Exotic pets find better lives at sanctuaries
“Loving cat needs new home.” It’s likely you’ve seen an e-mail with this subject line. Maybe you’ve taken in a cute, cuddly feline. But would you offer that cat a home if it had 3-inch fangs, razor-sharp claws and a 500-pound carnivore’s appetite? For Gary and Carol Holliman, Angie’s List members from Terrell, Texas, the answer is “absolutely!”
When the Hollimans first moved to their nine-acre ranch 30 miles east of Dallas in 1992, they owned two dogs and two wolf-dog hybrids. Starting in 1993, they purchased a cougar named Cayman, and then Gabe, a lion, and Sophine, a tiger, as pets from a big-cat breeder. But the couple quickly realized caring for wild animals necessitated more time, money and effort than any traditional pet.
One goal at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., is to foster elephants' natural inclination to socialize with other elephants. But Tarra, a 4-ton Asian elephant, and Bella, a 35-pound mutt, have forged an unlikely friendship.
"Exotic animals are beautiful, majestic animals, but they're not pets," Gary says. "They have special needs and expenses the average person wouldn't think of and can't afford."
Those considerations include large enclosures and perimeter fencing, special veterinary care, local regulations, and ensuring proper nutrition. With those needs filled through volunteers and donations, word quickly spread that the Hollimans could care for big cats. Animal welfare groups, government agencies and exotic-cat owners began contacting them, seeking permanent homes for confiscated animals or one-time pets. The couple couldn't say no.
"We realized there was a need for places these cats could go," Carol says. So in 1998, the Hollimans formed PrideRock Wildlife Refuge, a private nonprofit sanctuary now permanent home to 13 tigers, eight wolf hybrids, seven cougars, seven lions and five dogs.
Captive-raised big cats lack the instincts and socialization natural rearing provides — but remain inherently dangerous — so they must remain in captivity their entire lives. At PrideRock, visitors are prohibited to ensure a better, uninterrupted quality of life for their cats.
Vernon Weir, director of the American Sanctuary Association, estimates there are as many as 150 exotic animal sanctuaries in the United States filled with nontraditional pets that have outgrown their owners' unrealistic expectations.
"These animals are challenging to care for and live very long lives, which can wear people thin," Weir says. Zoos rarely accept former pets due to limited space and unknown bloodlines. For many animals, sanctuary placement is the only option. "You can't just take your tiger or monkey to animal control," Weir says.
Many sanctuary operators start out as exotic pet owners. Aaron Hiibel, executive director of Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary in Reno, Nev., says he created his sanctuary "for all the wrong reasons." He and his wife, Diana, bought two wolves as pets in the early 1980s, but also learned wild animals don't make suitable pets.
They continued to care for their wolves and began accepting other animals, mostly indigenous predators like wolves, black bears and foxes, into their fold. They now care for more than 25 animals on 70 acres including tigers, cheetahs, lynx, bobcats and raccoons.
Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville, Fla., began after its founder, Kari Bagnall, realized she couldn't provide adequate socialization for her pet capuchin monkeys. Despite providing the pair of sisters with constant attention, they attacked her. "There were several trips to the hospital," Bagnall says.
Primates rarely make good pets, says Jungle Friends assistant director Sara Smith, because they instinctually challenge social hierarchies after reaching sexual maturity.
"It's a matter of when they're going to attack, not if," Smith says. She estimates 70 percent of the sanctuary's more than 100 small South American monkeys are former pets that attacked their owners; others are former research subjects or performers. In the sanctuary, among plenty of other monkeys and little human interaction, former pets like Bagnall's flourish with minimal conflict, Smith says.
But the transition from pet owner to sanctuary operator isn't easy. The Hollimans must raise $100,000 each year to survive. Hiibel estimates that care for his animals costs $5,000 each annually. Some local or state regulations may require operators to prove they're qualified to keep wild animals, but national standards promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act only apply to sanctuaries open to the public or engaged in commercial activities like breeding.
Despite the challenges, the Hollimans say their reward comes from the animals. "We get nothing but the privilege of taking care of animals that otherwise would be in trouble," Gary says.