Minnesota wild cat sanctuary is home to neglected, mistreated
SANDSTONE -- Deep in the woods of east central Minnesota, 108 exotic cats are living out their golden years.
They're permanent residents of The Wildcat Sanctuary, the only accredited facility of its kind in the state, located outside of Sandstone. It turned away another 200+ cats last year; hundreds more are awaiting room and board.
Each of the lucky ocelots, lions, Bengal tigers, lynxes, cougars, leopards and hybrids has a story to tell.
None of them are good.
They arrive malnourished, mistreated, neglected, abused and sometimes tortured. They've come from kitty mills, breeding programs and private individuals who learned the hard way that wild animals don't make good house pets.
"Everything as a kitty is cute and cuddly," said sanctuary founder Tammy Quist Thies. "They don't think 20 years down the road."
Many of the cats come de-clawed on all fours, which removes the first digit on each paw. Because cats walk on their toes, the de-clawed felines become arthritic from years of walking on their heels. It has thrown their body balance off kilter.
Even worse, the sanctuary sees cats that have been given tendonectomies, a procedure that cuts their leg tendons so the cats can't flex their claws like cats are supposed to. Those cats are crippled, too.
Some cats have had their teeth filed down in the misguided belief they will be less lethal. The cats just learn to bite harder.
Most need dental work.
"People just get in over their heads and we end up repairing the damage," Thies said.
For that reason, the animals are never exhibited, nor is the public allowed to view them. Occasionally a private sponsor is invited for a special event, but otherwise, the cats are cared for and left alone. They remember their poor treatment, Thies maintains.
Perhaps Lilly and Titan, the sanctuary's two Bengal tigers, have the worst stories to convey.
Lilly was the victim of an Otter Tail County exotic animal farm owned by former Park Rapids emergency room doctor Roy Cordy. Lilly was deeply malnourished when authorities raided the farm and found her eating the remains of other animals that had died in her cage.
Thies tried to take possession of her after Cordy was criminally prosecuted for animal neglect in 2004. Cordy instead saw that Lilly was sent to another breeder in Danforth Township, 10 miles from the sanctuary.
In 2006, that breeder, Cynthia Gamble, was mauled and killed by Titan's brother, Tango. Tango, starving, was euthanized. That was when Thies stepped in, taking both Lilly and Titan.
It's been a long road back for both psychologically and physically. Titan was almost 300 pounds underweight. He's now a strapping 515 pounds. Both cats are understandably leery of humans. The tigers were in adjoining pens until last week when sanctuary personnel, after several play dates, paired them up.
They will never breed. Lilly's health is too fragile. Years of starvation left her with permanent liver damage. But they can be buddies and got along swimmingly until Lilly decided to take a dip in Titan's pool. Then the fight was on.
By week's end, they were getting along. The sanctuary staff was euphoric.
The facility gets no state or federal funding. It is licensed to keep its animals and subsists solely on private donations.
Cougar hysteria has resulted in the sanctuary taking in many mountain lions, but they will never be re-released into the wild due to ever-tightening state regulations preventing it.
"Cougar hysteria is not local to Minnesota," Thies said. The Internet has contributed to the spread of over-reactions to big cats on the loose.
"We get 10 to 15 calls a month from 'cougar sightings,'" Thies said. "The only confirmed sightings were both captive cougars that got out."
Thies is skeptical there's many wild cougars running around, but allows for the remote possibility.
"There's patterns to wildlife and proof that the wild (cougar) program is doing well, but not enough for the hysteria," she said.
But because cougars cannot be re-released into the wild in most states, the sanctuary is completing a $225,000 facility that will accommodate more.
Andre is one such cougar. The five-week-old cub was found orphaned in Squamish, B.C., Canada. He's in a rehabilitation facility in British Columbia, awaiting transport to Sandstone.
Thies, a former advertising executive, had worked with exotic animals in commercial and entertainment settings. She said she was appalled at the way they were treated.
She left advertising, formed a board of directors, raised funds and founded the sanctuary outside of the Twin Cities 10 years ago. Because of public misgivings about housing the cats near populated areas, the sanctuary bought acreage outside Sandstone four years ago with a 10-year plan to move and eventually fill the facility. It's already full.
Thies said a 2006 law banning the breeding and keeping of exotic animals in Minnesota may slow the sanctuary's need to take in more cats, but problems still exist in both rural and urban areas. Thirty-three lions and tigers were removed in the wake of the law's passing. More are still out there.
One lynx was rescued from a dorm room; another was gorging itself on yogurt and canned cat food in a confined space that was filling up with the empty containers the owner never removed.
Large cats are housed in Twin Cities homes until authorities or insurance companies discover their whereabouts. One large cat was moved from a farm home to a barn to a tethered post, where some joyriding kids decided to "walk the cat" by dragging its leash alongside the car. The cat was almost skinned alive.
The horror stories abound; the sanctuary hopes to heal the wounds.
Donoma, a rescued wild cougar found floating in a Montana river, now gets his enrichment kicks by tearing up donated phone books. In less than a minute he can shred them to confetti. Like kids, cats get tired of their toys, so the sanctuary tries to keep the animals safe, stimulated and healthy.
Donoma's now a happy cat who gets frozen fish heads as treats. When the cougar facility opens this fall, other cougars will surround him in his human-free environment.
For more information on The Wildcat Sanctuary, check out the Web site at www.wildcatsanctuary.org.