Good Works: Capturing Hearts and Minds

 Sue and Richard

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Tigers for Tomorrow provides a permanent sanctuary for rescued animals while raising public understanding and awareness through educational programming.

by N.L.MCANELLY | photography by DON KNAPP AND SANDY JOHNSON

You are most likely afraid of snakes. If not fear, the idea of a snake coiled in the grass before you is, at least, likely to invoke some level of discomfort. Possibly, when you were young your grandmother warned you to take care around the stones on the shore of the creek where you swam to cool off. She would say there could be a water snake there for the same reason, and he might not appreciate your company. If you don’t have a story like that, maybe you can chalk it up as simply part of our human nature – a sort of evolutionary heirloom that causes us to be put off by the steely gaze and scales.

It’s also likely that if you were to see a baby panda in its mother’s arms on the nightly news you would get a warm feeling and have the urge to say things like “awww” and “cute.” Perhaps while you are watching that panda report, the dog you adore and consider a part of the family is looking at you in confusion.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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The point is our relationship to other animals is complex. Often, the few ties that get our attention are those mediated by some emotive response. Animals we see and interact with are those we feel strongly about in either a positive light (the family dog or the panda on T.V.) or in fear or reverence (the snake). But these represent only a fraction of the human-animal relationships that exist in this time of globalization.

I’m providing all this background in an effort to properly introduce you to a couple of people who believe that if you spend time with the animals they care for you will come to understand some of those overlooked ties and possibly gain a new appreciation for your fellow sentient beings.

Tigers for Tomorrow is a nonprofit exotic and native animal rescue preserve and environmental education center occupying 140 acres near Gadsden, Ala. Untamed Mountain, the preserve, houses 165 animals – including tigers, lions, bears, wolves, black leopards and birds of prey – and is open to the public as an exotic animal park that also provides environmental education programs to the north Alabama community and tourists.

I meet owners Susan Steffens, president, and Wilbur McCauley, director of animal care, on an overcast Sunday morning at the entrance to the preserve.

“Our goal is to take animals in that lost their owner or lost their job or their native home,” Steffens says. “We give them a last stop – a place to stay for the rest of their lives – where they will be treated with dignity and respect. In turn, we have them as an ambassador of their species.”

Many of the adopted were once pets with overambitious owners. Others were rescued from traveling shows or tourism spots where they were used as photo props.

Ignorance rather than bad intentions usually puts animals in these situations. “I believe that people often try to do the right thing with the animals, but they get something like this tortoise thinking it is going to be a pet and they don’t realize that it is going to live 60 to 80 years and that it going to need fresh greens every day and that its diet is hard for the average individual to meet on a daily basis,” McCauley says. “We have gotten everything from pigs to tortoises, cats to capybara that people try to make pets that do not work out for them. We have lions and tigers and cougars to come in that were pets.”

Tigers for Tomorrow got its start in Fort Pierce, Fla., in 1999, after loose national regulations regarding breeding exotic animals led to a surge in their numbers. Many were “falling into the wrong hands” and were at risk or in situations of abuse or neglect. Tigers for Tomorrow was founded to create a safe haven for these animals. After the Florida preserve sustained repeated hurricane damage, Tigers for Tomorrow relocated to a valley north of Gadsden in 2009.

The staff at Untamed Mountain is small, and most of the work is done by volunteers and interns.

All of the animals, with the exception of an injured red fox and another that lost its mother as a pup, were born into captivity. None were taken from the wild.

“I try to educate about the difference between wild animals and captive-bred animals because people ask if these animals can go back into the wild,” McCauley says. “My question is what wild would you like to put them back into? The natural habitat for some of the animals is not there anymore. Life in captivity is all these guys know.”

The animals at Untamed Mountain fall on both ends of the feared/cuddly spectrum. Half are predators, 60 of which are large carnivores including African lions, black leopards, wolves, tigers, mountain lions and bears. Then there is the “Children’s Barnyard Contact Area” that is home to a camel and a zebra, llamas, goats, emus and some other domestic animals children can feed through the fence.

There are taller, chain-link enclosures that hold the carnivores and a second smaller fence to keep visitors at a safe distance. It seems more personal than the glass barriers at zoos where animals often are treated as exhibits. A goal of Tigers for Tomorrow is to try to put visitors on level with the animals – to create a sense of intimacy so you might understand them as individuals, each with a unique personality and disposition.

“One of the things that I still find amazing to this day is when I’ll say hello to the cow and the cow will greet me back or come running up, and people ask, ‘They know their names?!’” Steffens says. “It is apparent that people don’t understand the intelligence of animals; that they are so far out of touch with what these beings really are. When people leave here if they know the name of at least one of the animals – if they have connected with that animal – then they will realize that animal is an individual and we feel like we have done our job in teaching that.”

The staff at Tigers for Tomorrow tries to teach people who the animals are, not what they are.

“We find people want to care for them more in the wild, in what’s left of it, when they have this realization that it is not ‘just a bunch of animals’ here,” McCauley says. “All the goats and tigers have distinct personalities with different likes, dislikes, what they want to eat, what they want to play with.”

Many of the larger animals have their own habitats that contain barrels and logs and makeshift chew toys. Most have den boxes fashioned from recycled wood, a motif at Untamed Mountain. A large pavilion in the predator compound, the floors, ceiling and kiosks of the Legacy Classroom and the environmental education area are constructed from reclaimed wood as well.

As an environmental education center, Tigers for Tomorrow tries to set an example of how to take better care of the planet, McCauley says. “The biggest problem in our world that the animals are experiencing is that they are losing habitat,” he says. “Some forest and native habitats have been obliterated just from us pulling [building] materials from them. People always think poaching is the main reason that we are losing species, but the truth is that problem only amounts to a small percentage. The biggest thing by far is the demand for building resources created by the growing population.”

If you go:

Getting there: Tigers for Tomorrow is at 708 County Road 345, Attalla, AL 35954.

Hours thru Nov. 1: Wed.-Thur., 9 a.m.-1 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission: Adults, $12; children, $6; children under 3, free. Admission fees go toward feeding and caring for the animals and maintaining the compound.

More info: 256-524-4150; tigersfortomorrow.org

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