It was our wedding anniversary gift, our anniversary was in December, two tickets for hubby and me to visit an exotic animal sanctuary in the foothills of San Diego East County. So we called and scheduled our visit for this morning at the animal sanctuary called, Lions, Tigers & Bears. A 501c3 non-profit organization in Alpine, California.
Lions, Tigers & Bears is a no kill, no breed, no sell animal shelter, specializing in exotic big cats and they provide homes for bears, smaller wild cats and a variety of domesticated animals as well. Their goal is to provide animals with a lifelong home with enrichment, health and dietary management and is completely funded by donations.
These animals have all come from different situations, from painfully sad existences in many cases. Some were television actors or street and circus performers. Maybe street-side attractions or from well-meaning but misguided pet owners who found that the animals soon became too large, too aggressive, and/or too expensive to care for properly. Zoos are reluctant to take these animals for a myriad of reasons and there are even zoos that may find themselves in a position of needing to rehome an animal or euthanize it. This is when facilities like Lions, Tigers & Bears are called upon, if the animal is lucky.
Most are not.
At LTB (Lions, Tigers & Bears) you can purchase a tour to see the animals in their habitat and hear their stories about how they came to LTB. Ok, you CAN hear the stories, but I will say, it's also REALLY easy to get side-tracked trying to listen to your guide tell you their interesting stories, when there is a 200 lb male tiger chattering and chuffing around behind you. They did have to remind me a couple of times to keep up with the group. I promise, I am a rule follower, but I was so enthralled, I got lost in my own head a couple of times. You can also purchase the opportunity to "feed" an animal. I knew hubby would love that! Now, this is not feeding in the sense that we are giving them their full daily requirements or going into their cages to hand out headless chickens and hide pumpkins in rotting logs throughout their enclosures. These are more "treats", delivered on the tip of a 3 foot aluminum fork from beyond a fence and for the larger cats, a fence AND a barrier of bars. No sense putting the animals or people in harm's way, when you have a 15 pound vat of raw beef and a carnivorous animal with claws like meat cleavers!
The bears saw us coming and rambled quickly into their cages, where they knew to go to get their treats. It's smart training, because the bears get their treats there they like going in the cages. In case of emergency, like the wild fires that are all too well known in that part of our county, it makes it easier to coax these large animals into their cages that have wheels and they can be quickly removed from the facility if they have to. Not to mention for whatever other reason they would need to move the animals. The bears were mostly delicate nibblers, daintily removing their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the tip of the fork and they sat quietly and patiently waiting their turns as we worked our way down the line of their enclosure.
I am a photographer... I found the layers of fencing, cyclone fencing, wire mesh, electric fencing, wood and pole structures to be a horrible nuisance, a necessary evil, but a horrible photo annihilator! So I was thrilled to manage this shot through 2 wire fences and string of electrical wires. It was so amazing to watch the two grizzly bears in this enclosure romping around together and splashing at each other in the pond. They were truly having a great time - I promise, you could almost see them laughing and could hear their happy grunting and growly voices.
They had an area of smaller cats, mostly bobcats common to our area here in Southern California. They were fed chunks of some sort of red meat. I was too busy trying get photos through the fencing to pay attention to what they were feeding them exactly. Beautiful cats, except for their size, you could almost forget they are wild. They are so similar in appearance to our domestic cats. Although a quick tussle during feeding between one of the bobcats and his African serval friend, reminded quickly, you wouldn't want one of THOSE cats mad at you!
The shy mountain lion took awhile to coax from his den. He is not so fond of being out in the daylight and around all the obnoxious people. But what a gorgeous cat he is. These mountain lions are also local to our area. Hubby expressed he was quite surprised at how large they are. They definitely are not small cats like the bobcats, but not as big as the tigers either. They are lions. To me, he looks about (slightly smaller and finer boned) what you would expect the size of a female African lion is. I didn't ask to be certain, so that is only what it looks like to me. I could be completely wrong. I suppose I could google it too. I might later.
Finally we get down to the really big cats, the BIGGEST cats, the tigers! Hubby and I had been holding out to feed these guys. They are incredible animals! When they roared and growled, you could feel the vibrations in your chest cavity. Hubby was so excited. I let him go first so I could take his picture of him feeding a tiger.
Feeding the tigers, especially this particular tiger, was NOT like feeding the bears. She had a much more aggressive attitude. She snatched at the food and screamed if she thought you were going leave without giving her more. She doesn't like hats, sunglasses, large camera lenses, or men really. Surprisingly enough, she seemed to tolerate hubby and me pretty well. Although she vocally let a couple of other people have it, enough that the whole group of us startled when she did!
Hubby had so much fun feeding the first tiger, instead of me feeding a tiger, I let him feed the next tiger in my place. This is the young male tiger from earlier. This animal is still young and really quiet friendly. He didn't display the aggressive behavior of the other tiger.
The leopard enjoyed scaling the cyclone fencing of her enclosure to grab her treat up near the top of the cage. Those claws acting as grappling hooks to easily climb the fence.
Today we acquired such an appreciation for the amount of work, time and money that goes into the care of these regal animals. It's astounding to imagine the cost. We talked with our guide a bit about the expense. One enclosure for just a couple of bears was a $350,000 endeavor! Shockingly, that is not taking into account the donated materials, and volunteer work and construction hours, with permitting fees ALONE being approximately $90,000! These sanctuaries need our resources to survive. The animals rely on us to survive. Go visit this sanctuary or any of the accredited sanctuaries. They take the money from these tours and invest it all directly back to the care of these magnificent animals.
Please consider a visit or donation: www.lionstigersandbears.org