Locals help give big cats a second chance

By Claire Harlin

Staff Writer

What do North County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and local residents Gwendolyn Meyer, Becky Zebolt and Janet Wanerka — among many others — have in common?

They are loyal supporters of Lions Tigers and Bears, a 94-acre facility located just east of San Diego that has become a lifelong home to a number of displaced or neglected bears and exotic cats. And as more and more San Diegans become familiar with and support the cause, founder Bobbi Brink hopes to turn the sanctuary into much more.

"They give animals born in captivity a chance to live when they otherwise might be killed or abused," said Meyer, a Rancho Santa Fe resident. "They really know what they are doing and they genuinely care about the animals."

The Japatul Valley facility houses 13 big cats: four Bengal Tigers, one leopard, one Africal serval, three bobcats, a mountain lion and three African lions. Under construction is a three-acre bear habitat, which will house three black bears, two of which were rescued only weeks ago from a small, non-licensed zoo in Oklahoma that could no longer afford to feed its animals.

Brink is nursing one of the bears back to health, and counting the days until the completion of the bear habitat, which will have trees, structures, a waterfall and a pond stocked with trout and bass.

Brink is a lifelong animal lover who has worked with big cats since 1992. One would think the facility founder — who runs the sanctuary as a volunteer, not getting a salary or keeping a dime of proceeds — has spent years with the bears already. As she approached one of the bears, Liberty, on a recent Saturday, it greeted her warmly and nuzzled her through the cage. She kneeled beside the cage of another bear, Delilah, who had been moved to the shade as her health was being tended to.

"We've seen a lot of improvements," said Brink of the bear, who was on her way to being hunted at a "big game" ranch had she not been rescued. "If this bear makes it, that's my paycheck."

Brink enjoyed a site visit two weeks ago by Del Mar resident Slater-Price and members of the supervisor's staff, who wanted to see the results of the office's financial support. The supervisor recently got board approval to dedicate more than $23,000 of the neighborhood reinvestment fund to Lions Tigers and Bears, specifically for the purpose of building a bear habitat, which would not have been made a reality without that monetary help, Brink said.

John Weil, Slater-Price's chief of staff, said the purpose of grants from the neighborhood reinvestment fund is to reinvest residents' tax dollars back into the community to improve the quality of life.

"Slater-Price is known for supporting animal causes," Weil said.

San Diego Gas & Electric and Seal Electric are also major supporters of the $368,000 bear habitat.

Lions Tigers and Bears got its name long before it was able to house bears.

"My father-in-law used to always tell us to watch out for lions, tigers and bears when we would go camping," Brink said. "He was dying when we were getting our permits to start the place, and we named it that in his honor."

Supporters like Wanerka are excited that the facility can now house rescued bears.

"It's lived up to it's name," she said of the sanctuary, which is the only federal- and state-licensed facility in San Diego County.

In addition to being a rescue facility, Brink has plans to expand the educational aspect of Lions, Tiger and Bears. Currently, ranch animals at Lions Tigers and Bears (cows, donkeys, sheep, pigs, etc.) are part of an "Animal Encounters" educational exhibit and hand-on lesson about the humane treatment of animals.

She also hopes to add a rehabilitation enclosure, where wild animals can go to be rehabilitated without human contact. A live camera would allow guests to observe those animals.

Guests of Lions Tigers and Bears can visit and tour the facility, and can even get up close and feed the big cats through the cage. Educational and group visits are available and can be scheduled by calling (619) 659-8078. For more information, membership opportunities or to see animal photos and stories, visit www.lionstigersandbears.org.

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