Tigers for Tomorrow Sue Steffens
A limping Bengal tiger, once a pet, was declawed by its owner. But the botched operation irreparably damaged the big cat’s toe. When the owner found that even a clawless swat could knock him out, he wanted to get rid of the cat. But what zoo wants a crippled specimen?
Yonah, a half-grown, 450-pound grizzly bear, was raised alone as a pet until he grew too big for his owner to handle. Now Yonah, Cherokee for bear, can’t live with other bears because he doesn’t know how to socialize with them.
And Mojo, an 8-year-old leopard, has seasonal allergies.
“Zoos don’t want to show an animal with a snotty nose,” Sue Steffens recently told about 30 parents and children in a home-school group as she showed them her DeKalb County, Ala., exotic animal rescue park.
“If we don’t take them, sometimes other rescuers do. But sometimes they end up having to be euthanized,” said Steffans, a former animal-handling stuntwoman from California who runs Tigers for Tomorrow Untamed Mountain park near Collinsville, Ala.
In April Steffens took in four tigers, a black bear, a red fox and lynx from a failed Mentone operation called Lookout Mountain Wild Animal Park. Susan Williams, manager of that park, surrendered its exhibitor’s license to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service last fall.
Now Tigers for Tomorrow could use a rescue, too.
A tough economy and shrinking donations have left Tigers for Tomorrow at Untamed Mountain facing its own crisis: a budget of $570,000 with only $260,000 to cover it.
“As you can see we have a pretty big shortfall right now,” Steffens said.
She said taking in seven Lookout Mountain Wild animals from the 40 left in Mentone when that operation closed added enough hours to her daily zoo upkeep schedule that she must hire another keeper. She also had to build five new cages at an average cost of about $10,000 each.
Steffens said fundraisers brought in about $50,000 for the new cages, and that helped.
On average, the 140-acre preserve — only 30 now are used — gets about $18,000 a year from foundations.
“We cut corners where we can,” she said. “We use a lot of volunteers.”
The rescue preserve also is an independent contractor for a national recycling company. As a contractor, Steffens takes out-of-date meats from five Walmarts around the area.
“It helps Walmart with its plan to be green, and it helps us a lot,” she said. On average, the carnivore cats go through about 700 pounds of meat daily.
Once Steffens decided to take seven of the 40 animals from the Mentone park, which failed as a result of the owners’ divorce and years of scathing inspection reports from the USDA, she went to work raising money to build cages.
She and her husband, Wilbur, also a movie industry animal handler, recently had moved their rescue zoo operation from Florida after being hit by three hurricanes and threatened by a tornado in the space of 18 months.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” Steffens said of those rescues and her entire 130-animal shelter.
“We do it because we love animals,” she told the home-school group from nearby Calhoun County, Ala.
As she spoke, Yonah the grizzly bounced behind her in an immaculate enclosure. Across a path, playful Bengal tigers took turns stalking each other and pouncing.
PROBLEMS ON RECORD
Untamed Mountain is a far cry from what USDA personnel found at Lookout Mountain Wild.
Inspection reports available on the USDA’s website detailed a number of long-standing and ongoing problems at Lookout Mountain Wild, dating back to at least 2006.
Among Lookout Mountain Wild’s problems were no veterinary care or plan; animal enclosures with no water, dirty or “green” water or frozen water; rotting or unsanitary animal food storage; and at least four animal deaths, according to the USDA.
In nearly four years, inspectors filed 50 pages of reports detailing visits or attempted visits about once a month. Each visit found at least one problem: most found multiple concerns.
By comparison, inspection reports show Tigers for Tomorrow, the Chattanooga Nature Center, Chattanooga Zoo and Tennessee Aquarium have been inspected only once or twice a year and the reports state “no non-compliant items identified.”
USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said neither Lookout Mountain Wild nor its operators ever were fined or censured beyond the written inspection reports.
“When we find problems, we inspect more,” he said, adding that USDA’s goal is not to shut down operations but to work with operators and try to “educate them.”
“A LAST-STOP FACILITY”
Steffens initially intended to take only four tigers from the Mentone animal park and, at the time, she emphasized that the move would be an adoption, not temporary shelter.
“We are a last-stop facility,” she said firmly.
By April, she had the tigers — Pride, Glory, Kimba and Magic. But she also had Lady Ruby, the fox; Serenity, the lynx; and Bear Bryant, the black bear.
“They needed a place to go, and we were able to raise the funds. One company, Lee Energy, donated the money for us to rescue the bear, and they named him,” Steffens said.
None of the animals from the Mentone park are on display yet.
As troubling as it may be that the animals — especially big cats — are captive for life, their fate may be much better than that of their counterparts in the wild, she said.
“Sadly, it is possible that lions in the wild will be gone soon,” Steffens told her tour group.
“These animals have it made,” she said, gesturing to a lion chasing a huge ball. “They have maids, an exercise coach, food and a vet.”