Wildcat Strike

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

"There's no honor in the animal business," she says. "These people would pelt out their grandmother if she wasn't too old."

The USDA licenses Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, but only two USDA inspectors oversee every animal operation in the state, and they admit their standards are minimal. Animals need only have enough room to turn around and stand normally -- not enough to run and climb so their muscles don't atrophy and they're not bored into neurosis.

Volunteers say Smith has continually refused offers of logs and driftwood and play equipment, preferring to fill the cages with nothing but gravel so they are easier to clean.

"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

Smith says, "That's malarkey. They never brought the equipment." She admits she got rid of a donated tire swing because it held water and could breed mosquitoes. She refuses climbing equipment:

"With my cougars, I have to watch what I put in there, because if they have height on me, they're gonna get me."

Zoologists groan at such logic and the indifferent regulation that allows it. They shy away from commenting on the record, but privately they say government agencies have a vested interest in perpetuating borderline facilities because if they're shut down, there'll be nowhere to dump unwanted exotic animals. The best solution might be to euthanize them, but nobody wants that blood on their hands.

Besides, these animals fascinate. Volunteers shovel manure in 110-degree heat just to be close to them. Area farmers donate dead cows, which Smith supplements with vitamins and Eukanuba chow. It's an excellent diet, but volunteers worry about inconsistency and maggots, the smell of dead flesh that clots the air, the cow parts in the Dumpster.

"We will have to deal with that if someone complains," says Major Kevin Harrison of the Warren County Sheriff's Department. "Whether or not our prosecutor will take the case, I don't know.

"The real concern for us," he adds, "is what's going to happen the day one of those tigers wants out."

Smith doesn't have perimeter fencing tall enough to stop a tiger, and Harrison doesn't have the authority to make her install it.

She does intend to put up at least a ten-foot chain-link fence as soon as she can afford it.

"I need it to protect my cats against humans," she says.

Tigers walk with her in her spirit, she says:

"I didn't have a really good childhood, but tigers walked me through it."

She says she's only lost three cats in ten years.

Norman lists seven that have died since January 2001.

The one that pulled the volunteers' hearts past breaking was Jeffrey, a ten-month-old fostered lion cub whose death Smith doesn't want mentioned. Last spring, she summoned him back from his foster mother, and this summer she placed him with an omnivorous baby bear named Hazel. Both social, they bonded fast, but volunteers worried that Jeffrey wasn't getting enough to eat and urged Smith to call a vet.

Smith hasn't had a regular vet in more than a year, though. Dr. Doug Pernikoff is listed as her attending vet on USDA forms, but he says he hasn't been out to Wesa-A-Geh-Ya in a long time and refuses further comment. Smith refers inquiries to her new vet, Dr. William Wright -- but he has yet to make his first inspection.

In early August, a volunteer finally drove Jeffrey to a vet in Kirkwood. The surgery was too late: The cub was packed with straw and gravel from his esophagus to his intestines, and he died that night.

Hazel, the five-month-old bear, died a few weeks later.

Smith says that when an animal dies, she informs the USDA, then cremates the body:

"I put it back in the earth where it belongs."

What about the tigers in the freezer?

"Who told you about that?" she asks. "Only a few people know these things."

Her voice softens:

"Delilah and Raja are in the freezer. I'm waiting to cremate them. I have my Pomeranian in there, too, because my heart is still with her." Her voice catches on a sob.

Then the anger returns.

She blames petty, mean-spirited volunteers for causing needless trouble.

"I'm just about ready to give up being nonprofit and go back to being a private zoo so I can take care of my animals as I please," she says. "White people speak with forked tongue."

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