Exotic-animal shelter on brink of extinction
Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 05/08/2007 12:00:00 AM PDT
Photo Gallery: Forever Wild Tigers
Video: Forever Wild
PHELAN – Joel and Chemaine Almquist have a pretty normal American life – sort of.
A modest but pleasant home. Nine acres in the desert. Four kids. Cats. Dogs.
The couple have run the Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary for nearly 10 years – literally in their backyard.
But the shoestring they run it on is fraying badly and in danger of breaking.
"We wanted to do educational stuff at first. It was going to be a business," said Joel Almquist, 37, who’s been around exotic animals his entire life.
As soon as he got his license from the state Department of Fish and Game, the phone calls started pouring in.
"Can you take this cat? Can you take that cat?" he said.
Circus animals, movie animals, pets that weren’t so cute when fully grown, even a tiger owned by a drug dealer who used to beat it to make it mean.
Most of the tigers are Bengal- Siberian mixes, basically 300- pound feline mutts, "garbage" in the eyes of zoos, Joel said.
"A lot of these animals would have been euthanized," he said.
The couple got by on their own for a time before setting up a nonprofit organization to accept donations.
The donations barely cover the $4,000 a month for raw meat, hay and reptile food to keep the animals fed.
"Sometimes the family has Top Ramen, but the animals always get their meat," Joel said last week as the big cats voraciously snatched big chunks of bloody horse meat he tossed under their cages.
A volunteer who serves on the board of directors of the charity said, "It’s very tight."
Pat Maritato, 61, of Victorville, became involved with Forever Wild a few years ago because "I’m a tiger freak. I said, `I want to help. I want to help. I want to help.’ "
The donations generally cover the costs of feeding, but not always.
"There are times if we don’t get donations, it comes out of Joel and Chemaine’s pocket. Sometimes my wife and I will kick in," he said.
Although the Almquists and the charity are looking at ways to increase income, they’ve run into a financial pothole many families now face.
A few years ago, they refinanced their manufactured home and the property, in part to make improvements to the sanctuary.
They did it using an adjustable-rate mortgage, and now their house payment has jumped 50 percent in the past year, from roughly $1,300 a month to about $2,000.
Joel is the sole breadwinner – scraping together a living doing audio and video installations, other contracting work, and occasionally working as an animal wrangler.
Vacations are rare, Chemaine said, because Czar, Sakia, Mia and the other animals always need care and money is always tight.
Months of trying to get a company to refinance the house and property have failed because it’s a manufactured house and they have a menagerie of big cats and reptiles, Joel said.
"If I can’t refinance, I won’t be able to afford this place," he said.
"The worst-case for us would be giving this all to the charity," said Chemaine, 36.
It’s not clear how that would work, especially since the charity doesn’t have a lot of extra money either. Joel has thought about charging rent to the charity, but it would have to have a donation stream that could keep those payments up.
The couple is not asking for a direct hand-out, but are hoping for contributions to the charity. And they’re hoping to find someone with expertise who can give them advice.
Aside from the personal nightmare a foreclosure would be, they’re more worried about the animals.
"If it came to that, most of these cats would be euthanized," Joel said.
Their shelter is the last chance for most of the animals, he said.
Chemaine said, "I wouldn’t give this up for anything … I just see it as a calling."
For information on the sanctuary, including photos and how to donate, go to www.4everwild.org.