AR-News: AR NEWS: Keenesburg center provides home for big cats and
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Fri Sep 12 23:50:21 EDT 2003
By EMILY LAIDLAW
Times Staff Intern
By the time he was five months old, Judah's ears already lay permanently flat
on his head, making him resemble a domestic Scottish fold cat rather than the
wild mountain lion he is.
His owners admitted they had repeatedly beaten him on the head and ears to
"show him who was boss." Miraculously, Judah, who turned 2 years old in August,
appears to have no permanent hearing loss from the abuse.
Seeing Judah happily playing and purring at his new home at the Rocky
Mountain Wildlife Conservation Center in Keenesburg, it is difficult to imagine how
anyone could want to inflict pain on him. It is even more surprising to see how
lovable and trusting he has become toward his caretakers at the center,
despite his past.
Yet Judah's story is not at all uncommon. He is only one of 60 mountain
lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, servals, bobcats and lions that now call the
Rocky Mountain facility home. The center also houses 20 rescued black and grizzly
A private, non-profit organization, the center takes in animals that have
suffered abuse, neglect and exploitation or that can no longer be cared for by
another facility. Founded in 1980 by Pat Craig, the conservation center is the
only accredited rescue center for great cats and bears within an 800-mile
radius of Denver and one of only 17 such accredited centers in the United States.
Nala, an African lion and longtime resident of the center, was purchased at
an exotic animal auction when she was only a few weeks old and was tied to
tires to keep her contained. But as she grew larger, she learned to drag the tires
After adding more tires failed to keep her in one place, her owners put her
in a cage so small that she continually cut her face and body and almost bled
to death. Now, a favorite at the center, she is leading a happy and healthy
African lion Solomon was rescued from central Mexico after alarmed tourists
reported seeing him as a roadside attraction. His owner, a fortune teller, kept
him in a six by 12-foot cage located only four feet from a busy highway in
hopes of attracting business.
Nala and Solomon are just a few of the thousands of wild animals who have
been abandoned or kept illegally as pets and need homes each year, said Toni
Scalera, the center's marketing and public relations director. Because of their
exposure to humans, these animals have lost their primitive instincts and cannot
survive on their own in the wild.
And even though the center is located on 120 acres -- 65 of which are
currently developed with indoor and outdoor enclosures and recreation areas for the
animals -- it has nearly reached its capable holding capacity.
"Unfortunately, we have to turn down thousands of animals every year,"
Scalera said, noting that the center usually only takes in animals with the most
desperate of situations.
Two of the center's newest tigers were in such a situation, confiscated from
a man who housed them in a small horse trailer.
"The tigers were so brown from living in their own feces and urine that you
couldn't even tell they were tigers,"said Craig, who has served as the center's
director since it opened.
Three leopards and two lions in a similar situation were confiscated from a
California organization known as Tiger Rescue after officials discovered 58
dead tiger cubs and 30 dead adult tigers on the property.
The owner, who had grown tired of doing the enormous amount of work required
to take care of the cats, stopped feeding them. Malnourished, the skinny cats'
hair is falling out, one of the leopards is blind in one eye, and the animals
look strikingly different than the older plump, shiny and healthy residents
of the center. But already they are showing improvement in their appearance and
are becoming more playful, especially when Craig is around.
Like the other lions and big cats at the center, the new cats seem to regard
Craig as the "king of the pride." Because he feeds and cares for them; they
respect him as the dominant male.
When Craig appears, the tigers greet him by chuffing, which consists of three
quick puffs of air in a "chuff" sound. After Craig chuffs back, he can be
heard cooing things like "We're coming, babies."
In the wild, although tigers travel alone, they always greet each other by
chuffing, Craig said.
"If one tiger chuffs and the other doesn't chuff back, he knows he's in
trouble," he added.
The tigers leap around playfully as he approaches and attempt to play fight
-- with each other and with Craig. Some of them lie with their paws draped over
each other, licking another's ears or face, much like a domestic house cat.
"In the wild they don't have time to be social," Craig said. "They're too
busy trying to survive."
And while survival is easier for the animals at the center than in the wild,
people should not forget that these animals are the victims of a crisis much
larger than an isolated case of neglect or abuse, Craig said.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 big cats are kept illegally as pets each year
in the United States. About 7,000 of these are tigers and 4,000 are in Texas
This does not even include statistics on bears and other wild animals
wrongfully being held as pets, Scalera said.
America's captive wildlife crisis dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when
most towns big enough to have a zoo "had something going," Craig said. He was
inspired to start the center at age 19 after he visited a North Carolina zoo and
realized that for every animal on display, there were many more living in tiny
cages behind the scenes -- a byproduct of breeding to produce "cute babies."
By the 1970s a lot of zoos had shut down and began dumping their animals into
private hands, who began breeding and selling them to make a profit. And
while today's laws concerning animals are much tougher than they were in previous
decades, the exotic animal trade is still prevalent enough that the average
person could buy a tiger or lion off the Internet.
"People get these little things, and they know they're gonna get big, but
they just love to ignore that," Craig said.
The enormous cost of caring for a wild animal is something people often don't
take into account either, Scalera said, and often they neglect or abuse an
animal after discovering that they can't afford to keep it. The average cost of
caring for one tiger, lion or bear is approximately $8,200 a year. Jaguars,
leopards and mountain lions cost about $6,500 each per year, while servals and
bobcats require approximately $4,200 each.
Multiply these costs by 80, and it's not hard to understand why the center
has an annual operating budget of $360,000. The cats' indoor enclosures cost
around $1,000 a week to heat in the winter, and approximately $70,000 of the
center's annual budget goes to food alone.
The center's 60 cats require 4,000 pounds of raw meat a week, no inexpensive
task considering that the meat is specially blended with vitamins to ensure
the cats' health. Packaged in 10-pound blocks, the meat is given to the cats
mostly frozen to maintain the health of their teeth.
Much of the 3,000 pounds of bear food each week is donated to the center in
the warmer months. In the colder months, the bears hibernate in specially built
bear dens on their designated 10-acre habitat. The bears love sweets and
anything high in fat and can often be seen gorging themselves on cakes and
doughnuts to prepare for winter hibernation. But they also eat fruits, veggies and
pasta in order to ensure a balanced diet.
All the animals are fed on a random schedule to mimic eating in the wild.
"We constantly mix things up," Craig said.
Because the center is a nonprofit organization, it relies mainly on private
donations, approximately 93 percent of which go directly to caring for the
animals, Scalera said. Craig is the only person at the center who receives a
salary, but it is meager compared to the enormous amount of work he does, Scalera
"Our donors are really dedicated and really care about the animals, and we
are grateful to have them," Scalera said, "but we could use a lot more."
Ultimately the center would like to get an endowment for each animal that
could pay for its care if something should happen to Craig and the other
caretakers, Scalera said.
"Right now we struggle sometimes just to get enough money to pay for meat for
a week," she said. "But we keep trying because these animals are like members
of our family."
The center also hopes to implement an extensive education plan for its Web
site and develop another 65-acre habitat with much-needed indoor and outdoor
enclosures for more cats. After a massive fundraising campaign, a plan for this
habitat had been developed and was beginning to be implemented before it was
put on hold this summer by a dispute with the State Division of Wildlife.
The division took issue with the center's new $600,000 fencing design after
another rescue organization complained that the Keenesburg center didn't meet
state regulations because it allows animals to go out into larger play areas
rather than staying in small enclosures.
"They've seen this stuff," Craig said of the center's setup. "They've been
coming out here for years,"
He noted that the center has always had a "very good relationship" with the
division, which often brings the center animals it has seized from bad
According to the Division of Wildlife, it simply wants the center to meet a
uniform set of fencing regulations required of units that house wild animals.
But one set of regulations for fencing doesn't work for all animals, Craig
said. A bear can climb a 40-foot fence, and a mountain lion can jump straight
over a 16-foot fence and require very different habitats. Craig and the center's
4,000 Front Range supporters are contacting state lawmakers in an effort to
be allowed to proceed with the original plans for the new habitat.
Diane Estanislau, a Fort Morgan resident who has been volunteering at the
center for four years, believes that the Division of Wildlife is being frivolous
by suddenly taking issue with something it has never taken issue with in the
23 years of the center's operation.
"It's so silly because we've never had any problems out there with animals
getting out," she said, adding that the division should devise a different set
of guidelines for a habitat sanctuary like the Keenesburg center.
"We're a home for animals, not a zoo for people," she said, repeating the
Although Estanislau doesn't get out to the center as much as she would like
to, she volunteers a couple of times a month, assisting with the office work,
helping dig ditches and put up fence posts, cleaning up after the animals and
basically doing "whatever is needed."
She said her favorite part is "just being able to help the animals."
"A lot of them have come from such terrible situations," she said.
Scalera -- who makes a living as an assistant to the chief of police in
Longmont and spends an additional 50 to 60 hours a week at the center -- agreed.
"They say the best kind of job is one you do whether or not you get paid for
it," she said. "I have that job."
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