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Brandon Stahl, Forum Communications Co., Published June 17 2012

Minnesota Wildcat Sanctuary population grows

NEAR SANDSTONE, Minn. – Getting to the Wildcat Sanctuary is like trying to find a classified government facility. It has no publically listed address, takes at least an hour to get to from the nearest major city, and is surrounded by thousands of acres of farms, fields, lakes and hunting land. Once there, chain-link fences line the 40-acre compound, with signs warning “No trespassing” and “Not open to the public.”

Get inside, and it’s easy to see why: There are more than 100 exotic cats – tigers, lions, cougars, bobcats and others. Hiding the property’s address is as much for the public’s protection as for the animals, all of whom were either rescued, abandoned or given up by their owners.

“So many of them have been through a lot of abuse,” said Tammy Thies, founder and director of the Sanctuary. “We just want them to do what they were meant to do.”

For most of the animals, that largely means being housed inside a habitat, most of them massive cages anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000-square-feet, with 12-foot-high fences and an overhang above to keep them from climbing out. The habitats aren’t like any found at a typical zoo, which would more likely have mowed grass and landscaping to encourage the animals to display themselves. Instead, here animals can hide in the vegetation and often are seen only when being fed.

Since opening in 2006, the nonprofit Sanctuary has grown steadily in employees, donations and the number of animals. Its income has risen from about $275,000 a year to $509,000, according to the most recent financial report. In 2006, there were 20 animals. As of Friday, there were 115.

Many come from living situations that may be indicative of thousands of exotic pets kept in homes, backyards and traveling exhibitions nationwide. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates there are 5,000 captive tigers in the U.S., compared to 3,200 in the wild in their native Asia.

Many exotic animal owners, Thies said, take on the cats and later realize they can’t keep up with caring for them.

“We (recently) got a call from people in Wisconsin who are in over the heads,” she said. “All these animals are together breeding, and unfortunately by the time the sheriff gets there, instead of 20 animals, they’re going to have 40.”

Some of the animals at the Wildcat Sanctuary still show signs of abuse and neglect from their previous owners, as well as hints of the black market exotic animal trade.

Tigers’ teeth have had to be removed after they gnawed away at their cages, while some arrivals show the effects of malnourishment. Other big cats are cross-eyed – a sign of in-breeding, Thies says – and many have been declawed.

‘The problem hasn’t gone away’

The growth of the facility may indicate that despite a 2005 Minnesota law to restrict exotic animal ownership, people are still doing it – and aren’t always able to keep up with the animals.

“The law helped,” said Thies, noting that it shut down many of the state’s breeding operations. “But the problem hasn’t gone away.”

It has loopholes, and it’s not fully clear just who is supposed to enforce it. Exotic pet owners before the law took effect could be grandfathered in, so long as they registered their animals with the “local animal control authority,” according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

But just who is the “local animal control authority”? Representatives from the Duluth Animal Shelter, Animal Allies Humane Society and the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department could not say who the authority was. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health, which is charged with overseeing parts of the law, and did not respond to a request for comment and for the number of exotic pets statewide.

Thies said most people in Minnesota with exotic pets probably don’t register them anyway. Since she opened the Sandstone facility, she said, she has never acquired a registered animal, citing an unregistered cougar taken from squatters around Grand Marais in 2008.

Exotic pet owners can also get what’s essentially an exemption from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, allowing them to keep animals that are indigenous to the state, such as cougars, lynx, bobcats and bears, as part of a “game farm.”

About 20 states have no strict regulations on exotic animal ownership, but that could change due to an incident in Ohio last year. In October, a Zanesville man released 56 exotic animals, including big cats, bears and monkeys, before killing himself. The state’s Legislature responded by proposing restrictions. Other states are following suit, and the U.S. Congress is considering prohibitions of breeding exotics.

Sanctuaries vs. ownership

Those developments are partly why the Sanctuary is starting a fundraising campaign, “No more wild pets,” Thies said.

Asked if anyone – even a responsible pet owner – should be allowed to keep a tiger, Thies says no; calling that person probably “one in a million.”

“We want people to see these animals for what they are – wild. And let them be what nature intended,” she said. “Most people that want a pet tiger, they don’t really want a pet tiger. They want a tiger that acts like a dog. It’s a false notion. What we’re trying to explain through this campaign is that’s not what they are. They don’t belong in your backyard. It doesn’t benefit the animal.”

In the world of exotic pets, the Sanctuary’s stance is controversial, as is the facility’s very existence. An opponent of many of the proposed laws regulating exotics is Zuzana Kukol, who owns about 16 big cats in Nevada. She says lawmakers are overreacting to rare incidents that unfairly target responsible pet owners. She has called facilities like the Wildcat Sanctuary “scam-tuaries” and says it’s essentially a place for people like Thies to have their own exotic pets and get paid for it.

“Accidents, and escapes and even deaths happen in zoos and sanctuary settings,” Kukol said, adding that there is no school for anyone to learn to start a sanctuary.

“You don’t even have to know how to train or take care of a tiger,” she said. “How come the same tiger I have, (when a sanctuary acquires one) confiscated from a pet owner, they don’t have to pay taxes? This is what’s scary to me.”

She also said it’s hypocritical for Thies to push for bans of exotic animal ownership.

“I am critical of people who push for bans, but exempt themselves from bans,” Kukol said. “If somebody is a bad owner, punish the owner. Not the whole community. It’s not fair. Here she is, she gets money for her job, gets money for her animals, yet she wants to stay in business … but she wants to ban the rest of us?”

Thies, who says no animal has ever escaped the Sanctuary, answered that the people who support her facility financially do so mostly through word of mouth and understand why it needs funding.

“It’s people who really want to see these animals finally have dignity,” she said, “and really believe that living things are interconnected, deserve respect and deserve compassion.”

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Stahl reports for the Duluth News Tribune