Big cats finding a home to roam
Sanctuary seeks new $250,000 enclosure
By Anne Krueger, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 12:04 a.m.
Online: For more information about the Lions Tigers & Bears sanctuary, go to lionstigersandbears.org
ALPINE — Conrad the mountain lion hid in his cave at a wild cat sanctuary east of Alpine, his yellowish eyes peering warily at the visitors outside his fence.
But when Bobbi Brink arrived with a meal of chilled chicken legs, the 120-pound animal slunk out into the sunshine, glancing at the African lions in the next cage. He chomped down the meal, bones and all, in a few bites.
“He’s a pretty happy cat,” said Brink, who operates Lions Tigers & Bears on her 93-acre property in Japatul Valley.
Brink has proposed building a $250,000 enclosure at the sanctuary that would allow her to house up to four more mountain lions. The 4,300-square-foot enclosed area, which would include a pond, would be designed to educate the public about mountain lions and other California wildlife.
Along with Conrad, three African lions, four tigers, three bobcats, a leopard and a serval have homes at Brink’s refuge. The animals were brought there because they can no longer live in the wild.
Brink said state Department of Fish and Game officers captured Conrad and brought him to her about two and a half years ago because he was spotted near an elementary school in Redlands and had attacked dogs. She said she has gotten calls from Fish and Game asking her to house other captured mountain lions, but she hasn’t been able to do so because she doesn’t have enough fenced-in space available.
Mountain lions, also called cougars, are misunderstood and unduly feared, Brink said. Sixteen verified mountain lion attacks — six of them fatal — have occurred in California since 1890. A 1990 state proposition prohibits the hunting of mountain lions, but more than 1,600 have been legally killed in the state since 1972. Permits are issued to slay a mountain lion considered a threat to livestock or public safety.
The state Department of Fish and Game discourages placing mountain lions in sanctuaries because the animals have a range of up to 100 square miles in the wild.
However, Brink said captive mountain lions like Conrad don’t need a vast range because their food is provided for them.
“It’s his last chance,” she said. “Do we want to put him down, or do we want him to live in captivity?”
Brink’s menagerie has grown since she rescued two tigers in 2002 from a Texas oilman who hadn’t been properly caring for them. When they arrived at the enclosure she had built on the property where she lives with her husband, Mark, Brink found out the female, Natasha, was pregnant. Two female cubs, Sitarra and Tabu, were born in November 2002.
Three lion cubs arrived in April 2007 after being born at a Louisiana sanctuary that was not allowed to house any more animals. The lions, who played in Brink’s lap when they were kittens, now weigh up to 500 pounds.
“They’re still growing,” Brink said.
Brink, whose facility is licensed by state and federal authorities, has a healthy respect for the wildness of the cats. Each enclosure is surrounded by a second fence.
The nonprofit has two employees, but the rest of the work is done by Brink — who is unpaid — and by volunteers. She said her operating expenses run about $20,000 a month, including 130 pounds of meat each day, insurance and veterinary costs.
About 3,000 people are members of Lions Tigers & Bears, but Brink said the recession and charitable giving to major disaster areas such as Haiti have hurt donations. To bring in more membership and money, Brink is offering members more frequent visits to the refuge and new options such as a night in a suite on the property for a $550 donation.
“You have to get creative,” she said.
MOUNTAIN LION FACTS
* Mountain lions are usually 2 to 3 feet at the shoulder, weigh between 80 to 180 pounds and are 6 to 8 feet long from head to tail.
* Based on rough estimates, California has 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions.
* Sixteen verified mountain lion attacks on humans in California have occurred since 1890, six of them fatal. The last documented attack occurred in Humboldt County in January 2007. A 10-year-old girl survived an attack in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in September 1993, and a 56-year-old woman was fatally attacked in the park in December 1994.
* In 2008, 131 permits to kill a mountain lion were issued by the state Department of Fish and Game. Forty-six lions were killed.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org