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Plight of the Wild Ones

Exotic and abandoned animals find refuge at remote sanctuaries. State's oversight of the centers draws scrutiny after series of mishaps.

April 10, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

A 6-year-old black leopard with a long face and thinning coat yawned lazily in the desert sun, stretching its bony legs to expose where its toes had been chopped off for use in voodoo rituals.

Nearby, a 5-year-old mountain lion rescued from a fur farm in Nebraska paced in its wire enclosure, warily eyeing a passing groundskeeper.

Several feet away, a 2 1/2-year-old Siberian-Bengal tiger mix once kept as a pet in Kansas cooled off by dunking its massive frame in a tub of water.

This is the scene on a recent morning at Forever Wild, a wildlife animal sanctuary in the Mojave Desert town of Phelan run by husband-and-wife team Joel and Chemaine Almquist.

Remote corners of Southern California have become retirement homes for exotic and abandoned animals from across the country.

They provide homes for chimps and tigers employed by circuses and movie studios in their youth, then left to spend decades in sanctuaries; for monkeys and wolves that people took for pets only to realize they could not care for wild animals; for turkey vultures and crows that could not find homes in zoos.

They end up in one of several dozen licensed wildlife centers dotted across the region.

Most are run by private individuals moved by the plight of the exotic animals and mindful that those without shelter face death or a life in medical research facilities.

But a string of problems involving some of the sanctuaries has underscored long-standing concerns about how well the centers are regulated.

Last month, two chimpanzees escaped from their cages at a shelter outside of Bakersfield and viciously attacked a visitor, leaving him clinging to life. Around the same time, authorities allege that a tiger got loose from a shelter in Moorpark and roamed subdivisions for days before being spotted and shot.

"There aren't many other options for those animals," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"When the person is treating a wild animal as a pet, it's a time bomb waiting to explode," he added. "These are dangerous animals, and they should be in the wild. They shouldn't be in our neighborhoods."

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State Inspections

The state's Fish and Game Department is in charge of regulating facilities that shelter exotic animals. Under state law, department officials are required to inspect shelters, sanctuaries and zoos every year to make sure grounds, cages and care are up to code.

But according to agency documents, inspectors checked only 14 of 338 sites in 2004.

Private veterinarians inspected the others in an arrangement intended to take the burden off the short-staffed agency, said Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano.

Because the department is also responsible for wildlife conservation efforts throughout the state, wardens have little time to crack down on violators of exotic species laws, officials said.

But the Animal Protection Institute, a national advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit against the department in 2001, saying the arrangement violates state law. The organization said it was an inherent conflict of interest that veterinarians paid by the sanctuaries to treat the animals should also be in charge of making sure the owners are obeying the rules.

Inspections are supposed to deal with both the welfare of the animals and the security of the facilities. Regulations cover the size of cages, the types of locks, the integrity of sanctuary fencing and the condition of the animals.

"These places aren't properly inspected, and there's an overabundance of these animals because they're being bred to enter the U.S. exotic animal trade," said Nicole Paquette, an attorney for the group.

In a settlement reached last year between the group and the department, a state advisory committee that had been dismantled earlier was reestablished to address the problems of weak enforcement. Paquette, who is a co-chair of the committee, said one of the panel's first steps would be to consider banning veterinarians from inspecting their clients' properties.

Critics said the recent case of a tiger sanctuary in the Riverside County city of Glen Avon showed the need for more oversight.

In February, former Tiger Rescue owner John Weinhartwas convicted of animal cruelty and other charges for keeping his cats in filthy conditions with little food and water. A raid on his shelter by Riverside County animal control officials in April 2003 found 90 dead tigers, including 58 cubs stuffed in a freezer. A Riverside County jury in February found him guilty of child endangerment and animal cruelty.

But until the raid, Weinhart had not been cited for violations by the Fish and Game Department for at least several years.

State officials defended the way they regulate the sanctuaries and pointed out that they have taken disciplinary action in numerous cases when they have found violations. They also said the arrangement with veterinarians made sense because the inspectors were medical professionals who could detect mistreatment.

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