctuary recovered and stabilized, but the 2006 close call was another reminder of the inherent instability of the sanctuary network.
Though there are several umbrella organizations of wildlife sanctuarians and rehabilitators, some of which have accreditation standards and participate in teaching and training events for colleagues, very few sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers other than those with governmental affiliations have survived the inevitable transition from direction by a single founder to operating under institutional successors.
The typical lifespan of a sanctuary for wildlife or other large animals is under 20 years, barely longer than the lives of most big cats and hooved species.
And, typically, the sanctuaries failing at any given time were among those that just a few years earlier participated in rescuing the animals from others, or in joint efforts coordinated with other sanctuaries.
What a difference three years makes
In July 2013, for instance, Jennifer Naylor Gesick of the Rapid City Journal described how Spirit of the Hills accommodated five of nine bears who had been translocated from private ownership in Ohio.
“Bobbi Brink, founder and director of San Diego’s Lions, Tigers & Bears, an exotic animal sanctuary, led the rescue and multi-state relocation for a total of nine bears,” Gesick wrote.
Some of those bears may be among the four bears for whom Brink and Spirit of the Hills are reportedly still trying to find new sanctuary homes.
Already downsizing under USDA-APHIS pressure, Spirit of the Hills went down fast after founder Welchynski was mauled by a tiger named Boomer late on the evening of October 3, 2016.
“The tiger exited its cage through an open gate,” wrote Watson of the Black Hills Pioneer. “How the gate was opened or left open has not yet been determined.”
Spirit of the Hills board president Fred Erdman, Watson continued, “said that it is believed that during the attack, a buffalo and a cow, housed in a pen nearby, made noises which prompted the tiger to leave Welchynski and to enter their pasture. That afforded Welchynski the opportunity to get to a vehicle where he called a staff member for assistance. At 11:21 p.m., Lawrence County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call by a sanctuary staff member seeking help. Deputies were on the scene less than one minute after the call was received.”
“It’s the end”
At Spirit of the Hills, Watson said, the deputies shot the tiger to rescue Welchynski.
“It’s the end of Spirit of the Hills as it is currently known,” Erdman told Watson three days later.
Spirit of the Hills and USDA-APHIS “entered a settlement agreement in which the USDA revoked the sanctuary’s exhibitor license and the USDA agreed not to pursue enforcement actions based upon inspections,” Watson summarized.
Erdman, previously the Spirit of the Hills vice president, had succeeded to the presidency just a few days before, following the resignation of previous president Carl Honorable. Honorable had served barely six months.
The only other remaining board member, Erdman told Watson, was acting Spirit of the Hills director Laurie Jacobs. “A new board will be formed as the sanctuary reorganizes itself,” Watson wrote. The first priority for the new board will be figuring out what to do with the animals remaining at the Spirit of the Hills after the relocations of the large carnivores.
Cats, dogs, horses, sheep
“They have more than just the exotics. They took on cats, dogs, horses, sheep, trying to help people with their pet issues,” Western Hills Humane Society director Becky Rankin told Heather Janssen of KEVN-TV in Rapid City.
The Western Hills Humane Society took in 19 dogs and 19 cats from Spirit of the Hills, despite anticipating having to cut costs by 30% in the coming year.