By ANDREA BROWN
The (Colorado Springs) Gazette
CALHAN, Colo. — Think you have a lot of shoveling? Talk to Nick Sculac. He has 17 acres and 147 mouths to feed at Big Cats of Serenity Springs.
His collection of lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats needs daily room service.
“You have to do it whether it is really crappy out or nice out,” said Sculac, 57.
Snowdrifts clogged the maze of chain-link cat pens encircling his home in rural northeastern El Paso County near Calhan.
“The money to remove the snow was $9,800 and the last one cost us another $5,000,” he said. “We’re breaking ice three times a day to give them water because it freezes.”
The state-licensed wildlife refuge has faced rough times.
Sculac’s wife, Karen, 47, founder and backbone of the 15-year-old sanctuary, died of pneumonia last summer.
“That day she died I didn’t want it anymore,” he said. “All the volunteers came to me and said, ‘You have to keep it.”‘
The nonprofit ranch, which has one full-time worker and about 20 ardent volunteers, recently had another setback: Bookkeeper Collette Colvin was among the Castle West Apartment residents who lost everything in the Jan. 16 fire — including the laptop computer with the refuge’s mailing lists and donation records.
Colvin, a volunteer, does most of the Web work for the sanctuary.
“It will be awhile to get things back to normal,” she said. “It’s a matter of rebuilding our mailing list; that is the big thing on there.”
She hopes to be able to answer e-mails soon. Many contributions are made through the Web site.
Tours, gift shop sales and fundraisers help cover the $15,000-a-month food bill for 40,000 pounds of frozen-meat blocks and chicken parts.
The brood includes Hollywood has-beens, over-the-hill photography models and refugees from closed zoos.
Many were pets until they started eating their owners out of house and home.
“A lot buy them when they are cubs,” Sculac said. “The cubs are cute … then they grow up.”
The frigid weather is a minor threat for the cats.
“They get colds,” Sculac said.
On a recent morning, most cats weren’t snoozing by the heaters in their concrete dens.
One tiger sprawled on the frozen tank that serves as its summer swimming pool.
Others did normal cat stuff — pacing, growling, nosing the fence.
Two lions scrimmaged in a chase game.
“It makes some frisky,” Sculac said. “They roll over and play. They’re like housecats, just a lot bigger. With 10 claws and big teeth. Those claws really go in hard.”
He speaks from experience.
“I have some holes here and there. I’ve got two big canine teeth holes in my arm. I’ve been bit on my side,” he said. “But I still have all my parts.”
In July 2003, a caretaker cleaning a cage was attacked by two tigers and hospitalized for cuts, but later returned to work.
Sculac said the worker invited harm by wearing shorts, improper dress around big cats.
“They get set off by bare legs,” he said.
You play by their rules.
“If you spend too much time in the cage, they’ll let you know,” he said. “You kind of get eyes in the back of your head.”
Sculac wants to add big reptiles to the sanctuary. His new business partner is a 22-year-old alligator wrestler from Florida.
“We need more variety to get more people out,” he said.
For now, he’s fighting snow to keep the cats cozy and the place open for tours, by appointment.
“We’d love to have our own snow equipment,” he said. “Like a Bobcat.”
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