Carmelita, a baby tiger

Courtesy photo

Carmelita, a baby tiger

Allison Plean: An endangered cause

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Courtesy photo

Carmelita, a baby tiger

photo

Courtesy photo

This binturong is younger than 6 months old.

photo

Courtesy photo

Allison Plean works with Jellybean, a baby white tiger.

I had some good role models when I was in college.

They were these women who could throw a whole chicken over a 12-foot fence and land it in a tire. They were women who rolled out hundreds of feet of chain-link fence in the rain. One had an arm mangled by a black leopard without shedding a tear.

I wanted to be just like them.

Together we cared for more than 300 rescued animals that were members of endangered species at the Carnivore Preservation Trust. I studied under these women three days a week for four years.

The women taught me that super-human strength came from passion and determination. But the greatest lessons I learned were from the tigers we worked with.

I have never been able to explain the feeling you get from being in the presence of such majestic creatures.

How can you describe what it's like to have a 400-pound animal fall asleep in your lap while sucking on your fingers? How can you describe bottle-feeding an 11-day-old baby white tiger?

You can't. I can't.

I could only stare in awe as a clumsy little cub grew into an 800-pound animal with power and grace that came by instinct.

Every animal I've ever worked with has attacked me. I have a scar across my knee from a tiger bite, and I had six stitches in my face from being slashed by a leopard. But these incidents only re-affirmed my respect for them.

These creatures are the link to 25 million years of history. I can't think of any legacy more important to preserve.

The saddest thing about working with these animals is that it is an endangered cause.

Think about it.

There is nowhere to re-release them into the wild. Humans are encroaching upon the little space the few wild ones have left. And there's not even enough space or money to support the ones that are in captivity - living in a world they were not designed for.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, which is 40 minutes east of Denver, is being forced to close in less than two weeks. It is a 140-acre sanctuary, the largest of its kind in the nation.

I volunteered there for a year, and I was extremely impressed by the care and love that executive director and founder Pat Craig provided these large carnivores. The Sanctuary is home to 75 tigers, 30 bears, 20 mountain lions and dozens of leopards, African lions and other big cats. All of them are rescues.

The Sanctuary is shutting down because of the loss of private donations.

"When the tsunami hit, the first round of people quit, and we made it through that and climbed through the hole," Craig said. "When Katrina hit and another hurricane, and the earthquakes, all the donors gave to this and that. Sixty percent of the donors disappeared, and that was too big of a blow."

The Sanctuary operates on a budget of $750,000.

"It's still almost an all-volunteer organization, and I haven't been paid in 24 years," Craig said. "We were $200,000 in the hole in December, and the meat guy wasn't going to be able to come because we owed him $75,000."

The Sanctuary is now just trying to buy time to find homes for these animals.

"The key is that we have 75 tigers, and there are not that many spaces out there," Craig said. "It's going to take a major miracle and major thinking."

When I heard that the Sanctuary was closing down, I almost lost it. I panicked.

I was ready to jump on a back hoe and start digging ditches, pouring cement and erecting cages made of chain-link fence that I've built so many times. Images of vacant rolling hillsides and local ranches in the Yampa Valley flashed through my mind.

Who would agree to this? How am I going to find the time and the money?

It has always been my dream to open a refuge for rescued big cats. But even that wouldn't solve this problem. That would only re-create the problem as it exists in Keenesburg.

The animals living there are in some ways as powerful as the worldwide disasters that have re-endangered them. But there is no government aid, no Red Cross and no national media campaign to save them.

But there is an opportunity for each of us to help these majestic creatures whose impact is immeasurable.

Please, visit www.WildAnimalSanctuary.org and do what you can.

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