Why did the Shalom Zoo strive for a year to obtain baby tigers at apparently any cost?
WEST BEND, Wisconsin––Two tiger cubs born on August 6, 2022 at the Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bend, Wisconsin, formerly known as the Shalom Wildlife Zoo, in the early morning of November 19, 2022 drowned in an icy pond.
Earlier, on August 11, 2022, one cub of the five-cub litter disappeared and is presumed dead.
Two tiger cubs remain.
This much we know from statements by Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary co-owner David Fechter, who has operated the facility with his wife Lana for approximately 40 years, first as a Christmas tree farm, then a whitetail deer farm, and finally as a for-profit wildlife exhibition venue.
According to Fechter, “Upon arriving at 7 a.m. Ginger greeted me as she was leaving the holding area. She was very upset and was making the same deep moaning sound she did when [her former mate] Goliath passed,” euthanized due to multiple chronic conditions just two days before the cubs were born.
“Tried to resuscitate Nina”
“When she saw that I was going to open the den door,” Fechter continued, “she turned around and followed me into the den. When I opened the den door I saw Charlotte, King, and Nina, who was lifeless. I quickly locked Ginger out of the den and immediately tried to resuscitate Nina which was unsuccessful.
“I then entered the big enclosure searching for Khan. I found him in the frozen pond.
“What I believed happened,” Fechter said, “was this morning at first light Nina and Khan were playing on a partially submerged log down by the pond. They slipped off the log and onto the slushy ice-covered pond.
“The mushy ice broke, and they fell through the ice. Tigers are excellent swimmers but as they tried to pull themselves up on to the ice it kept breaking through.
“Exhaustion and the frigid water temperature was more than their little bodies could handle.”
There are precedents for tiger cubs drowning at zoos.
For instance, a Sumatran tiger cub mysteriously drowned on March 14, 2008 at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia.
The first Sumatran tiger cub born at the London Zoo in 17 years drowned on October 13, 2013.
Three years later, on December 31, 2016, a baby Sumatran tiger drowned at the Yokohama Zoorasia in Japan.
Such cases are rare, however. These were the only such cases that ANIMALS 24-7 found in searching more than 30 years of files. None of them involved multiple tigers.
Claim to be “America’s largest petting zoo” raises questions
The Shalom Wildlife Zoo web page, which still advertises itself as a zoo, says it has been “Dubbed ‘America’s largest petting zoo,'” where “you’ll have the chance to pet and feed many different species.”
Tiger-petting, however, does not appear to have either been advertised or otherwise documented as one of the Shalom Wildlife Zoo attractions.
But the circumstances of the baby tigers drowning has raised questions.
As the Big Cat Rescue web site explains, leading the lobbying effort for federal prohibition of tiger cub petting by anyone anywhere, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service “defines a juvenile big cat as being any cub over the age of 12 weeks, and does not permit public contact with cubs over the age of 12 weeks.
When tiger cubs are worth the most money
“Despite the fact that touching cubs between the age of eight weeks and 12 weeks is potentially deadly to the cub,” Big Cat Rescue explains, “USDA does currently allow public contact with cubs over eight weeks and under 12 weeks of age.”
This rule creates a four-week window of opportunity, much exploited by the many tiger exhibitors shown in the 2020 Tiger King documentary television series, during which exhibiting tiger cubs can be enormously lucrative.
After about 12 weeks of age, rapidly growing young tigers––whether or not ever used for petting by paying customers––quickly tend to become more a liability than an asset.
The drowned tiger cubs reached 12 weeks of age on October 31, 2022: coincidentally, Halloween, just short of three weeks before the fatal accident.
A trout in the milk?
“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk,” famously observed Henry David Thoreau, the philosopher/activist of Walden Pond, Massachusetts, in November 1850.
One can only wonder what Thoreau (1817-1862) might have thought of finding two baby tigers in a pond.
We suspect we have an idea what Roadside Zoo News editor Bethany Gengler thinks.
“Roadside Zoo News wrote an article on May 20, 2022,” Gengler opened, “predicting a terrible tragedy would occur as the Fechters try to create the next Tiger King-style roadside zoo in Wisconsin.
“Since that article was published, four tigers have died at Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary, bringing the entire amount of dead tigers since March 2021 to six.”
“The next Tiger King park”
Warned Roadside Zoo News in the May 2022 exposé, “The next Tiger King park is springing up in West Bend, Wisconsin, and the public is so blinded by the allure of tiger cubs that no one is taking the time to understand what’s happening.
“In early 2021” Roadside Zoo News narrated, “Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary bred their two tigers. The female tiger, Ginger, is a white tiger. All white tigers are inbred and are known to have genetic issues.”
Her mate Goliath was reportedly already suffering from the serious health issues that led to his euthanasia in August 2022.
“Desperate for tiger cubs”
“In March 2021,” Roadside Zoo News continued, “Ginger gave birth to two stillborn cubs, unfortunately a common occurrence when breeding inbred animals. Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary immediately began attempting to breed Goliath and Ginger again. Despite multiple breeding attempts over the next year, no cubs were born,” while the Fechters “repeatedly posted that Goliath’s medical condition was getting worse, to the point that had a difficult time walking.
“In May 2021,” said Roadside Zoo News, the Fechters “obtained two female tiger cubs from Animal Haven Zoo in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, and announced the cubs would be future mates for Goliath,” while apparently struggling with lack of appropriate housing for the tigers they already had, pending new construction.
“In April 2022,” Roadside Zoo News alleged, the Fechters “became so desperate for tiger cubs that they purchased an adult male tiger named Jonah from a roadside zoo to breed with Ginger. The roadside zoo they obtained Jonah from is so bad that they refuse to identify it, but they claim Jonah came from a place where he never even had the opportunity to feel grass underneath his feet.”
Underage cubs in transport
Roadside Zoo News had already clashed with the Fechters for almost a year over the May 2021 tiger cub acquisition.
Summarized Roadside Zoo News on July 13, 2021, “On May 12, 2021, a woman caring for tiger cubs born at Animal Haven Zoo posted to social media that a tiger cub named ‘Sweet baby Jane’ was two days old, making her birthdate May 10, 2021.
“Then on May 24, 2021, the tiger cubs ‘Sweet baby Jane’ and ‘Big girl,’ were sent to Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary, according to the caretaker’s social media post.
“On May 27, 2021, Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary made a post on social media introducing the cubs to their followers.
“Transporting a cub under 28 days old is a violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act,” Roadside Zoo News pointed out, mentioning that the Safari Zoological Park in Kaney, Kansas, and Animal Haven Zoo, from which the tiger cubs came, had each already each been “cited with a critical AWA violation for transporting cubs under 28 days old.”
While this was going on, the Fechters appealed via FOX6 in West Bend and Milwaukee for help to identify a woman seen climbing one of their barriers.
Reported FOX6, “A Facebook posted to the zoo’s page on May 25, 2021 stated the following:
‘A terrorist group disguised as an animal rights group posted on their Facebook page this past Saturday a video of this person climbing over the four-foot-high chain link barrier fence that completely surrounds the bobcat exhibit.
‘The person then reaches into the cage and pets the male bobcat.’
“The post goes on to say, ‘This selfishly motivated group’s agenda is to shut down all zoos.
“They are willing to do and use any means possible including illegal activity to do so.”
Roadside Zoo News aired the video
Responded Roadside Zoo News. “To be clear, no representative of Roadside Zoo News has ever visited Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary.
“The video of the woman petting the bobcat was sent to us by a zoo visitor, and if Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary had reached out to our page for information, we would have shared with them that we also have a second video that includes the trespasser’s name.
“Since they did not have the decency to contact us, and they’ve blocked our representatives on social media, we’ll share the video here,” as was done.
Who are the Fechters?
“David Fechter and his wife Lana both grew up on Shalom Drive,” for which their zoo is named, wrote Eau Claire Leader Telegram regional editor Brooke Bechen in a December 24, 2018 profile.
Both worked, as teens, for the previous property owner, “David as a groundskeeper and Lana as a housekeeper,” Belden said.
“After high school, Lana went on to become a nurse and David entered the printing industry.”
Married at 19, the Fechters bought a 30-acre portion of their former employer’s estate, and bought another 65 acres two years later.
“The acreage included a Christmas tree farm and nursery stock,” Belden narrated. “The Fechters then added native whitetail deer they bought from the state and began a deer farm.”
“Antlers hang from the ceiling [of the admission building], pointing to the zoo’s origin as a deer farm,” observed Carol Spaeth-Bauer in a July 12 2017 profile for Wisconsin State Farmer.
“In 1990, bison and elk were added “for additional wildlife viewing enjoyment,” Spaeth-Bauer added. “Red fox, raccoons, skunks and mink were purchased, with more species added every year.”
Initially the Fechters called their facility the Heaven’s Last Chance Wildlife Refuge.
“Licensed as a zoo in 2010,” Spaeth-Bauer said, “Shalom Wildlife Zoo is home to more than 400 animals living in large natural areas.
“As David and Lana expanded the zoo, they cut paths, made trails and learned as the zoo grew. In 2002, self guided tours were available for those who wanted to walk the trails. In 2006, golf carts were added for those unable to walk.”
Circa 2012 the Fechters added the Raccoon Den B&B, which when reviewed by Mary Bergin’s Roads Traveled web site was “not among the state’s 300-plus licensed B&Bs,” Bergin wrote, but was “licensed as a tourist rooming house.”