Plight of the wild ones
By Amanda Covarrubias, Times Staff Writer
A 6-year-old black leopard with a long face and thinning coat yawned lazily in the desert sun, stretching its bony legs to expose where its toes had been chopped off for use in voodoo rituals.### Nearby, a 5-year-old mountain lion rescued from a fur farm in Nebraska paced in its wire enclosure, warily eyeing a passing groundskeeper.### Several feet away, a 2½-year-old Siberian-Bengal tiger mix once kept as a pet in Kansas cooled off by dunking its massive frame in a tub of water.
This is the scene on a recent morning at Forever Wild, a wildlife animal sanctuary in the Mojave Desert town of Phelan run by husband-and-wife team Joel and Chemaine Almquist.### Remote corners of Southern California have become retirement homes for exotic and abandoned animals from across the country.### They provide homes for chimps and tigers employed by circuses and movie studios in their youth, then left to spend decades in sanctuaries; for monkeys and wolves that people took for pets only to realize they could not care for wild animals; for turkey vultures and crows that could not find homes in zoos.### They end up in one of several dozen licensed wildlife centers dotted across the region.### Most are run by private individuals moved by the plight of the exotic animals and mindful that those without shelter face death or a life in medical research facilities. But a string of problems involving some of the sanctuaries has underscored long-standing concerns about how well the centers are regulated.
Last month, two chimpanzees escaped from their cages at a shelter outside of Bakersfield and viciously attacked a visitor, leaving him clinging to life. Around the same time, authorities allege that a tiger got loose from a shelter in Moorpark and roamed subdivisions for days before being spotted and shot.### "There aren't many other options for those animals," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
"When the person is treating a wild animal as a pet, it's a time bomb waiting to explode," he added. "These are dangerous animals, and they should be in the wild. They shouldn't be in our neighborhoods."
The state's Fish and Game Department is in charge of regulating facilities that shelter exotic animals. Under state law, department officials are required to inspect shelters, sanctuaries and zoos every year to make sure grounds, cages and care are up to code.### But according to agency documents, inspectors checked only 14 of 338 sites in 2004.
Private veterinarians inspected the others in an arrangement intended to take the burden off the short-staffed agency, said Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano.### Because the department is also responsible for wildlife conservation efforts throughout the state, wardens have little time to crack down on violators of exotic species laws, officials said. But the Animal Protection Institute, a national advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit against the department in 2001, saying the arrangement violates state law. The organization said it was an inherent conflict of interest that veterinarians paid by the sanctuaries to treat the animals should also be in charge of making sure the owners are obeying the rules.
Inspections are supposed to deal with both the welfare of the animals and the security of the facilities. Regulations cover the size of cages, the types of locks, the integrity of sanctuary fencing and the condition of the animals. "These places aren't properly inspected, and there's an overabundance of these animals because they're being bred to enter the U.S. exotic animal trade," said Nicole Paquette, an attorney for the group.
In a settlement reached last year between the group and the department, a state advisory committee that had been dismantled earlier was reestablished to address the problems of weak enforcement. Paquette, who is a co-chair of the committee, said one of the panel's first steps would be to consider banning veterinarians from inspecting their clients' properties.### Critics said the recent case of a tiger sanctuary in the Riverside County city of Glen Avon showed the need for more oversight.
In February, former Tiger Rescue owner John Weinhart was convicted of animal cruelty and other charges for keeping his cats in filthy conditions with little food and water. A raid on his shelter by Riverside County animal control officials in April 2003 found 90 dead tigers, including 58 cubs stuffed in a freezer. A Riverside County jury in February found him guilty of child endangerment and animal cruelty. But until the raid, Weinhart had not been cited for violations by the Fish and Game Department for at least several years.
State officials defended the way they regulate the sanctuaries and pointed out that they have taken disciplinary action in numerous cases when they have found violations. They also said the arrangement with veterinarians made sense because the inspectors were medical professionals who could detect mistreatment. The same week that Weinhart was convicted, a 352-pound Siberian tiger was shot dead by federal game wardens after it had roamed around eastern Ventura County for four weeks. The cat had escaped from a makeshift sanctuary in Moorpark run by Abby and Emma Hedengran, authorities said. In that case, wardens had inspected the couple's Moorpark property and had cited the Hedengrans for various violations.
California is one of 20 states that ban the private ownership of big cat species, but it's legal in 30 states to buy them and keep them in a basement or backyard. A tiger cub costs about $300.
*New Law Not Enforced
Congress passed a law in 2003 that bans interstate commerce in big exotic cats, including tigers, lions and cheetahs. But since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not developed regulations to enforce it, said U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, (R-Simi Valley) who co-sponsored the law.### Gallegly said he was dismayed at the delays in getting the law enforced. He believes that the law would help prevent such situations as the tiger escape because it would be harder to move such animals across state lines. The congressman is not alone.
"It is past due that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopt rules to see that the law is enforced in a vigorous manner," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society, which supported Gallegly's efforts. "There are Internet sites that are still advertising the sale of big cats as pets, and the animals are being sold at exotic animal auctions."### Exotic animals in captivity are more prevalent than many people think. Experts estimate that there are as many as 10,000 tigers in captivity in the United States.### "That's double the number of tigers who are left in the wild in Asia," said the Humane Society's Markarian.
Among the operations licensed by the federal government to hold exotic animals are zoos, biomedical companies, Hollywood animal trainers and Michael Jackson, who has a small zoo at his Neverland ranch in Santa Barbara County. Southern California's proximity to the entertainment industry, its warm climate and expansive open spaces make it an ideal location for the sanctuaries.
The Forever Wild sanctuary in Phelan has not been cited for any violations by either state or federal regulators. The Almquists, the owners, said state and federal game wardens have never missed an annual inspection at their eight-acre sanctuary. Surrounded by a 6-foot-high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, the compound looks like a small zoo in the middle of the desert; snow-capped Mt. Baldy rises in the distance.
Its menagerie started with a few snakes and lizards that Joel Almquist collected over the years and grew from there, Chemaine Almquist said. The couple and their three young children share their property with 10 tigers, three bobcats, a leopard, a serval, three dogs and various reptiles, spiders and birds.
The Almquists initially wanted to launch their own business training big cats for films and television, but they ditched those plans after realizing there was little demand for another outlet in the competitive Hollywood animal industry.
By then, they had heard disturbing tales of animal abuse and death at the hands of private pet owners, fur farmers and traveling roadside zoos. With experience in big-cat husbandry gained from years of working in Southern California's tightknit circle of sanctuary owners and trainers, the Almquists opened Forever Wild seven years ago. Six large cages are arranged in two lines across the rectangular backyard at roughly 2-foot intervals, each holding one or two large cats. Smaller cages clustered in a corner of the yard contain the leopard, serval and bobcats. When the Almquists took in the leopard, they were told its toes were cut off for use in voodoo rituals. "I looked it up on the Internet, and there are some rituals that use leopards' toes," Chemaine said, shaking her head. In the larger cages, tigers lounged atop their wooden dens, basking in the warm sun. One tiger dunked its entire body up to his head in a giant tub of water and jumped out, dripping wet. In the summer, when temperatures reach 120, misters mounted overhead keep the animals cool and tarps provide shade.
Most nonprofit sanctuaries pay their bills through private donations, and Forever Wild is no exception. Most of its $30,000 annual budget is collected at county fairs and animal expos, where the Almquists take their reptiles and other less exotic creatures and try to educate the public about the plight of wild animals in captivity. A large chunk of the shelter's budget goes to the 1,000 pounds of beef the Almquists buy every two weeks to feed their cats, and the rest pays for veterinary bills, licensing fees, cages, shelter maintenance, a website and associated costs.
At another sanctuary some 75 miles west, deep in Topanga Canyon, former Los Angeles Zoo employee Mollie Hogan keeps 15 cages filled to capacity with such animals as an injured raccoon rescued from an attic and a blind lion that was abused as a cub at a breeding farm in Montana. Hogan's brood of three dozen animals includes four declawed mountain lions once kept as pets and several African servals that were taken to an animal shelter when their owners split up.
The Nature of Wildworks sanctuary also houses a large white wolf, an opossum, a skunk, a turkey vulture and two crows, one blind and the other missing a wing. Hogan said she turns away animals every day.### "I had no idea so many animals needed a place to go," said Hogan, who worked in the education department at the L.A. Zoo for 13 years after a stint at the teaching zoo at Moorpark College.
She opened her sanctuary in 1993 after an educational show at the L.A. Zoo was canceled. The animals featured in the program had nowhere to go, so Hogan took them to her rented property in Topanga Canyon, and a sanctuary was born.
She runs the nonprofit operation on $100,000 a year collected through private donations and grants, and she lives in an old trailer just steps away from her animals.### "You can't take care of every animal out there,
" Hogan said. "People try to take on too many, but then you can't care for them properly."[/b]