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Tigers Find New Friends In Foothills

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They didn´t get excited, none of them had to be tranquilized and now they can walk on grass for the first time. Eight tigers have been moved to their new home at the Ark 200 Sanctuary in San Andreas.

The sanctuary is operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society, PAWS, founded by co-Executive Directors Ed Stewart and Pat Derby.

A compound for tigers was part of the original plans for the San Andreas property, PAWS operates another in Galt and one for hoof stock in Herald, but a pressing need forced Derby and Stewart to construct the tiger area sooner than anticipated.

In April 2003, nearly 100 tigers were seized from John Weinhart, who was operating what was billed as a tiger rescue facility in Colton. Authorities arrested Weinhart, 60, and his wife, Marla Smith, 47, and charged them with child endangerment because the couple allegedly allowed an 8-year-old son to enter a bathroom that had two alligators in a bathtub.

On April 24, 2003, authorities came across a kind of animal burial ground at Weinhart´s property. More than 30 animal carcasses were found n most of which were big cats. Another 58 cubs were found dead in a freezer.

“We don´t know what he was using them for,” Stewart said Monday.

The Fund for Animals – founded by Cleveland Amory in 1967 to provide hands-on care to protect animals from cruelty – found itself suddenly caring for all the confiscated animals at the Weinhart´s former sanctuary, Stewart said.

The Fund for Animals conducted many fund-raisers and raised the money PAWS needed to immediately begin constructing the 10-acre tiger enclosure.

Thirty-nine tigers will eventually be moved to San Andreas. The first eight arrived Friday.

“Everything went very well,” Stewart said. Two veterinarians accompanied the procession of stock trailers that carried each tiger in a separate cage. “Most of them have probably never been moved before.”

Stewart said two veteran zoo designers, Grant Jones of Jones and Jones in Seattle and David Hancocks, who had designed several animal parks in the country, visited Ark 2000 Sunday. They helped Stewart and Derby design the enclosures that feature 18-foot-high chainlink fencing with welded steel supports.

“We´re pouring concrete around the bottom of the fence,” Stewart said. “Tigers don´t dig, but we´re doing it just in case.”

Eight den boxes, “like private bedrooms,” said Jackie Guy, PAWS´ veterinarian, are connected to a small enclosure where the cats can roam. A small gate opens into the 10-acre open space where the animals can wander through the trees and brush, down the hill to a swimming pool.

“They love the water,” said Jessica Cassidy, a PAWS employee who has worked with big cats since she rescued three tiger cubs from a roadside zoo in New Hampshire. The three cubs are at the Galt ranch where PAWS keeps bears, lions, monkeys and other animals that eventually will make the move to the Ark 2000 Sanctuary.

The new tigers come in groups, Guy said, ranging from three or four to this large group of eight.

“You hate to have single animals,” Derby said, “that´s a nightmare at a sanctuary.”

Those small groups are controlling how the tiger enclosure is constructed. The den boxes will be grouped so each little group of felines can stay together.

“The group dynamics can change over time,” Derby said. “But because they´ve been in these groups we want to try and keep them together.”

More tigers will be moved as soon as more pens are completed.

Officials from the United States Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Fish and Game have inspected the facility and given the go-ahead for moving the animals, said Ray Waller, director of the Calaveras County Building Department.

“We got the letter signed off from Fish and Game last week,” Waller said Monday.

So far the tiger project has cost $300,000. Costs also will start to add up once the feeding bill comes in. Each animal will eat about 12 pounds of meat a day, six days a week. The animals won´t be fed one day a week because that´s what large cats do in the wild, Derby said, gorge and fast.

The tigers are what Derby called “garbage tigers” n inbred and mixed. Sumatran tigers have bred with Siberian cats and others, so zoos just don´t want the mixed breeds, she added.

The Sumatran animals are the most feisty, Guy observed. When released from two den boxes, two females raced around the enclosed pen and hissed, lunged and growled at reporters gathered for a press conference.

When another large female was allowed to venture outside into the open area, Stewart said it was most likely the first time she had stepped on grass.

“She´s probably never eaten it either,” he said as the animal chewed a mouthful of dry weeds.

“These animals have been severely confined,” Guy said. “They suffered from neglect. They had poor care in a grossly inadequate setting.”

For the vet, each animal is a brand new patient with which she has no records to draw from. “We´ve been immunizing them all,” she said.

To raise money for the animals´ care, PAWS will hold an auction next week with actress Kim Bassinger. Bidders will have the chance to name each of the 39 new residents. Check for more information.

Derby and Stewart are most happy the animals have now been removed from the deplorable conditions they used to live in.

“They´re still in jail,” Stewart said, “but they´re not where they were.”

Calaveras Enterprise story by Mike Taylor. For more Calaveras news,