CALEDONIA — On Sept. 25, as an unfamiliar truck was pulling up to Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary in Caledonia, the sanctuary’s lone lion Zeus got up and began running around in excitement.
Nancy Gschwendtner, the sanctuary’s director, said it’s because he could smell what were about to be the newest additions to the sanctuary, which is home to hundreds of animals, including more than a dozen big cats.
Tafari, Jala and Nombi had made a several-day journey from Wildlife Waystation in California, one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in the country, said Gschwendtner. Founded in 1976 according to its website, Wildlife Waystation closed its doors in August after fires and flooding in the area made it too expensive to renovate and keep animals there. Its officials alerted other sanctuaries around the country that they needed to find homes for about 470 animals.
After some back and forth — Cedarhill was originally going to take a cougar and two older lionesses — Cedarhill was cleared to receive the three lions, all 2-year-old siblings born at Wildlife Waystation. That’s unusually young and comes from an unusually good background for animals at Cedarhill, which often rescues older animals from abusive and neglectful situations, Gschwendtner said.
“Every sanctuary was clamoring for them because they’re young,” Gschwendtner said.
New York-based organization Tigers in America paid for the new lions to be taken first to Texas and then to Caledonia. Like every other animal Cedarhill takes in, the lions will be there for life, which could be up to 20 or 25 years.
The lions join 11 tigers, three bobcats, dogs, horses and a variety of other animals, including more than 200 house cats, whose feeding and care cost far more than that of the 18 exotic big cats. It costs about $15,000 per month for upkeep of the tigers, lions and cougars, she said. Feeding them all requires 8,000 pounds of beef delivered four or five times a year, about 600 pounds of chicken and donations of venison and other meats from local hunters and butchers.
Gschwendtner hopes the new lions will generate more excitement in what Cedarhill does and hopefully result in more donations. The sanctuary relies entirely on private funding, not receiving grants or money from visitors, since Cedarhill is closed to the public.
While Wildlife Waystation didn’t close because of funding issues, Gschwendtner said, there are plenty of other wildlife sanctuaries that do, and funding is a constant source of concern for their directors.
“Every day is worrying,” Gschwendtner said. “… When you’re relying on individuals just to send you money so you can do this, it’s a struggle every day, and yes, sanctuaries do fail because of funding issues.”
Tafari, Nombi and Jala
A little more than a week after the lions’ arrival, they are settling in nicely, said Danny Blackman and center general manager Dawn Brock, the animals’ caretakers.
As the two approached the enclosure in the 100 degree heat Thursday afternoon, the three lions abandoned their napping spots in the shades and padded over to them. They flopped down on the ground with their sides pressed against the fence, following Blackman and Brock’s movements. At one point when Blackman started to walk away, Tafari jumped over one of his sisters to follow.
“I think Tafari is going to be bigger than Zeus,” Blackman said, between playing with the new lions between the fence — keeping a couple of feet back in accordance with Cedarhill’s strict no-touch policy.
“I do too,” Brock said, though she pointed out it’s not really a fair competition, since Zeus was kept in a small enclosure with other lions when he was a cub, which stunted his growth a little bit.
The two females, Jala and Nombi, still have the light spots that cubs have, and Tafari’s mane hasn’t grown in all the way yet. They’re also, Brock and Blackman said, more active than Zeus and the sanctuary’s other big cats. Every toy in their enclosure — which includes nine large rubber balls and a spool — have been moved and played with at least once, and Cedarhill’s employees realized they didn’t need the ramp getting into their wooden house when the lions easily cleared the four feet or so between the ground and the house’s entrance. Healthy lions can jump 36 feet, the caretakers said.
Blackman was more than happy to talk about “his babies.” Tafari, the leader of the pride, is the most curious and certainly the leader.
“He was the first one to step into the new enclosure spots … to the first one who came up and greeted Zeus (who is in an enclosure bordering the three other lions),” he said.
Blackman described Nombi, who follows Tafari around, as a “playful little goofball” who loves toys, whether the toy is the water hose or a burlap sack. Jala is more timid, but Blackman also thinks she is the most likely to develop trust with her human caretakers.
Some of their behaviors, from sunbathing to lying with their front paws crossed, are behaviors anyone with cats might recognize.
“When they’re together, very much like kittens, it’s roughhouse and wrestle,” Blackman said. “Tackling each other for little ear bites or tail bites or tug bites. Tafari and Nombi, they will run from enclosure to enclosure sometimes in the evenings.”
They’ll also play with burlap sacks filled with food or hay in much the same way house cats do with toy containers filled with catnip, he said. Like any other cat, they love sunbathing.
But Cedarhill’s employees are still very mindful of the fact that they’re wild animals.
“I think we would all prefer if they could just live their best lives in the wild where they belong,” Blackman said.