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After Ordeal, New Sanctuary Sure to Get the Aye of the Tigers

Eight of the rescued animals head for a 10-acre habitat near Sacramento.

June 11, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Eight tigers, once held captive by a breeder in Colton, on Thursday began their journey north to a new 10-acre sanctuary near Sacramento, where they are expected to spend the rest of their days frolicking in the hilly reserve, complete with dens, trees and swimming holes.

"It looks like the jungles of Cambodia. It's just a beautiful, lush area, very spacious," said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals, which raised $250,000 to build the habitat.

"It's likely that most of these tigers have never seen a tree in their lives. This will be something that is just outstanding, the best possible life you could ever give to a tiger in captivity."

Officials say it's a remarkable change from the horrific conditions the tigers and scores of other wild creatures were kept in at the "Tiger Rescue" in Colton and the rescue owner's home in Glen Avon. In April 2003, wildlife officials said they found 90 tiger carcasses at the home, including big cats that had been tied to car bumpers and starved cubs in a freezer.

One month later, the state seized dozens of tigers, lions and leopards at the Colton facility. Officials said the animals were emaciated, malnourished and dehydrated.

The owner, John Hans Weinhart, faces scores of animal-cruelty, illegal-breeding and other charges and is due in court in Riverside and San Bernardino counties this month.

The Fund for Animals, a New York-based animal-rights organization, found placements for several leopards and lions. But reputable sanctuaries were full, and zoos did not want the 39 remaining tigers, which are a mix of Siberian, Bengal and Sumatran species and are unsuitable for breeding.

So the group, spending $500 a day, cared for the animals while a habitat could be constructed. But the tigers had to be kept in chain-link enclosures, with little room to move.

"Any living creature needs what it was meant to have, and if you're a big cat, you are meant to have space," said Mike McBride, a chief game warden with the state Department of Fish and Game.

On Thursday, eight of the animals were loaded into individual crates and placed in three trailers to begin their 400-mile journey to the sprawling sanctuary in San Andreas, 70 miles southeast of Sacramento.

Two veterinarians accompanied the tigers, regularly checking the animals' temperature and making sure they had plenty of water.

The drive "is stressful," said Dr. Kim Haddad, a Bay Area veterinarian. "But it's definitely going to pay off when they get to their fabulous habitat, where they'll be cared for for the rest of their lives."

The remaining 31 cats will be taken within weeks to the sanctuary, which is operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society.

Markarian noted that while Thursday was a day to celebrate, thousands of wild creatures are still in cramped, unhealthy conditions.

"I want to stress, this is one small picture of a real national epidemic. There are about 10,000 tigers in private hands in the United States -- more than double what's left in the wild in Asia," he said.

"We really need to educate the public not to buy exotic pets, not to contribute to the problem. These are wild animals. They belong in the wild, not in your basement or your backyard or in cages."

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