Lions, tigers and bears find refuge
By Dan Herbeck
News Staff Reporter
Updated: November 28, 2009, 9:12 AM
CHARLOTTE — The ferocious roar of a 500-pound African lioness echoes through the woods.
Two sleek and powerful Siberian tigers take a run at each other, nuzzling and wrestling like oversized house cats.
These are not the sights and sounds one expects to find in rural Chautauqua County. But that’s normal activity at JNK’s Call of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, about 16 miles south of Fredonia.
Aided by other volunteers, Town of Charlotte residents Jacqueline and Kenneth Wisniewski run the facility, a home to 12 tigers, two lions, three bears, three wolves and other animals. The animals live in metal cages, surrounded by tall fences.
From all appearances, the operators of the tax-exempt, not-for-profit sanctuary don’t run it to make money. According to reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service, no one involved draws a salary. The Wisniewskis live on the property in a run-down old house trailer that was donated to them several years ago. And caring for the animals is an exhausting, sometimes dangerous 24-7 job that goes on in every kind of weather.
Why do they do it?
“There’s only one reason — we love the animals,” said “Jackie” Wisniewski, 45, the short, stocky woman who founded JNK in 1994. “I’ve loved animals all my life. When I was a little kid, I was already thinking about ways to protect the endangered species.”
“These are rescue animals, animals that no one else wants,” she added. “If we didn’t take care of them, they would probably be euthanized.”
Although Wisniewski and her husband don’t get into the cages with the animals, they routinely pet them through the cage wire and sometimes allow the tigers to lick their faces.
“Believe me, we are careful,” Wisniewski said. “We’ll give them belly rubs, but only through the fence. They’re still wild animals. They could grab me by the foot and pull me into the cage at any time. You can’t take the wild out of them.”
No one has questioned the couple’s love of animals, but to say everything is beautiful and bucolic at the sanctuary would present a false picture.
In recent years, the Wisniewskis have run into trouble with government agencies, which nearly forced them to close the 54-acre facility a couple of years ago.
In August 2005, criminal investigators from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Conservation raided the sanctuary and seized a leopard that had been illegally purchased.
The investigation led to a 2007 misdemeanor guilty plea in federal court for Jackie Wisniewski, who admitted illegally taking a protected-species animal across state lines. She was put on probation for a year and paid a $500 fine.
Wisniewski said she bought the leopard for $1,300.
“The owner was getting rid of all his animals, and they needed homes,” she explained.
There have been other problems at JNK. The facility was fined $1,800 after a 2002 inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service. The inspection stemmed from sanitation violations and concerns about the condition of some cages, according to government records.
After another USDA inspection in June of this year, the sanctuary was cited for not removing animal waste from the cages frequently enough, and for not having enough shade for some of the animals.
Some visitors to the sanctuary have questioned whether the size of the cages are adequate. Two bears, for example, share a cage that measures 16 feet by 20 feet. The four youngest tigers in the sanctuary share a cage that measures 16 feet by 32 feet.
“[JNK] by no means has a clean inspection history,” said David Sacks, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department. “Over the years, it has been written up for some noncompliance, and we’ve kept a close watch to make sure the problems were corrected.”
At the same time, Sacks added: “Inspectors found that the animals themselves are in very good condition and are being taken care of. There has never been an allegation of animals there being abused or mistreated.”
When asked about cage sizes at JNK, Sacks said requirements are dictated by the federal Animal Welfare Act. The act sets no specific space requirements, but says each animal must have enough space “to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement.”
“Inspectors look at each of these facilities on a case-by-case basis,” Sacks said.
Federal inspection records dating back to 2002 give no indication that JNK’s has ever been cited for having inadequate living space for its animals.
Vet defends facility
Dr. Mary H. Fales is a veterinarian from Falconer who treats for the animals at JNK. She said the animals receive excellent care and “plenty of love and socialization” from the Wisniewskis and other volunteers.
“I would love to see bigger habitats out there, and I know they’re working on that,” Fales said. “The care and the devotion to the animals is what impresses me.”
Fales added that it is her impression that “every penny” raised in donations by the JNK organization goes toward care of the animals.
Several people who know the Wisniewskis said they are generous to a fault, providing better living conditions for the animals than they provide for themselves.
There’s some truth to that, said Kenneth Wisniewski, 52, who supports himself and his wife on his earnings as an amusement park mechanic.
Each week, he said JNK goes through 30 to 40 bales of hay, many bags of dog food and more than a ton of meat. Much of the meat comes from “road kill” supplied by area highway crews, and animals that die on local farms.
The sanctuary is building a new habitat for four of the tigers, which will be at least three times larger than their current 16-by-32 foot living space, Jackie Wisniewski said.
“Eventually, we want to build larger habitats for every one of the animals,” she said. “That’s our goal. That’s why we raise money from donations.”
How does a facility in rural Chautauqua County wind up with lions and tigers?
According to Wisniewski, a few of the animals were born three, when JNK was a breeding facility. The sanctuary has since stopped breeding animals. All the animals that live there now are spayed, neutered or isolated from other animals.
Most of the JNK animals are unwanted “rescue” animals, she said.
“There are a lot of places, especially down south, where you can pay to have your picture taken feeding a lion or tiger cub,” Wisniewski said. “Guess what? After the animal gets over 40 or 50 pounds and isn’t so cuddly anymore, these places want to get rid of them. A lot of these animals just get destroyed if they don’t find homes for them.” She pointed to Sacha, a huge tiger that has its own cage and often lets out angry roars when anyone gets close to it.
“Sacha had been living an an apartment in New York City . . . She’d been beaten up a lot before she came to us nine years ago,” Wisniewski said. “Nobody but a sanctuary would take an animal like her.”
Surprisingly, according to Wisniewski and other volunteers, the jungle animals enjoy the snow. Each of the cages has a hut with hay in it where the animals can go when the weather gets too cold or wet.
“I love watching the tigers playing in the snow,” she said. “They love it.”
Zoos are very selective about the animals they take and don’t have enough room for all the unwanted animals that become available, Wisniewski said.
That is true, said Donna M. Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo.
Fernandes said she does see a need for properly run animal sanctuaries “to provide a long-term care for unwanted or illegal pets.” But she questions the practice of volunteers allowing tigers to lick their faces.
“We would not encourage or allow our keepers to do that,” Fernandes said. “Aside from the inherent danger, there are also a number of diseases that can be transmitted from cats to humans. It’s not encouraged in most professional zoos.”
Not a zoo
JNK is not a zoo and is not open for visitors on a regular basis. But it does have educational events and open houses, including one earlier this year that attracted an estimated 1,200 people.
School groups, Scout troops and other organizations can arrange tours, said Romy Stefano, JNK’s vice president. She said extensive information about the facility, each of the animals and its mission is available at JNK’s Web site, http://www.jnkscallofthewild.org.
“We’re all about education and preserving these beautiful animals. What we really need is for some corporation to adopt JNK, so we could expand the facilities for all the animals,” Stefano said.
According to Stefano, volunteers at JNK receive extensive safety training. She said no volunteer has been attacked and no animal has escaped from the facility.
She said she and other volunteers are determined to correct any problems that occur at JNK and would be heartbroken if it was ever shut down.
“We have a motto — ‘Failure is not an option,’” Stefano said. “Because if we ever do fail, these animals will have to be euthanized.”
Kenneth W. Bochman, a town council member who was recently elected to become Charlotte’s supervisor in January, said he has never heard any town resident complain about JNK.
Kathy Weise lives about a quarter-mile away from JNK with her husband, Kevin. She has no safety concerns about lions and tigers living in the neighborhood.
“I go down there with my granddaughter to look at the animals, and I see that they get good care,” Weise said. “We love to hear the lions roaring or the wolves howling in the middle of the night. It’s awesome.”