By Frances Borsodi Zajac, Herald-Standard
For 20 years, the Western Pennsylvania National Wild Animal Orphanage in Redstone Township has been rescuing exotic animals from inadequate or abusive situations.
“It seems like yesterday,” Dr. William Sheperd, a veterinarian who founded the orphanage with his wife, Rebecca, said of their start in 1986.
The Sheperds came up with the idea after being asked to care for a cougar named Tabitha who was brought to them by the state Game Commission. Today, the orphanage houses more than 30 animals that include lions, tigers, cougars, lynxes and a black panther.
“We try to give them a good home with lots of love and good care,” said Sheperd.
Taking care of these animals requires a lot of money, however.
“For each animal, we spend a quarter of a million dollars in their lifetime for food, housing and veterinary care,” said Sheperd. “We have no paid employees. All the funds go directly to the cats. I’ve been blessed with a veterinary practice that’s profitable enough to pay everyone through my practice. I could probably retire 15 years earlier if not for the cats. But I’ll take care of them until I die and I have some contingency plans for after that.”
To help meet expenses, the orphanage will be involved in three fund-raisers in the upcoming weeks.
Nov. 4, at 1 p.m. – Lewis Auction Service, 15 S. Mill St., New Salem, is contributing its services to sponsor a charity auction to benefit the orphanage. Donations to the auction also are being accepted.
“The Lewises have graciously donated their time and effort,” said Sheperd. “They are good people.”
Nov. 11, from noon to 4 p.m. – There is a joint fund-raiser with Domestic Violence Services of Fayette County at the orphanage that will include lunch, a tour of the facility and a silent auction.
“Hopefully, it will benefit both groups,” said Sheperd. “A lot of charities are having trouble raising funds and we thought we might help them a bit.”
Nov. 19, from 2 to 4 p.m. – This is the last regularly scheduled tour of the orphanage this year. Tours, which are used as fund-raisers, will resume in March on the third Sunday of each month.
Sheperd said, however, the facility will be available for field trips for students, Scouts and church groups.
Many of the animals come to the Sheperds because their former owners couldn’t adequately care for them.
Asked why people want exotic pets, Sheperd said, “Folks think they’re great to have as pets but they don’t realize that by the time they’re 70 pounds, they’re fairly dangerous. They have no clue how to handle them without being mean and don’t know how to handle their nutritional needs.”
Sheperd also said that some people use the animals as picture cats, meaning they take cubs to fairs where the public can pay to have their photograph taken holding the animal.
Once they reach a certain age, the animals are sold to the black market for medicinal purposes or kept for breeding.
Often, animals taken in by the orphanage have been abused.
“They have broken bones, battered faces. The pads on their feet are raw. They suffer from poor nutrition, lack of exercise,” Sheperd said. “It brings tears to your eyes.”
He noted that laws vary from state to state.
“Fortunately, Pennsylvania has tightened its laws to make it more difficult to purchase cats,” Sheperd said.
Anyone wanting to purchase an exotic animal in Pennsylvania today would have to spend two years of training that was species specific in a facility such as the Wild Animal Orphanage.
“We have licensed no one,” said Sheperd. “No one needs to have these cats.”
For more information about the fund-raisers, including tickets and directions, call 724-437-7838. For more information on the orphanage, visit the Web site at www.wildanimal.org/about.htm.