By Barbara Hollenbaugh
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Duke, a 13-year-old Asiatic lion, is naturally regal. He is healthy, well-fed and spends his days surveying his “kingdom.”
However, Duke was not always so lucky. He began life in a pet shop in Redstone Township, where he had been held in an 8- by 10-foot cage and used as an attention-getter.
The bottom of the cage was filled with waste. Duke’s mane was encrusted with feces and he had burns. A collar was embedded deep in his neck.
Duke also was scarred physically and psychologically from being beaten with a baseball bat.
Brownsville and state police officers raided the pet shop and rescued Duke. Now he is one of the large cats that reside at the Western Pennsylvania National Wild Animal Orphanage, in Redstone Township.
The facility was founded in 1986 by veterinarian Dr. William Sheperd, who received a call from local authorities concerning a confiscated cougar named Tabitha. They asked if Sheperd would be willing to care for her.
“Word got around that I was sheltering Tabitha,” the veterinarian said. “I didn’t realize at that time how great the need was for a rescue facility for large cats. My phone started ringing off the hook with calls from state troopers, people from the Game Commission and humane officers, asking if I could take in cats they had confiscated.”
Sheperd set up some shelters on his Redstone Township farm, and the groundwork for the Western Pennsylvania Wild Animal Orphanage was laid.
Cat handler Karen Osler, of Connellsville, has been working with Sheperd for 15 years. She agreed there was a growing need for a rescue facility for large cats.
“These cats come mainly from large propagation facilities. There is a growing need for homes for these cats,” Osler said. “They are being bred irresponsibly.
“They are used (for television commercials and movies) until they are 10 weeks old. At that point, they’re deemed a danger to the public. They are sold to irresponsible pet owners, roadside zoos and circuses and black markets. Every day, these cats are being euthanized.”
Osler said the cats suffer mainly from nutritional bone disease. The cats’ bones become brittle and can’t support their weight. As a result, the cats can’t move.
Because the cats are lying on the ground, they often contract pneumonia and ultimately die.
Osler explained that in the wild, cats get the calcium and phosphorus their bones need by eating the bones of their prey. In captivity, that is not possible, so the handlers at the wild animal orphanage supplement the cats’ meat with bone-building nutrients.
Osler stressed that the animal orphanage isn’t a zoo.
“What makes this organization different from zoos is that we handle our cats on a regular basis,” she said. “They are groomed and massaged daily. We want to meet their psychological needs, as well as their physical needs.”
All of the big cats’ shelters are directed away from the wind, so they stay warm during the winter months. The orphanage also has a heated barn for housing sick and aged cats.
Osler said the problem with abandoned cats starts when people get cubs.
“They are cute and cuddly,” she said. “Most people don’t realize that these cubs grow very rapidly within the first six months. They get big. They become dangerous. Most of all, they become too expensive to feed.”
A large cat eats 10 pounds of food per day.
Osler also noted that many people get large cats as a status symbol.
Sheperd said the community supports his work.
“People want the cats to be safe,” he said. “They also want to be safe from the cats.”
He said many people contribute deer meat to feed the cats.
Sheperd also said he experienced no zoning difficulties. He did have to be licensed by the state Game Commission to operate his orphanage.
“Because I was already a vet, it wasn’t that long of a process.” he said.
Sheperd said the biggest challenge facing wild cats in the U.S. and abroad is human encroachment upon their habitat.
“Hunting and poaching are decimating their numbers,” he said. “In Asia, the sprawl is destroying their habitat. A cat needs approximately 100 square miles of habitat to secure enough food to feed itself.”
Sheperd’s goals for the animal orphanage include enriching the habitat of the cats. In particular, he wants to put in some pools for the tigers and plant more trees for shade. He also wants to build more enclosures.
And he dreams of building an educational center geared primarily toward school-age children.
“I want to make this center interactive.” said Sheperd. “There will be computers where kids can learn about cats. Also, we’ll have a classroom where we can have question-and-answer periods.”
He said he will stress to children that wild cats do not make good pets. He also will teach them the importance of preserving the cats’ habitat.
“At this point, all of our funds are going toward feeding and housing the cats,” he said. “We hope to secure some grants in the future to build the educational center.”