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San Andreas, CA — Local healthcare for large exotic animals is looking up — to say the least — at a wildlife refuge nestled right here in the Mother Lode.

Located minutes from Calaveras County’s quiet county seat, Ark 2000, the 2,300-acre Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary, has debuted an impressive new $1 million-plus onsite medical facility that spent nearly two years in the making, due to more than a few unforeseen delays (further described here). Invited to see it up close, Clarke Broadcasting shares a look behind the scenes (through rich content video links provided throughout this article) with Ed Stewart and Dr. Jackie Gai, respectively PAWS co-founder and director of veterinary services.

Among the finally realized dreams of PAWS co-founder and former Hollywood animal trainer Pat Derby, who sadly succumbed to cancer four years ago, the new center is named in her memory. Funded in part by an anonymous $1 million donation, it is impressively versatile in design; also offering state-of-the-art equipment that enables PAWS’ dozens of denizens to receive onsite the same quality care they would at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Gai adds that plans are underway for the center to host ongoing veterinary exchange program opportunities with UC Davis, along with other organizations and practices. As to how that might add to the present onsite level of activities, Stewart wryly notes that Ark 2000 is more busy behind the gates already than most people might imagine. Currently running with about a 20-person staff, he points out that, given Calaveras County’s size and rural remote nature, PAWS is a relatively large local enterprise employer.

One-stop Wellness For Large Local Exotic Wildlife

Except for MRI scans and other procedures requiring certain other larger-scale resources, Dr. Gai says that PAWS is now able to effectively provide much more in the way of medical and dental care onsite, including certain x-rays and surgeries. These resources will largely spare the sanctuary’s exotic menagerie of elephants, tigers, bears and other species from needing to undergo the stresses of trailer transport to treatment locations hours away.

Among its features the Pat Derby Animal Wellness Center is equipped with an onsite drug dispensary, as shown here by Dr. Gai, who provides more details on her patients’ common ailments and treatments. A lab, x-ray area and surgery suite are all located adjacent to an enormous intake bay and treatment area accessible to animal transport via roll-up door. Situated high on the sanctuary property, the facility overlooks a rolling foothills vista with views of the Ark 2000 solar-panel topped elephant barns some distance below. While PAWS’ actual cost comes out to be under a million dollars, Stewart explains here how they avoided winding up with a price tag for five times that amount.

Gai takes equal pride in pointing out s few breaks from the sterile surroundings that she incorporated into her floor and interior design plan. This includes a live oak conference room table in the meeting space and library chosen from Derby’s favorite furniture store, Sutter Creek’s Water Street Antiques. These warm touches provide a physical sense of Derby’s ongoing presence.

Next Rescue In The Works: 8 Tigers

Currently, PAWS is in the process of acquiring eight rescue tigers from a Colorado “cub mill,” where babies were being bred to provide cubs briefly used for photo opportunities after which they were set aside in cages. Stewart says he anticipates the process to be complete within the next two or so weeks, providing more details here. Since some of the newbies will need to be spayed or neutered shortly after arrival, since PAWS does not breed animals, Dr. Gai anticipates those procedures will be among the first ones booked for the new surgery suite.

Located downhill from the center’s parking lot, the nearest of the sanctuary’s sizable enclosures contains a trio of sibling Siberian tigers, Roy, Kim and Claire. Just four months old when PAWS rescued them from a long-defunct roadside zoo back in 2003, the three were originally residents of PAWS’ Galt sanctuary now within the long slow process of winding down. Relocated to Ark 2000 last March, they look to be clearly thriving and apparently enjoying an even more expanded habitat. (To view photos of Roy and Kim, click into the slideshow in the upper left image box.)

Tireless advocates for wildlife, PAWS was chief among the organizations behind legislation recently signed that bans the use of bullhooks on elephants, as reported here. Stewart and Gai point out that PAWS’ current tiger adoption provides a perfect opportunity to highlight current legislation in the works to outlaw tiger breeding — often a highly profitable cash industry that operates more rampantly than people realize, as they share here.

Due to its emphasis on being a true sanctuary, Ark 2000, which is located off Pool Station Road near Highway 49 in San Andreas, is not generally open to the public aside from occasional fundraising events (such as its winter Holiday Open House, as reported here with elephant barn tour photos). The next one however is coming up shortly  on March 11. For more details on PAWS efforts and activities, click here.