California facility houses tiger, bear and wolves

By Rob Varela, rvarela@VenturaCountyStar.com
December 11, 2006

Ron Merkord wakes up early most days and makes breakfast for his family before going to work. The raw chicken and pork he serves up aren’t for his 3-year-old son, Jacob, but for the four gray wolves that consider Merkord a member of their pack.

Merkord is the executive director and owner of Wolves-N-Wildlife, a licensed animal sanctuary and education center on his 120-acre ranch near Fillmore. He and his wife, Lisa, along with a small, dedicated group of volunteers, care for the wolves, a black bear, a Siberian tiger and a host of domesticated animals. Merkord’s group offers tours of the facility for educational purposes and special events.

Merkord says he has always felt an affinity toward animals, especially canines. His experience with wild animals began when he signed up for a weekend class at a facility in Canyon Country that housed exotic animals used in movies and commercials. When the class was complete, he continued to volunteer and care for the animals. He developed a particularly strong bond with four pure gray wolves that had been brought to the facility when they were 5 months old.

Spending countless hours with the wolves over the course of a year, Merkord got them to accept him as one of their own. Merkord says that wolves are some of the most misunderstood animals in the wild. Their image as vicious killing machines is very misleading. They are skilled big game hunters, but Merkord says they are very intelligent and can be compassionate. This is shown in their pack mentality that resembles a human extended family structure.

He also says that wolves are very timid animals. When the four wolves that Merkord worked with did not make it in show business, they were given to Merkord. When he bought the former cattle ranch that is nestled in the foothills just southwest of Fillmore nine years ago, he thought it would be the perfect place for the wolves to live.

When a wild animal program that used Merkord’s ranch became defunct about five years ago, Merkord inherited a 450-pound black bear named Buddha, and Raja, a 700-pound Siberian tiger. Buddha was a product of a wild-animals-as-pets trade, while Raja was rescued when his career as a cub in Exxon commercials ended.

Every day the animals require a certain amount of care, which consists mostly of cleaning their cages and feeding them. Merkord accepts donations but pays most of the expenses for the facility out of his own pocket.

Ventura residents Kris and Wally Lampe help Merkord with the care of Buddha and Raja. The Lampes volunteer from 20 to 30 hours a week, and Kris, who has cared for Raja since he was a bottle-fed cub, feeds him by hand.

The facility also offers educational tours, at $5 per student, which Merkord says gives visitors a more personal experience with wild animals than a zoo could. Visitors come within feet of Raja’s cage and can even feed Buddha. Some of the children on a recent church tour did just that, giving Buddha some pecans, his favorite snack. Merkord offered Buddha some of the nuts high above his head; Buddha reared up, to the delight of the crowd, showing off his 8-foot stature.

In offering the tours, Merkord hopes that the experience will leave an indelible mark on the children, giving them a better awareness of the importance of conservation issues, so that such animals will still be around when they grow up. For adults, his hope is that they will realize that such animals, although they can be obtained by the public, are wild and do not make good pets.

Kris Lampe adds that Wolves-N-Wildlife exists for the good of the animals. “It has always been about the animals.”

http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/fi/article/ 0,1375,VCS_237_5205381,00.html

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