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Wisconsin Farm is Refuge for Exotic Animals

For every zoo or circus that takes good care of its lions, tigers and other exotic animals, there are other facilities and private owners that do not. Some animals might end up poorly fed, sick or otherwise mistreated. If they are fortunate, they end up in one of a handful of exotic animal sanctuaries in the United States. V-O-A's Michael Leland found one in the Midwest state of Wisconsin.

The Valley of the Kings Sanctuary is located on a four-hectare farm amid cornfields and dairy farms in the southern Wisconsin town of Sharon. Todd Kaercher is among the dozens of volunteers who tend to the sanctuary's 50 tigers, lions, cougars and other big cats. Among the residents is Goliath, a 12-year-old tiger.

"He is here because in the circus he was scared of elephants," explains Mr. Kaercher. "They can't use a performing tiger if he is scared of elephants. He has come to live with us."

Valley of the Kings was founded in 1974 by Jill Carnegie. She had originally planned to breed cougars, but the more she learned about the exotic cat breeding business, the more she felt she wanted to give mistreated or unwanted cats a safe, permanent home.

"True sanctuary does not breed, does not buy, does not sell, does not trade. Those animals go nowhere. When they die, they go into the ground in one of our cemeteries," said Ms. Carnegie.

Each holding pen at the sanctuary seems to have a cat with its own sad tale. One group of lions known as the Mississippi Ten was taken in from a roadside zoo in the Southern state of Mississippi. When government officials shut down the zoo about five years ago, the facility's 85 lions were living in small cages. Some of the cats were sleeping on piles of feces 60-centimeters deep.

Todd shows us another tiger, Iesha. "She used to be with one of these places where you could go get your picture taken with a tiger when she was a cub," he said. "For five dollars, get your picture taken with a tiger cub. Until she jumped out of the back of a trailer on the freeway between Janesville and Madison, Wisconsin. Since then, she is terrified of vehicles."

Remarkably, most of the cats here were once someone's pet. In many places in the United States, you can own an exotic cat if you get the necessary federal permit. Volunteer Renata Spadafora says apparently, you do not have to prove you are prepared to make a long-term commitment to care for the animal.

"There is a cat on the other side there, Jonah. Somebody saw The Lion King and, you can get anything you want over the Internet. Their little boy wanted a lion cub," she said. "But when they grow up to be [227 kilos] and eat [9 kilos] of meat a day and become very aggressive and you get that, that is not so desirable anymore as a little tiny lion cub."

Jill Carnegie tells of one lion called Sheba that was being raised in a cage in a Chicago apartment. The cat had been poorly fed and received no veterinary care.

"She had so many spinal fractures all the way down from her back to her tail. She literally dragged her hind end when she got around. She was severely stunted. She weighed about [45 kilos] but should have been closer to [135 kilos]," she said.

The Valley of the Kings operates on a tight budget. It receives no government or corporate funding. All of its money comes from memberships, individual sponsorship of animals, and the sale of items like calendars, picture books and t-shirts through its Web site.

The facility feeds its animals about 700 kilos of food a day, mostly meat. Some of it has to be purchased, and Todd Kaercher says local farms and deer hit on area roads provide about half of it.

"We get the roadkill deer for five counties in Wisconsin. We also have a network of farmers bringing their stillborn calves to us. It saves them money because it costs about $20-30 dollars to get a renderer to come out and get their calves. They can just drop them off and we use them for feed," he said.

The Valley is home to more than big cats. It also has a few bears from an area roadside attraction, as well as wolves and a camel. Some people have left live cattle or goats at the sanctuary gate, figuring Jill would have them killed for cat food, but she gives them a home instead. The facility's 20 volunteers like Linda Finkelman care for all of them.

"I feel like these creatures were kind of short-changed in life," she said. "God did not put them on this earth to be bred and kept in cages. So, anything we can do to make their life a little bit better, I am more than happy to do that."

Jill Carnegie says she would love to see a day when facilities like hers are no longer needed, but she knows that day is not coming soon. Each week she has to turn away between one and six cats because her permits will not allow her to keep any more.