The Wildcat Haven rescued two tigers from Texas earlier this year. It wasn’t something Mike and Cheryl Tuller ever wanted, but they’ve welcomed the newcomers
By: Josh Kulla
Published: 12/30/2010 4:27:14 PM
Two tigers, including Shirley, above, were rescued from a Texas facility earlier this fall.
Over the past decade, the Wildcat Haven Sanctuary has established itself as one of the preeminent facilities of its kind in the United States for small, captive born wildcats.
Located on eight acres of rural property between Wilsonville and Sherwood, Wildcat Haven is home to around 50 servals, bobcats, lynx and even cougars. The stories of each wildcat are unique and almost universally tragic. And for the first several years of its existence, founders Cheryl and Mike Tuller chose to work exclusively with smaller wildcats commonly bought and sold as pets, often illegally.
That all changed, however, earlier this fall.
That’s when the Tullers were contacted as part of a closely-knit national network of animal sanctuaries. They learned that the Wild Animal Orphanage, a massive facility in San Antonio, Texas, housing over 400 bears, lions, tigers, primates and smaller wildcats, would be closing its doors. Every animal living there, virtually all in cramped or uncomfortable conditions, would need a new home.
This included Mac and Shirley, a pair of 12-year-old Bengal tigers that had lived at the Orphanage for the past 10 years.
“We were never going to take in tigers, it wasn’t anything we really wanted to do,” Tuller said. “But the situation was so dire, we needed to step up and do something.”
And once they talked to the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in charge of finding suitable homes for the rescues, the Tullers confirmed that their mission back home in Oregon had just gotten a lot bigger.
On Oct. 14, the Tullers and other Wildcat Haven staffers welcomed Mac and Shirley to the Willamette Valley. They were joined by a serval and a caracal also taken from the Orphanage.
“They absolutely were in too small of a space and there were too many animals,” Tuller said. “And because of (Orphanage) management that was corrupt they ended up with no food and a terrible situation. These cats are 12 years old and they’d never been to a vet. There were no vet records or anything from the Wild Animal Orphanage, and that’s just ridiculous.”
Even before the Orphanage filed for bankruptcy in November, it had been under investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s charitable trust division over financial irregularities for the past several years, according to a Nov. 4, 2009, article in the San Antonio Current. Before that, it gained notoriety for a string of violations of U.S.D.A. regulations dating back over a decade.
Orphanage secretary Suzanne Straw told the last summer that the facility was cooperating with investigation. This added to the decision by the Orphanage’s board of directors to close down the facility, Straw said.
“Due to our overpopulation, and the fact that we don’t have the ability to care for the animals in the manner that we would prefer, we’ve decided to dissolve the orphanage and find new homes for the animals,” Straw said. “Even for a couple of months before this vote was cast, we were in the process of finding homes for as many of our animals as we could.”
Back in Oregon, the Tullers and their acquaintances feel this is an oversimplification. Because the number of wild animal sanctuaries in the United States always has been small, most operators of such facilities, including the Tullers, have long since grown familiar with each other.
They also have little good to say about the Orphanage and its former owners, Ron and Carol Asvetas, who have been accused in the past, among other things, of allegedly having healthy animals killed in order to make way at her Orphanage for new arrivals.
The couple, which founded the Orphanage in 1983, were ultimately suspended without pay a little over a year ago by the Orphanage’s board of directors. Litigation ensued between both parties as the Orphanage was forced to start ridding itself of its animals. Bankruptcy soon followed.
“It’s a small cat network,” Tuller said. “And being part of the Animal Sanctuary Association, we get updates and everything, and we have been monitoring her (Asvetas) for a long time. She’s never been an honest person and none of us had been fond of her; it’s just been an ongoing thing.”
It’s yet another example, Tuller adds, of so-called animal sanctuaries sometimes being anything but a safe haven.
“There are so many facilities that call themselves sanctuaries and aren’t, it’s frightening,” she said.
This is not even the first time Mac and Shirley have had to be re-homed. They were part of a rescue in Iowa in 2001 in which four big cats had starved to death before the survivors were taken to Texas and the Wild Animal Orphanage.
After coming to the Wildcat Haven, the Tullers found both tigers suffered from a poor diet, resulting in health issues. In addition, Shirley had a bite wound on her paw and Mac an open sore on his side.
“They both came with issues,” Tuller said.
Now, after over two months of proper nutrition and medical care, both tigers are fully on the road to recovery and are adapting to their new home. They both display vibrant personalities, and both are used to the presence of humans after a decade of being put on display for visitors to the Wild Animal Orphanage. They both have bulked up, too. Mac now weighs in at 450 pounds, while Shirley is a comparatively svelte 400 pounds.
“Mac and Shirley are both very laid back cats. They’re so nice,” Tuller said. “They’re so grateful for everything, they’re really no trouble. The cougars don’t like them, and they smell different, but they’re getting used to them.”
After sharing an closure less than 500 square feet in size for the past 10 years, the tigers now are living in a space five times that size and littered with trees and perches. The evergreen trees, in particular, have proved especially fascinating, with limbs and branches providing convenient toys.
Mac and Shirley also are vocal. Much more so than any of their fellow Wildcat Haven residents. Tuller likened the tigers’ roars as being a cross between a bull and Chewbacca.
“They roar, yes they do,” she said. “It’s kind of funny.”
With the addition of larger animals has come added physical security in and around their enclosure. For safety, no human is allowed to enter or even touch the tigers.
“There’s no going in with these cats, there’s no touching these cats, there’s no reason to,” Tuller said. “It’s different; they literally can kill you even if they’re not trying to.”
That’s just one of the changes they’ll be adjusting to in the coming months, even as they consider how to help the dozens more large cats at the Wild Animal Orphanage that still remain in need of homes. For now, they’re being watched after by a volunteer caretaker organization. But that can’t last forever.
“Ideally we need more space, certainly, again with the big cats, we realize the big cats are the ones who need to be placed,” Tuller said. “There were six sanctuaries who stepped up to take cats, but when you have 70 lions and tigers it’s hard.”
For now, Wildcat Haven will continue to provide homes for Mac and Shirley and any other captive born wildcats that need a home, even as they search for a new location with more space to accommodate the anticipated growth.
“It’s just an amazing situation for them,” Tuller said, “Although right now though we’re actively looking for more property. We’re pretty proud of what we do, we go so far beyond the minimum standards because we care about the animals and their well-being and their emotional enrichment.”
At A Glance
The Wildcat Haven is entirely run on donated funds, which come from a dedicated group of volunteers and donors committed to saving wildcats. Now, however, the need for ongoing financial aid is more acute than ever. Visit www.wildcathaven.org.
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