Home for your Pet

Exotic animal sanctuarians race the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

(Beth Clifton collage)

Animals in need,  unchecked breeding & abandonment,  limited resources,  & advancing age

            TAMPA,  Florida––The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,  according to the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel,  are death by the sword,  famine,  wild beasts,  and plague.

            But Ezekiel,  though generally believed to have been a vegetarian and perhaps a vegan,  was not a sanctuarian.

To animal sanctuarians,  the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the numbers of animals already in need,  unchecked breeding and abandonment,  limited resources,  and their own advancing ages.  Any of the four can reduce a well-managed sanctuary to an animal hell in short order.

(See Who will look after tigers, wolves, birds & horses as sanctuarians age?)

Varying hare in the grass.

Exotic pet acquisition is the “hare” in a “tortoise & hare” race that sanctuarians for some species are collectively winning at enormous individual cost. 
(Beth Clifton photo)

For some species,  sanctuaries are winning––barely

Out-racing the Four Horsemen of the Sanctuary Apocalypse can be accomplished,  temporarily,  by raising more money,  expanding facilities,  hiring more help,  and finding reputable successors,  but only stopping the breeding,  sale,  and abandonment of the many animal species inundating sanctuaries will allow any sanctuary to remain an animal heaven until the need for the sanctuary is no longer.

            This is why the most universally accepted definition of a reputable animal sanctuary is that it does not breed animals and educates the public against either breeding or otherwise acquiring animals of species who almost inevitably require sanctuary care if they live to maturity.

Are any sanctuarians,  or sanctuaries collectively,  managing to out-gallop the Four Horsemen?

Somewhat surprisingly,  for some of the species most often filling animal sanctuaries,  the answer seems to be a qualified “yes.”

Martine Colette with lion cubs.
(Wildlife Waystation photo)

Wildlife Waystation

Opening the recently closed Wildlife Waystation in Little Tujunga Canyon,  just east of Los Angeles,  in 1973,  Martine Colette (1939-2022) introduced the sanctuary era in humane work.

(See Wildlife Waystation founder Martine Colette, 79, goes to “walk with tigers”Eight ex-Wildlife Waystation chimps can’t sleep on cardboard in an alleyWildlife Waystation closure: where are the animals now?)

            Though housing animals of many orders and species,  Wildlife Waystation and the Shambala Preserve,  founded a year earlier as a personal menagerie by actress Tippi Hedren,  in nearby Acton,  California,  rapidly became best known for taking in exotic cats formerly used as movie props and acquired as fad pets by people with more money than brains.

Wally Swett with baby chimp

Primarily Primates founder Wally Swett with a baby chimpanzee.
(Beth Clifton collage)

Primarily Primates

Primarily Primates,  the first sanctuary dedicated specifically to looking after apes and monkeys,  opened in 1978 at Leon Spring,  Texas.

At first almost all of the animals arriving at Primarily Primates were also formerly used in entertainment and/or had been acquired as fad pets.

Later both Wildlife Waystation and Primarily Primates housed many chimpanzees and monkeys who had been retired from biomedical research use.

But even as the numbers of animals from the entertainment industry and exotic pet keepers declined somewhat,  the demands on the Wildlife Waystation and Primarily Primates sanctuary resources and the sanctuary founders never diminished.

Tiger with cub look up at shooting star

(Beth Clifton collage)

More sanctuaries opened––yet never enough

Inspired by Wildlife Waystation and Primarily Primates,  dozens of other legitimate care-for-life sanctuaries opened around the U.S. and the world to help share the burden of incoming animals,  yet even with far more facilities to share the work,  the need for sanctuary space continued to grow.

Specialized sanctuaries opened to accommodate species of specialized needs,  from farmed animals to reptiles and wolves.

Sanctuary associations formed to help legitimate sanctuaries clearly distinguish themselves from roadside zoos and other facilities often pretending to be sanctuaries,  but in truth breeding the very species they claimed––and still claim––to be “rescuing,”  for use in cub-petting and,  eventually,  sale as exotic pets or to become living targets at trophy hunting ranches.

Kevin Antle in grad cap with Tigger

Kevin Antle was a high school dork who never grew up.  (Beth Clifton collage)

Risk-takers & bad neighbors

Because the demands on sanctuaries never seemed to decrease,  hardly anyone noticed that sanctuaries were and are succeeding in reducing private acquisition of exotic pets.

Indeed,  exotic pet breeding,  exotic animal auctions,  and pyramid scheme speculation in “alternative livestock” are all still mega-problems for the humane community,  sanctuarians especially.

Yet most of the public over the past forty years or so appears to be gradually getting the message that acquiring exotic pets is the mark of risk-takers and bad neighbors,  not a practice that makes an otherwise problematic and dull person somehow “interesting.”

(See Busted again: the secret life of “Tiger King” Kevin “Doc” Antle on the lam from Iowa.)

Hamilton the pot belly pig

Hamilton the pot belly pig.
(Lori Shank photo)

The rise & fall of the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig

The rise and fall of the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig fad may perhaps best exemplify the progress accomplished by sanctuarians and allies in the long campaign against the exotic pet industry.

People do not line up to pay good money to pet pot-bellied pigs,  as they pay to pet young tigers,  lions,  bears,  and other exotic carnivores.

Neither are pot-bellied pigs often raised for meat,  though many are eventually eaten by purchasers of abandoned pig pets.  Nor can pot-bellied pigs be kept in terrariums to wow visitors,  like snakes,  lizards,  and turtles.

Pot-bellied pig trend

Ngram viewer shows pot-bellied pig trend.
(Beth Clifton collage)

Pets are the only pot-bellied pig “profit center”

The only profit in breeding pot-bellied pigs is in sale of pigs as personal pets.

That makes the trends in the pot-bellied pig industry relatively easy to isolate and track by means including volume and frequency of advertisements offering pot-bellied pigs for sale,  media mentions,  and even the Google Books Ngram Viewer,  showing a clear trend line for mentions of pot-bellied pigs in books .

Scarcely any measuring tool better shows cultural trends than the Ngram Viewer.  What it shows pertaining to pot-bellied pigs is a synthesis of what everything else suggests:  there was no pot-bellied pig industry to speak of before 1986.

By 1995,  though,  breeding and abandonment of pot-bellied pigs had become a nationwide crisis.  Education,  legislation,  and litigation meant to slow the fad helped a little,  but the numbers of pot-bellied pigs continued to increase until the combination of the problematic behavior of the pigs themselves with the economic crunches of 2001 and 2008 caused the fad to collapse even more rapidly than rose.

Vietnamese potbelly pig

Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.
(Beth Clifton photo)

Sanctuary overload

Not that this is easily seen by pot-bellied pig sanctuarians.  Quite the opposite.  ANIMALS 24-7,  after extensively reporting about the boom phase of the pot-bellied pig industry,  and about the efforts of sanctuaries to restrain it,  had thought little about it for many years,  until prompted to re-investigate it by an urgent inquiry from a beleaguered sanctuarian.

            The sanctuarian had gradually acquired more than three times the number of pigs allowed by the sanctuary land use permit,  under pressure to take in more and more from both aging individual pig-keepers and humane societies that accepted abandoned pot-bellied pigs,  then could not rehome them.

“I’m getting lots of dumps of older pigs,”  the sanctuarian reported,  “who are the most heartbreaking.  Their hooves are a mess and they badly need teeth pulled.”

(Beth Clifton collage)

Pot-bellied pigs,  owners,  & sanctuarians are aging out together

ANIMALS 24-7 is acutely aware of how large pig litters typically are,  and remembers well how rapidly the pot-bellied pig fad of nearly forty years ago exploded out of control.

But what ANIMALS 24-7 found,  upon re-investigating the numbers,  was not more pigs.  Instead,  ANIMALS 24-7 found far fewer pigs,  and a much older pot-bellied pig population.

Many and perhaps most of the pot-bellied pigs surrendered by owners today are not pigs who rapidly outgrew their homes within a year of acquisition,  as was the case ten,  twenty,  and thirty-odd years ago.

Rather,  the pot-bellied pigs surrendered today appear to be mostly those who have outlived their original owners,  or have outlived the now elderly owners’ ability to look after long-lived large animals.  Often these pigs were kept very well for many years.

Unfortunately,  even as the pot-bellied pig fad crashed and as the remaining pot-bellied pig owners are aging out,  pot-bellied pig sanctuarians are also aging out.

Potbelly pig (San Diego Humane Society photo)

Pot-bellied pig.
(San Diego Humane Society photo)

From 150 pig sanctuaries down to maybe 20

In crude numbers,  extracted from the limited available information,  circa 2000 there were about 150 sanctuaries around the U.S. that accepted potbellied pigs.  While some pig sanctuaries kept only two pigs and others had more than 100,  they kept on average about 16 pigs apiece.

Ten years later,  circa 2010,  there were only about 70 sanctuaries still accepting pigs,  keeping an average of 13 pigs apiece.

This meant a drop of 64% in places for abandoned potbellied pigs to go.

Currently,  only about 20 sanctuaries are still accepting potbellied pigs,  keeping an average of 14 pigs apiece.

That translates into an 88% decline over 20-odd years in the number of potential homes for cast-off potbellied pigs.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

(Beth Clifton collage)

Four Horsemen breathing hellfire

The demand for sanctuary homes for pot-bellied pigs has fallen with the pet pig population,  with only about one pig per week joining waiting lists for somewhere to go.

But since the acknowledged housing capacity for potbellied pigs at all reputable sanctuaries combined is now fewer than 300,  the pigs already in sanctuaries would have to experience a death rate of about 20% per year for every cast-off pig to find a home.

All of this has the Four Horsemen of the Sanctuary Apocalypse breathing hellfire down the remaining pot-bellied pig sanctuarians’ necks.

Howard and Carole Baskin with tiger

Howard and Carole Baskin at Big Cat Rescue.
(Beth Clifton photo)

Carole Baskin shares the Big Cat Rescue numbers

ANIMALS 24-7 wondered to what extent the same phenomenon might be occurring with other species commonly acquired as exotic pets,  then dumped on sanctuaries.

Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin graciously shared her intake data on 141 exotic cats,  bobcats,  pumas,  and lynx who have been surrendered to Big Cat Rescue over the years.

This includes all of the non-domestic cats residing at Big Cat Rescue at any point from 2013 to mid-2022.

Bobcat at Big Cat Rescue.
(Beth Clifton photo)

Overgrown kittens

Among 32 cats whom Big Cat Rescue took in from 1992 through 1995,  none were older than two years old,   the average age at intake was 1.3 years,  and the median age was only one year.

Big Cat Rescue,  in short,  was almost entirely receiving recently born cats who had outgrown their homes,  whether birth homes or homes with people who bought the cats.

Among the 28 cats whom Big Cat Rescue received from 1996 through 1999,  the average age was two years,  with a median of 1.5,  but only six cats were older than two years.

Clearly Big Cat Rescue was still receiving almost entirely recently born cats who had outgrown their homes,  wherever those homes were.

See A tale of two of the world’s oldest tigers, both named Bengali.
(Big Cat Rescue photo)

Older cats

But Baskin had by then adopted a policy,  she explained to ANIMALS 24-7,  “that whenever we do rescues with other sanctuaries, we always take the oldest and sickest, because we have better resources to provide them with the intensive care they need.”

In consequence,  among the 26 cats whom Big Cat Rescue took in from 2000 through 2009,  the average age was 4.7 years,  with a median of 3.5.

Among the 27 cats whom Big Cat Rescue accepted from 2010 through 2016,  the average age was 6.6 years,  with a median of 5.5 years.

Finally,  among the 28 cats arriving at Big Cat Rescue since 2017,  the average age is still 6.6,  while the median as dropped slightly yet statistically insignificantly to 5.0 years.

Tim Stark & baby caracals.

Tim Stark & baby caracals.

Fewer exotic pets does not mean less breeding

Even if the ages of all the cats older than the Big Cat Rescue average at arrival were to be cut in half,  and even eliminating bobcats accepted for rehabilitation and release from the sample,  the age trend would still be upward from 1992 to 2016,  before leveling out just slightly.

What that seems to signify is that far fewer exotic cats and other wild cats are outgrowing homes when barely out of kittenhood.  This implies in turn that far fewer people are acquiring such cats as pets.

As with pot-bellied pigs,  most of the cats coming to Big Cat Rescue these days were successfully kept by someone for many years,  often into the cats’ geriatric phase.

Unfortunately,  Baskin told ANIMALS 24-7,  this does not mean fewer kittens are being born to supply cub-petting rackets such as those run by the likes of “Joe Exotic” Joseph Passage Maldonado Schreibvogel,  now in prison for trying to hire someone to kill Baskin (see Carole Baskin & Big Cat Rescue win custody of “Tiger King” Joe Exotic’s tigers;  Kevin Antle,  now facing federal charges of money-laundering,  wildlife trafficking,  and conspiracy;  Tim Stark (see “Tiger Baby Playtime” promoter Tim Stark meets stark reality in court);  Jeff Lowe (see “Tiger Kings” lose stripes in Nevada, Oklahoma, & Texas);  and Marcus Cook (see Tiger exhibitor Marcus Cook: ex-cop has dodged the law for 20 years.)

John Weinhart in court with tiger in a tub

John Weinhart.  (Beth Clifton collage)

 Killing cubs

Baskin mentioned a recent YouTube video in which former International Wildlife Center and Jungle Paradise Zoo owner James Garretson said,  Baskin recounted,  that “he’d never place used cubs again;  he’d just kill them instead.

“I have no doubt that’s what happens at many of these places,”  Baskin said.

Indeed that was that practice of John Weinhart, 1942-2015,  who for about 30 years operated a facility called Tiger Rescue at sites in Glen Avon and Colton,  California.

Fifty-four live tigers,  30 dead adult tigers,  and 58 dead tiger cubs were in December 2002 found at the Tiger Rescue premises.

Weinhart was in February 2005 convicted of multiple related felonies.

But by then Weinhart had a multitude of emulators in the business of practicing tiger exhibition and cub handling in the guise of doing rescue and conservation work,  only a few of whom are now out of business.

Lori Rutledge Facebook profileParrots

If sanctuarians have made progress against keeping pot-bellied pigs and exotic cats as pets,  albeit that surviving sanctuaries remain strained by the numbers of animals needing homes,  what is happening with parrots and turtles,  the longest-lived fad pets of all?

The answer,  unfortunately,  is nothing good.

The March 2022 death of Cockatoo Rescue & Sanctuary founder Lori Keene Rutledge in Stanwood,  Washington,  brought to light that people desperate to place cast-off parrots somewhere,  anywhere,  were still flying thousands of miles to leave birds with her,  months after all the other birds left in her care had died from apparent extreme neglect.

Susan Cain Tellem American Tortoise Rescue (Marshall Tellem photo)

Susan Cain Tellem, founder of American Tortoise Rescue.  (Marshall Thompson photo)

American Tortoise Rescue

American Tortoise Rescue founders Susan Tellem and Marshall Thomspon,  of Malibu,  California,  have no intention of going that route.

Demonstrating their resilience after their facilities were destroyed by a November 2018 wildfire,  though most of the resident turtles and tortoises survived,  Tellem and Thompson have for 32 years operated reputedly the premier turtle and tortoise sanctuary in the U.S.

But they have no illusions that they will outlive the need for turtle and tortoise sanctuaries,  even if fad acquisitions of turtles and tortoises stopped yesterday.

“Unfortunately,  sulcata tortoise came on the scene from Africa over 20 years ago,”  Tellem told ANIMALS 24-7.  “I predicted they would become a nightmare for rescues. They are destructive and difficult,  but idiots wanted them to show off their large size.

Young African spur thigh tortoise

Young African spur thigh [sulcata] tortoise.
(Greg Robbins photo)

Fifty eggs at a time

“The female can lay 50 eggs at a time,  so all the breeders got involved.  Back then people were paying $3,000 for a small one.

“Now,  of course,  any size is free because people are dumping them,  or at least trying to. I get emails by the dozen,”  Tellem said,  “wanting me to take them.  I can’t and won’t.  Each one needs a lot of acreage.  With two over 100 pounds,  we are out of space.”

Even common box turtles often need more time to recover from inappropriate captivity than Tellem and Thompson feel they can count on having left.

“The box turtles come in deformed from being in tanks instead of outside,”  Tellem explained.  “It takes about 20 years for some to grow a normal shell again.

African spur thigh tortoise

Beth Clifton meets an African spur thigh [sulcata] tortoise.  (Merritt Clifton photo)

“No young people getting into rescues”

“But there are no young people getting into rescues,”  Tellem lamented.  “All of us in turtle land are old and dying off.  Lost one last year at 82.  I need to plan for [my turtles],  as I am 77.

“Young people under 40 are a lost cause in so many ways.  Too busy about themselves,  not animals,”  Tellem complained,  “except of course the requisite dog.

“Do I sound pissed?” Tellem  acknowledged.  “Yup!

Therein lies the crux of the problem.  Young people acquire,  breed,  and dump exotic pets.  Sanctuarians,  on average,  start their sanctuaries at age 45 or older.

Spur thigh tortoise

(Beth Clifton photo)

Few if any will see the Promised Land

The Four Horsemen of the Sanctuary Apocalypse typically cut down the hindmost sanctuarians by their mid-sixties.  Many––like Tellem and Thompson––manage to maintain quality rescue facilities into their seventies,  but almost none remain able to keep up with the work involved in running an animal sanctuary into their eighties.

Beth & Merritt

(Beth & Merritt Clifton)

Even if breeding,  acquisition,  and dumping of of exotic pets are declining,  simultaneous attrition among sanctuaries and sanctuarians means that few if any of those able to continue to provide homes to cast-off exotics will live to look over Jordan to the Promised Land,  at least in this lifetime,  in which no more abandoned pot-bellied pigs, tigers,  turtles or other animals are in urgent need of rescue placement.

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