Nevada lures big-cat shelter from Chicago area

September 11, 2006

Staff Reporter

The massive, 2,000-square-foot cages that hold four cougars and a bobcat at the Safe Haven Wildlife Center near Marengo just aren’t big enough anymore.

The center is one of just a handful of places around the country equipped to handle the big cats and nurse them back to health, and it has had to turn down 50 cats from across the nation in the last year.

So, center founder and director Linda Sugasa and her husband, David, are moving it to Nevada, where land is cheaper and they will have 160 acres instead of just five.

In just the last year, the Cook County Forest Preserves and the Village of Itasca have closed their publicly funded wildlife rehabilitation centers, which means Safe Haven’s closing will be all that much more painful to the remaining privately funded centers, said Dawn Keller of the Flint Creek Wildlife Refuge in Barrington.

“Safe Haven is a wonderful facility, and so it is a loss,” said Keller, who has often referred people to Sugasa’s center when hers was full.

One of the center’s charges, Monty the Montana cougar, limps from a gunshot wound to his rear leg. But he growled and charged pretty quickly from one end of his cage to the other Sunday when volunteer Shannon Ruckoldt dropped a plate of raw meat for him into his cage. He snatched a chicken leg and thigh piece and carried it in his mouth back to his hideout.

Monty was flown to Safe Haven from Montana by that state’s fish and wildlife office when other facilities were too full to take him. Veterinarians who work with the center decided surgery was not an option and have medicated him, Sugasa said.

Starts with injured raccoon

But apart from the care of the big cats, the loss of Safe Haven will be more noted for the foxes, squirrels, opossums and other small local animals that go to the facility to be nursed back to health after a traffic accident or other injury.

Sugasa came up with the idea for the center nearly 10 years ago when she found an injured raccoon and learned there was nowhere to take it to get treatment. A New Jersey native, Sugasa and her husband came here 10 years ago and bought the property before she had any idea of opening a wildlife rehabilitation center and sanctuary.

With no background in veterinary medicine, she trained at facilities such as Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue and got federal and state certification. She built the cages in the wooded area behind her garage, which became the office. She invited neighbors over to see the 6-gauge galvanized steel cages that hold the cats and assure them there would be no wildlife running free. With no government funding, Sugasa — who takes no salary — relies on private donations and volunteers to run the facility.

Safe Haven’s move to northwestern Nevada outside Reno — when her home here is sold — will allow her to shelter about 40 cats instead of four, she said.

“This is an invaluable place — it will leave a large void in the county,” said Ann Alderson. She and her husband, Richard, retired Northwestern University music professors, have been volunteering here for years. They are moving to Montana and hope to visit the new center.



With the closure of the Cook County Forest Preserves’ Trailside facility in River Forest and Itasca’s Springbrook Nature Center rehab facility and the impending move of Safe Haven (www.safehaven to Nevada, here are the three major wildlife rehab centers left in the Chicago area:

•Flint Creek Wildlife Refuge in Barrington, (847) 602-0628 www.

•Fox Valley Wildlife Center, Elburn, (630) 365-3800

•DuPage County Forest Preserve’s Willowbrook Wildlife Center. (630) 933-7200, brook.html



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