After discovering the effects of the exotic animal trade and the cruel living conditions that so many tigers, jaguars, and other big cats endure, Bobbi Brink knew she had to make a difference. So six years ago she founded Lions Tigers and Bears (LTB), an organization nestled in the hilly countryside of Alpine near Cleveland National Forest, where she takes in badly abused and abandoned exotic cats so that they can be restored to good health at the no-breed, no-kill facility that provides a quality lifetime home.
The facility, which sits on a 93-acre ranch, currently provides a five-acre home to three lions, four Bengal tigers, three bobcats, an African serval, a leopard, and a mountain lion. Brink currently has licensing for 30 wild cats, and hopes to build habitats for more rescues as funding allows.
The nonprofit organization runs on an all-donation basis provided for through memberships, events and fundraisers, and educational programs, with operating costs at about $15,000 per month. This provides food and healthcare for the animals, their enclosures, enrichment toys, and exercise facilities, and it covers administrative costs like utilities and insurance, LTB’s largest expense. LTB also has a group of veterinarians who bring their services to a clinic set up on site.
Touring the facility, we were able to get much closer to the wild cats in their enclosures than you can at any zoo. Standing mere inches away from a gorgeous tiger like LTB’s Natasha­ with only a chain link fence between us was truly an awe-inspiring experience.
As Brink introduced us to each feline, I could hear the strong emotion in her voice as she shared their stories and spoke of the abuse and abandonment that these beautiful creatures experience across the nation.
The ranch’s oldest feline is Bob the bobcat who is now 15. One of Brink’s most memorable rescues, Bob came to the ranch after he was found locked in a rabbit hutch several days after new homeowners moved into the house they had bought. From what Brink can tell, he had been kept there for years with an improper diet and no healthcare or exercise — he was emaciated, hardly able to walk, and suffering from severe dental problems. “When I picked him up, I honestly never had any idea he would even make it, let alone do as well as he has,” says Brink. After time at the ranch and some dental work, Bob has slowly regained the ability to run and jump, and is very friendly and happy with his caretakers.
Unfortunately the circumstances of Bob’s discovery are not uncommon. Many exotic cats are found cooped up in cages or basements with no food, sunlight, fresh air, or room to stand up or turn around.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the exotic animal trade is second only to that of drugs and weapons in the United States when it comes to illegal trafficking. Twelve states have yet to make the exotic animal trade illegal. And most animal smugglers don’t even face jail time for a first offense, unlike drug offenders.
“Hundreds of exotic big cats are bred and we have no idea where they end up. There’s no legitimate tracking or regulation,” Brink explains. While most states have laws pertaining to ownership of these animals, those laws do not prohibit breeding or selling.
Brink believes that around 10,000 exotic cats are living in captivity in the U.S., and have been bought or bred through illegal animal trafficking. Sold through auctions, advertisements, and online, exotic cats often wind up in situations in which their owners cannot or don’t know how to properly take care of their physical and psychological needs, or in which they will outgrow their use and profitability at four months (the age at which exotic cats become an insurance liability). “Once the young cats they have lost their utility as photo-ops or play-things, they are discarded, abused, and abandoned, because they become too big and dangerous for people to handle,” says Brink.
She adds that there is no government funding to protect and provide for these animals, and big cats often end up in roadside menageries, in homes as pets, or in exotic game facilities where they will be hunted.
Through educational programs and workshops, LTB hopes to inform the public about the exotic animal trade and teach that wild animals belong in the wild, not as pets or moneymakers. Future plans include educational programs on- and off-site, summer day camps, and internship programs.
While making a difference in the lives of big cats in the face of these harsh realities, Brink and her coworkers take joy in their triumphs as well. For example, Bakari, Suri, and Jillian, the ranch’s trio of lions who came from a Louisiana sanctuary as cubs, celebrated their second birthday in March. Like the other cats, the nearly full-grown lions spend their days lounging, gnawing on beef bones, eating 12-15 pounds of raw meat per day, getting exercise in the wide-open space of the Tiger Trails enclosure, and enjoying personal attention from Brink and other staff at the ranch. Most of the cats have playmates to interact with as well. Brink concludes, “These majestic felines represent a part of our Earth’s great history — how sad it would be to lose them through neglect.”
Lions Tigers and Bears will host its annual Wild In The Country event on May 9, which will feature a silent and live auction, music and dancing, barbecue, and, of course, a visit with the big cats. Larry Himmel will serve as emcee and auctioneer, and “Splash” artists will be on-site creating works to be auctioned off at the event. Tickets are $80 per person, $45 for children, and $750 for a table of ten. (619/659-8078, www.lionstigersandbears.org) RINA VAN ORDEN