Wildcat Strike

Board of a sanctuary for lions, cougars and tigers takes a walk because the owners let the animals breed

Sandra Smith falls asleep in a trailer in Warrenton, Missouri, surrounded by roaring lions. Bengal tigers pace their cages; cougars pounce on moonlight. A small leopard crosses her paws daintily, waiting to kill.

In the morning, Smith moves among the cages, murmuring baby talk. Tigers sidle up against the chain link, and she strokes their burnt-orange coats, blowing through her lips in a sputtery, vibrating purr.

The tenderness startles visitors: These animals blaze with wildness. Set against Missouri's green farmland, they glow like a malarial dream.

"Bad Porsche!" scolds Sandra Smith, amused by the male cougar's efforts.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Bad Porsche!" scolds Sandra Smith, amused by the male cougar's efforts.
Sandra Smith outside her caged jungle
Jennifer Silverberg
Sandra Smith outside her caged jungle

But they're not quite what they seem.

Neither is their sanctuary.

Sandra and her husband, Kenneth Smith, started collecting exotic animals 25 years ago. They named their compound Wesa-A-Geh-Ya ("cat lady" in Sandra's native Cherokee) and, in 1998, registered it as a not-for-profit sanctuary, telling donors their mission was to rescue wild animals from roadside zoos and abusive owners. In 2000, the Missouri Senate formally thanked them for housing these animals in keeping with Sandra's Cherokee beliefs. In May, the Associated Press ran an article titled, "Woman devotes life to backyard animal sanctuary," quoting Smith's assertion that "90 percent of my animals come from rescue situations."

That's not the picture painted by Beth Norman and several other recent volunteers. They can draw whole family trees for these lions, tigers and cougars -- and they say 34 of the 60 cats now at the sanctuary were born there.

Smith flat-out denies it. She says, again and again, "I'm not a breeder. I don't want babies born here." She says a few females came in pregnant and a few accidents occurred because she had to cage males and females together:

"In 25 years, we've had about ten babies."

The volunteers tell a different story. Six people say they've fostered a total of 30 baby lions and tigers just in the past two years, bottle-feeding them in suburban homes after Smith removed them from their mothers.

There's no law against breeding, but it's a powerful contradiction of Smith's avowed mission: Rescue sanctuaries are needed because there are 15,000 amateur-bred big cats in this country already and no good place for them to go. Dulled by captivity, they'd never survive in the wilderness. Zoos won't take them because they're not purebred and therefore have no conservation value. Either they become pets and wreak havoc in the suburbs or they're killed and pelted out, fueling a lucrative underground trade that's nearly impossible to regulate under the current loopholed laws.

All five of Wesa-A-Geh-Ya's board members resigned on August 10, concerned about the sanctuary's management and the continued breeding.

"They were moving in a different direction than we thought," says former board president Mark Charpentier.

Smith, her hair skinned back in a ponytail that makes her look younger than her 52 years, notes that she's hosing down hot tigers while Charpentier "sits pretty" in an air-conditioned office. She blames the board's prissy corporate outlook for the clash:

"They wanted to run me as a business. I don't even want to charge admission."

Board members helped raise $27,200 with a series of events last spring, and they were poised to seek corporate sponsorship.

Then they started hearing that animals were being bought and sold and bred -- and Smith refused to spay and neuter those that stayed.

She says the anesthesia would endanger her cats' lives and birth-control implants cost too much. She promises she'll have all the breeding pairs separated next month; until now, there just haven't been enough cages.

There are never enough cages.

Since 1998, the Smiths have added Arctic wolves, peacocks, emus, tropical birds, marble foxes and Russian bears, and, since 2000, they've gone from 33 big cats to 60. That's not counting the animals Smith has temporarily placed off-site, the animals that have died and the animals she has sold.

It is now legal to sell any big cat that's not purebred -- Bengal and Siberian tigers are both federally protected as endangered, but a Bengal-Siberian mix is not. U.S. Fish & Wildlife agents only investigate when money changes hands across state lines or animals are sold dead for their parts. A hide can bring as much as $20,000; meat is sold anonymously to fancy restaurants; bones and organs go to Asian healers. Even a tiger's penis brings profit; it's believed to kindle sexual prowess.

Smith says she isn't part of this underground trade, but she seems to know some of the players -- men with names like "Squirrelly" and "Stoney" who run roadside zoos as cover; men such as Steven Galecki, who ran the now-defunct Funky Monkey Animal Park in Crete, Illinois, and just pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy after buying tigers and leopards and allowing them to be shot in cages outside his home.

Smith admits she sold Galecki two lions -- later, she adds a cougar to the list -- but swears she never would have sold them for such a fate.

"At that time, he was a good man," she insists. "I've cut my ties."

Carolyn Atchison, who runs the Animal House Zoological Park in Alabama, says she's taken ten of Smith's cubs herself -- most through intermediaries but two directly from Smith, with the paperwork to prove it -- because she didn't want them to become fodder in the commodity trade.

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