Four or five days a week, Brook Van Valkenburgh commutes from the city of Orange to Colton for the job of her life: feeding, watering and cleaning for 39 tigers.
"I basically put my life on hold to come out here and work with the tigers," said Van Valkenburgh, who suspended a job and housing search to help care for the cats without pay at Tiger Rescue while their owner John Weinhart awaits trial on charges of animal cruelty and neglect.
The animals were left in limbo after authorities raided Weinhart's Riverside County home last April and found freezers full of frozen tiger cubs and hungry cats prowling the premises. They charged Weinhart and his partner Marla Smith with 17 counts of animal cruelty and child endangerment for exposing their young son to dangerous conditions.
Weinhart also faces misdemeanor charges for allegedly neglecting and illegally breeding tigers at his Colton sanctuary. He was barred from handling the animals, and 15 leopards, African lions and a mountain lion were shipped to sanctuaries in Colorado, Texas and Indiana. The remaining 39 cats -- all tigers -- await construction of a permanent refuge in Northern California.
Weinhart contested the restraining order and still hopes to regain custody of his big cats, said his court-appointed attorney Anthony Kimbirk.
"He's very upset about not being able to have access to the animals, especially in the meantime, not even having gone to trial on any of the cases at all," Kimbirk said. "He thinks all that is very unfair."
Meanwhile the quarter-ton beasts pace cages the size of garages, consume 440 pounds of chicken a day and receive care from an army of volunteers. The Fund for Animals shelter manager Chuck Traisi, who helped authorities seize cubs from Weinhart's home and shelter, has supervised Tiger Rescue full time since May, living out of a nearby hotel. More than 400 people have helped out, Traisi said, some for an occasional day and others, like Van Valkenburgh, nearly full time.
"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my whole life," said Van Valkenburgh, who studied animal training and management at Moorpark Community College and worked on animal shows at Knott's Berry Farm. "These animals really need people taking care of them. It's really heartbreaking."
On a recent day, Van Valkenburgh and three other volunteers raked cages and squirted hoses into aluminum water tanks as the tigers lolled in the spray.
With heads the size of footstools and paws as big as dinner plates, the larger males can easily stretch the full height of their 8-foot enclosure. Deceptively docile, they nuzzled their wire mesh cages and chuffed contentedly at the volunteers' attention.
Traisi established a strict hands-off policy for volunteers, forbidding them to scratch, pet, or enter the cage with the animals. Crews shut the animals in lockdown quarters while cleaning their cages and deliver food with large metal tongs.
Still, they try to engage the animals by talking to them, tossing balls into their cages, or scenting their quarters with Vicks VapoRub and sprigs of rosemary, which rouse the big cats like a sort of tiger catnip.
Nonetheless, Traisi said, it's a barebones existence for the creatures, which sometimes brawl out of boredom.
"These are pretty bleak enclosures," he said. "There's no stimulation for them. There's bare dirt, no trees."
Still, it's an improvement over its previous state, said Christine St. Onge of Riverside, who originally volunteered at Tiger Rescue under Weinhart.
She said she was dismayed to see cages strewn with tiger feces and rotting calf carcasses then, and quit in disgust in March.
"The conditions were so bad I couldn't stomach it anymore," she said. "I came back happily once the Fund [for Animals] had taken over."
At that time, Traisi said, the cages were deteriorating and lacked shade or water. Over the following months crews reinforced the pens, spread shade tarps overhead and installed water tanks. Despite these labors of love for the big cats, they're living for the day they leave.
The Performing Animal Welfare Society plans to adopt the tigers at its new 2,300-acre sanctuary in Galt, near Sacramento.
There, said PAWS President Pat Derby, they can roam a 10-acre enclosure shaded by oak and pine trees.
In the $250,000 pen, large dens will spill out over a brushy, wooded hillside dotted with ponds.
The tigers, now housed in clusters of two to four animals, would be segregated in their current groupings.
"When you run an animal sanctuary you're constantly having to house victims of captivity. And no matter how nicely you do it, you're still basically running a prison," Derby said.
"We've always tried to be good jailers, but they need space, they need trees, they need a natural habitat."
That vision has sustained Traisi and his crew in recent months.
"The only thing that keeps me going here day after day," he said, "is knowing that very shortly these cats will be able to run and jump and play instead of living on concrete slabs."