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Rescued tigers live in peace in California


A curious tiger approaches the 18-foot high chain-link fence that encloses a total of
thirty-three tigers at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Wildlife Sanctuary
in San Andreas, California on Jan. 2, 2008.

By Patrick May
San Jose Mercury News

SAN ANDREAS, Calif. After years of mugging for photos at backyard zoos and feline freak-shows, the arthritic performers now live out their lives in hushed obscurity, a daily ritual of gentle calisthenics, five-pound rabbits for breakfast and the occasional scoop of Jelly Belly beans.

For the 33 tigers rescued from America's love affair with beasts behind bars, life at the ARK 2000 wildlife sanctuary is a mixed bag. Their 10-acre world, after all, is kept under lock and key. Yet the bucolic Gold Country retreat also features bathing pools and straw beds. Sometimes, the keepers even spritz cheap perfume, which the cats find stimulating, around the paddocks.

"These animals should never have been in
A curious tiger approaches the 18-foot high chain-link fence that encloses a total of thirty-three tigers at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Wildlife Sanctuary in San Andreas, California on Jan. 2, 2008.
AP Photo
captivity in the first place," says sanctuary co-founder Pat Derby, as she watches a600-pound Siberian male named Couch loll about in the pine needles 50 yards away.

Last month's tiger escape and deadly attack at the San Francisco zoo has raised questions about how best to handle big cats. If zoos are now struggling to find the right balance between safety and access, sanctuaries like ARK 2000 offer a potentially instructive contrast.

Surrounded by 2,300 acres of Sierra foothill scrub and oak, ARK 2000 is one of three Northern California sanctuaries co-founded by Derby, a former animal trainer, and partner Ed Stewart. The couple met at a car-show Stewart was running and Derby was attending as a cougar-trainer for Lincoln Mercury.

Between them, the two have decades of experience working in close proximity with retired performing elephants and cats. They've rescued dozens from roadside zoos and illegal breeders and brought them here to live in as close to a natural setting as possible.

Sanctuaries can't undo the harm done to wild animals by zoos, circuses and private owners, says Derby. But practices employed here, she and Stewart say, would certainly help.

Start with security. It's unclear how the tiger escaped in San Francisco, but at 12.5 feet the exhibit's wall was clearly shy of accepted norms. Still, Derby, who says she's had a good working relationship with the zoo over the years, says its conditions aren't much different than other American zoos. Rather, she sees weak industry standards and inspections as the deeper problem.

Derby says Stewart, whom she calls "a master of overkill," researched fences at scores of zoos before building ARK 2000 five years ago. It was designed to hold nearly 40 cats rescued from what was essentially a chop-shop for tiger parts in Southern California. In the end, Stewart went with a fence several feet higher than the 16.5-feet standard suggested by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

"I'd always said if it's close, what does it matter," Derby says, looking up at the steel-mesh towering between her and Couch. "Now I realize what a difference a few feet can make."

Habitat space is another sanctuary trademark. Its rippling slope of oak and foothill pine gives the cats far more room to roam than they'd get at a place like the San Francisco Zoo, whose exhibit is a fraction of an acre. "We do everything we can to make them comfortable; they're not our pets," Derby says. "And this is their home, not ours."

John Lavaroni, a local grocer and the only neighbor living anywhere near the isolated sanctuary, calls Derby and Stewart "super people. I love Pat and Ed. I think it's tremendous what they're doing over there. They're saving the lives of animals who otherwise would be put down. I can hear the cats all the time from my porch, especially when it's nice and cold, and I love it."

With 33 staffers and a $2.5-million budget funded by corporate donors and private individuals, ARK 2000 is closed to the public. Its tiger-keepers follow strict protocol dictating everything from low-interference feedings to the distance they must keep between the cats and themselves. Their mantra is clear: If zoos are designed for people pleasure, this place is all about making the animals comfortable.

Crew members, for example, never throw anything at or near the fence and refrain from drawing the tigers' attention toward the enclosure. Jessica Cassidy, 37, one of five tiger-keepers who constantly patrol the sanctuary's 3,000-foot perimeter, notes that in San Francisco's exhibit, "The tigers are always looking up from near the moat at the people above them. So you have these incredible animals, whose job is to hunt, stalk and kill, continuously focused on what could be a threat or prey. It's like training them to scale that wall."

Perhaps the biggest concern of all, say the founders of this private sanctuary, is the utterly unnatural proximity of humans to tigers at circuses and zoos. While the two survivors of the San Francisco attack have denied harassing the tiger before it escaped, Derby and other experts are convinced the victims somehow helped put the tragedy into play.

"If you allow the public to get close to these animals, especially for public feedings like many zoos do, you'll have people constantly irritating the animals, even if they don't realize it,' she says. "If we opened up this place and charged eight bucks to see the tigers, before long you'd have people throwing garbage at them."

Even as the San Francisco Zoo reopened last week, announcing plans to beef up security at its tiger exhibit, Stewart called for a moratorium on adding any more residents to the nation's caged-cat population. She and Stewart dismiss claims by some zookeepers that parading wild animals in front of the public will raise collective consciousness, educate young people and perhaps even foster protection of disappearing habitats worldwide.

"What happened in San Francisco represents the institutional disrespect we have for wild animals," Stewart says. "If the educational thing were working, their natural habitat in the wild would be getting larger, not smaller. Zoos and circuses are cheap entertainment, but they're a hard habit for this country to break."

Standing uphill near the tigers' private dens, Derby and Stewart turn philosophical and wistful as they watch His Majesty, a gorgeous white Bengal tiger and the largest of the resident cats. They tell stories of captive tigers being slaughtered for their bones, pelts and organs, which are sold off as ingredients in painkillers and aphrodisiacs. Soft-pawing their way through the trees, the tigers in this open-air hospice will eventually die here. Six are already gone, and many of the rest are hobbled by bad eyes and rickety bones borne from inbreeding and, Derby says, worsened by neglect.

She and Stewart describe third-rate zoos they've seen around the country where a tiger's "habitat" is nothing more than a jungle landscape painted on the wall of a concrete cage.

And yet, "sanctuaries are cages, too," says Derby, as His Majesty rolls over on his back. They're also a bittersweet reminder that, barring some major cultural shift, the tiger shows will go on. The phase-out of large-animal exhibits advocated by some animal-rights groups could eventually mean Derby and Stewart could one day close up shop.

But they're aren't holding their breath.

"If zoos would just take care of the animals they have and not replace them when they die," says Stewart, "we could pop open a bottle of champagne and just go away."

 

 

PAWS
Performing Animal Welfare Society
PO Box 849, Galt, CA 95632

(209) 745-2606 office/shelter
(209) 745-1809 fax
info@pawsweb.org

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