A Walk on the Wild Side
A Walk on the Wild Side
(also known as Toucan’s Exotic Animals) is a traveling fairground exhibit and pseudo-sanctuary based in Canby, Oregon. It is owned and operated by Steve Higgs and Cheryl Jones. Although they are licensed as a nonprofit organization, claim to be a “rescue”, and are legally permitted to house exotic animals confiscated by the state, they have admitted that they are not a sanctuary and do many things that responsible rescues would never do. These include exploiting tiger cubs for $30 photo-ops; breeding and buying animals for display at fairs; threatening and insulting those who criticize them; renting out animals for parties and commercials; and advocating for the “right” of circuses, roadside zoos, and private owners to own, breed, and exploit endangered species.
A Walk on the Wild Side has had multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and in 2015 public visits to their facility were shut down by Clackamas County officials who found “too many violations to list” of zoning and building codes. Inspectors found that trailers were being used as “nurseries” for baby animals, that other animal enclosures consisted of small chain-link pens covered with tents, and that the zoning under which the property was registered prohibits the facility from being open to the public. When ordered by county officials to build permanent structures to house their animals, A Walk on the Wild Side claimed that they had “no funding” to do so, even though they lamented to a local news station that they made over $50,000 a month from facility tours alone. The organization also does not own any land and is currently in the process of relocating to an equestrian center in Hillsboro, Oregon, creating an unstable situation for their animals.
From June through September, A Walk on the Wild Side visits fairs and festivals throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, where they display big cats in chain-link cages and sell $30 photos with tiny cubs. The “sanctuary” is a paying member of the Western Fairs Association and the Oregon Fairs Association, where their listing promises fairs “the ultimate feature attraction, education program and crowd pleaser. Exotic animals from all over the world. Lions & tigers, adults & babies.”
A Walk on the Wild Side estimates that over 2 million people visit their exhibit each year, and have no qualms about renting out animals for private parties or displaying them at large festivals featuring fireworks and blaring rock music. They try to justify this by claiming that their rescued animals are never taken to fairs and that their “ambassador animals” were all hand-raised, but no reputable sanctuary would subject any big cat to the noise and stress of a county fair, or rescue some animals while exploiting others.
The above photos were taken at A Walk on the Wild Side’s fairground exhibit.
Selling Photos with Cubs:
During the fair season, A Walk on the Wild Side has a seemingly constant supply of baby big cats, to the point that their staff are expected to work “solely with big cats between the ages of six and 16 weeks.” These cubs are used as photo props in A Walk on the Wild Side’s jungle-themed photo booth, which charges fairgoers $30 to pet and take a photo with a baby tiger, lion, cougar, bobcat, serval, or lynx. Cub-petting is an extremely irresponsible and inhumane practice which no true sanctuary condones.
In an industry newsletter, A Walk on the Wild Side writes that their exhibit cubs “are usually given anywhere from 10-12 hours of hands-on, daily interaction by our handlers.” That’s virtually constant handling of a baby that needs to rest, roam, and play to develop properly. Pictures taken at their photo booth show cubs with open sores on their noses from rubbing their faces on the bars of their travel crates, and although the exhibit claims that the cubs “only work when they want to,” a local news segment filmed at the Oregon State Fair shows a growling, squirming 12-week-old tiger cub named Siri desperately struggling to escape from the arms of a newscaster while Steve Higgs encourages viewers to pay to hold the cub, too. The cub is so visibly distressed that the news station’s description for the footage admits that “[the] baby tiger wasn’t happy at all about being held.” In 2015, A Walk on the Wild Side encouraged people to visit their farm to pet a tiger cub that was 15 weeks old, past the 12-week age limit established by federal USDA guidelines.
Although A Walk on the Wild Side tells patrons and the media that their cubs were “rescued”, many are bred on-site (the facility brags about having “breeding programs with other places”) or are purchased from disreputable private breeders and roadside zoos, including Dade City’s Wild Things and Living Treasures Wild Animal Park. And while signs posted at the cub photo booth claim that the money raised by selling photos “benefits the animals”, A Walk on the Wild Side’s promotional video informs fairs that “the point of all this is to have a fun and profitable experience,” and exhibit staff have been caught boasting in profanity-laced Facebook posts about how “exploiting their animals” has made them “so rich” — even as their facility claims to not have enough money to build permanent enclosures for their animals.
Once the cubs are too large to use for photo-ops, A Walk on the Wild Side sometimes sells them to other private owners and backyard zoos. In an industry newsletter, an employee of A Walk on the Wild Side admits: “We often agree to take in cubs, feed, house, love, and raise them temporarily, so that they can properly and safely be placed with another accredited facility to live out their lives. We have donated many cubs to smaller zoos throughout the Northwest.” This directly contradicts the feel-good claims made on their website that A Walk on the Wild Side “provides a home for life” for their animals, and perpetuates the cruel cycle of “breed, exploit, and dump” that true sanctuaries are trying to end.
Deliberately misleading “education”:
Like most exhibitors, A Walk on the Wild Side claims that they exist to educate people about wildlife. But instead of teaching patrons about the role that their animals play in the wild, explaining that wild animals make poor pets, or that the private trade in big cats is harmful, they’ve stated that their primary goal is to “educate the public about responsible animal ownership.” Their exhibit is designed to “teach” people that their big cats don’t belong in the wild, and that the breeding, exploitation, and trade of endangered animals by private owners is a form of “conservation,” even though virtually all reputable conservation groups warn that it’s not.
At their exhibit, A Walk on the Wild Side displays a large “educational” poster that says “So You Think They Belong in the Wild…” The poster was written by a group which lobbies for the private ownership and trade of big cats, and makes the inaccurate claims that “the wild” no longer exists, that accredited zoos “aren’t doing enough” to save species, and that the only way to save tigers from extinction is with the “help” of private owners, breeders, and exhibitors. Another sign, posted on the cage of what A Walk on the Wild Side claims is a Barbary Lion, includes virtually no information about the species, and instead features a generic message “informing” readers that “legislation trends which threaten to ban private ownership of endangered species” would “speed their extinction.” These claims have been debunked by real conservationists, who warn that the private trade in endangered species is harmful, not helpful.
And what about the cub interactions? A Walk on the Wild Side claims that allowing the public to physically handle an animal increases the public’s knowledge and support of the species. But in a video advertising their cub photo booth, A Walk on the Wild Side mentions that “many people ask us if they can take the tiger home” — not the kind of “educational message” a sanctuary should be sending.
Animal Welfare Concerns:
When not being exhibited at fairs, A Walk on the Wild Sides’ 174+ exotic animals live at a farm in Canby, Oregon that is being leased from a local concrete company. The big cats appear to be housed in rows of tiny, gravel-floored chain link dog runs with no natural vegetation and poor drainage. In some cases, enclosures are held together with plastic zip-ties and rope. These enclosures are perfectly legal under USDA regulations, which is why having USDA “accreditation” is nothing for a facility to brag about.
A Walk on the Wild Side has racked up at least 8 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act since 2009, including failure to provide inspectors with animal transfer records; inexperienced staff; failure to maintain adequate barriers between the public and tigers; and failure to provide animals with adequate veterinary care and housing.
According to USDA inspection records, one of the staff, as of December 2009, only had 3 months of on the job experience working with big cats, and liked to let the cats “comb his hair.” In 2014, an inspector found that an enclosure holding a pig, a red fox and two young tigers contained excessive water after an overnight rainstorm, leaving the animals without adequate dry space (she noted that plans were in place to remedy the problem later that day). In September of 2012, A Walk on the Wild Side was written up for failing to maintain adequate separation between animals and the public after a spectator at an expo approached a transport cage holding an adult tiger and touched the animal’s face.
Multiple pictures taken behind-the-scenes at the “sanctuary” and posted online show staff members holding metal pipes, wooden canes, and broom handles while “walking” an adolescent tiger on multiple leashes and chains. Another photo, taken from A Walk on the Wild Side’s promotional video, shows an adolescent lion that appears to have an abrasion on its nose being walked on a rope.
A Walk on the Wild Side’s Canby facility was open to the public until county officials closed it in spring 2015 due to multiple code violations. Visitors who went there have left near-unanimous negative reviews, to the point where the organization has only one star on Google. There, reviewers have referred to it as a “roadside circus attraction” and complained that the cats “are kept in cages far too small for the animal in question,” while Yelp reviews of the farm detail horrific neglect, as evidenced by these excerpts:
“I felt sorry for these animals and wonder how they got a license to keep them. The animals were dirty and some had very little shelter from the rain and cold. ”
“There are no words. This place is absolutely disgusting, and I’m not even sure that it’s actually legal. The exotic tigers are in Huge dog kennels, it was really frightening. The poor exotic cats were in smaller dog kennel cages and their cages were filthy!!! The place smelled sooo horrible as well.”
“[The animals] were in small dirty cages and seemed distressed. One rabbit we saw had a vicious infection in it’s ears. It was quite disturbing. My girlfriend and I were debating making a call to some agency to investigate their operation.”
“I visited here last October and it made me sick to my stomach. They have a “farm” aka huge amount of animals there being horribly neglected. They have Lions, a Tiger, and a camel, all kept outdoors in Oregon cold and rain. They also have caged housecats, bobcats, and tons of wild animals that… …shouldn’t be living in small chicken wire cages in the rain and cold.”
One of the most recent animal welfare complaints against A Walk on the Wild Side comes from a nearby donkey rescue, which in January 2016 received multiple concerned calls about over 25 donkeys (including pregnant females and foals) which were being kept by Steve Higgs out in the winter elements with no shelter and little food and water. When confronted by the sanctuary, Higgs stated that he had “rescued” the donkeys from several surrounding states and planned to use them for breeding and moneymaking schemes. Attempts by the donkey rescue to help the animals by offering water and hay were rejected by Higgs, who insisted that donkeys “do not need shelter” and warned that any further attempts to help his animals would be considered trespassing. When the donkey sanctuary updated their Facebook followers on the situation, A Walk on the Wild Side threatened to sue for “slander.”
Hostility towards critics:
While genuine sanctuaries protect animals from exploitation and welcome questions about their animals, A Walk on the Wild Side advocates for the use of big cats in entertainment and is extremely hostile and rude towards anyone who has concerns about their animals’ welfare. Facebook postings by the “sanctuary” openly support the use of elephants and big cats in circus acts, accuse all responsible sanctuaries and animal welfare groups of being “PETA” and “killing animals,” and mock those who disagree with them, stating that “we welcome positive comments and opinions, not those from uneducated people!” This is not the behavior of a professional organization.
Negative comments left on A Walk on the Wild Side’s Facebook page are removed and the original poster blocked, while negative reviews are “responded to” by staff taking a screenshot of the review and posting it on the page with insults. Here are some screenshots from their Facebook page. None of them are things that professional animal rescue organizations would ever post:
Here, A Walk on the Wild Side accuses The Elephant Sanctuary, a legitimate, GFAS-accredited sanctuary for retired performing elephants, of being “PETA/HSUS”, even though it has no affiliation with either group. The poster’s suggestion that A Walk on the Wild Side model their responsible behavior by not exploiting animals is dismissed as an “uneducated opinion.”
This person posted a link to a news article about A Walk on the Wild Side’s Canby location being shut down due to multiple code violations and urged the Portland Rose Festival to reconsider hosting their exhibit. A Walk on the Wild Side rejected the contents of the article as another “opinion” and mocked the poster, calling her an “uneducated hateful person.”
Here, A Walk on the Wild Side admits that they are not a sanctuary, while shaming and threatening the original reviewer for “online bullying” and leaving a “false review”.
Unfortunately, A Walk on the Wild Side’s online hostility often extends to the real world. There have been multiple reports of A Walk on the Wild Side staff responding to fairgoers’ honest questions and concerns with rude and threatening language that occasionally turns into physical violence. Google reviewers frequently mention that the staff are “mean“, and one mother who visited the exhibit at a festival complained that she was “screamed at by the most repulsive, delusional, and disgusting woman I have ever met.” Another reviewer states that they “happily berate anyone who might disagree or ask a question about the morality of what they do… …they support animals in the circus, and only laugh when you ask about their stance on the abuse those animals go through.” A patron who tried to film the conditions the animals were living in reports being forcibly “escorted out” of the exhibit, and one of A Walk on the Wild Side’s staff recently bragged on Facebook about telling a concerned patron “that he sounds like a PETA freak who needs to be kicked in the nuts!”
When a group of animal welfare activists asked Cheryl Jones and Steve Higgs some honest questions about the living conditions of their animals at a 2009 fair, “the only answer they could give was attempting to shout us down and threats of calling 911. Cheryl Jones then struck me and could only respond to us by calling us “PETA lovers” and claiming they were “educating children about animals.” When Canby police arrived Cheryl and Steve demanded we be arrested. Canby police politely upheld our first amendment rights.”
Connections with roadside zoos and the pet trade:
Responsible sanctuaries do not breed more animals for a lifetime of captivity or support the underregulated private trade which is driving the captive big cat crisis. But in a newsletter published by the deceptively-named Feline Conservation Federation; a group which advocates for the “right” of private individuals to breed, own, and use exotic cats for entertainment; an employee of Walk on the Wild Side states that their facility’s goal is to “…advocate for private ownership and continue our mission of healthy captive breeding.”
A Walk on the Wild Side is very connected with private breeders and roadside zoos, including the notorious Joe Schreibvogel, and have bragged about their “breeding program” with unspecified overseas facilities. Its staff have directed prospective “pet” owners looking for a specific cat to their network of wild and exotic animal breeders, and A Walk on the Wild Side’s Facebook page has encouraged people to visit disreputable private zoos such as the Zoological Wildlife Foundation and Dade City Wild Things, calling them “great facilities.” Criticism of any of these “friends” is not tolerated. When a family member of A Walk on the Wild Side employee posted a Facebook comment concerned about screaming tiger cubs being forced to “swim” with tourists at Dade City Wild Things, the employee explained that the abusive attraction “is a friend” of their facility and responded with this rant:
“Do you support our allowing the public to get a picture with a lion/tiger cub? And these people paying? And often [our cubs] cry…it’s not “crying” it’s literally the form of communication. And have you not seen the “negative” comments our fB page had received lately? Lots of negatives. And no they don’t list themselves as “PETA” but clearly they are uneducated individuals who are following along like sheep. Leaving bogus, false, comments/accusations on individuals Business pages, should be illegal! FYI I picked up Kira [a tiger cub], at the age of 4 weeks [from Dade City’s Wild Things]. Along with her sibling who went to West Coast Game Park. If your post such comments on my page, about fellow animal facilities that we support then I’m deleting you. Cause frankly, Cheryl would not approve of such things being posted either. You saying/posting what you are makes us look bad as well. And FYI we ourselves plan (in the future) tiger swims. I hope you or none of your family ask for one, as I will remind you of your comments.”
To sum it up, this “sanctuary” openly advocates for the private breeding and exploitation of exotic animals, houses them in substandard conditions, and bullies anyone who questions their practices or their industry. Events that host them are supporting the private ownership and trade of endangered big cats, and NOT a responsible rescue.