I'll admit: I was being a bit of a stalker.
I really just wanted to catch a glimpse of Meatball, the Glendale Bear who'd come down into the foothill communities from the Angeles National Forest so many times, authorities had to relocate him to this wild animal sanctuary: Lions, Tigers, and Bears.
I wasn't sure what to expect, since I've been to a few zoos, wolf preserves and big cat sanctuaries before with mixed results.
Often the cages are too small, the cats too restless. I kind of just wanted to know that Meatball had been adopted by a good place.
But here, although these exotic animals might get excited (or agitated) with visitors, upon pacing back and forth in their own cages, they are released into a big, wide, open area...
...which has been baited with raw chicken (some whole).
Conga, the female leopard, adopted when she was abandoned by her owner at five weeks old, gets her own chicken...
...and then stalks the lions from the catwalk above.
Natasha is a 17 year old Bengali Tiger rescued when she was five years old and pregnant...
...having lived her whole life in a tiny cage in Texas, kept as a pet.
She was de-clawed by her previous owners...
...which means she couldn't even be in the same cage as her daughters, once they grew to full size.
The tigers have their own cages...
...but they share the large enclosure, on rotation with the other animals (including one shy mountain lion).
The bear habitat is also large, and currently under construction.
It's currently expansive enough for two of the sanctuary's rescued bears (including Meatball) to hide away up in the hills, not ready to come out of hibernation just yet.
There are three brown bears that are currently visible in their "bedrooms," which are small cages used for feeding and other care.
These bears weigh about 250 pounds, compared to Meatball's hefty 450 pounds.
Their traditionally dark fur also contrasts with Meatball's unusual cinnamon color. And apparently they love their peanut butter sandwiches.
San Diego is known to tourists for its Zoo and Safari Park, but Lions, Tigers and Bears lets you get up close to some of the smaller, more docile animals...
...like a rabbit that was rescued with back leg issues...
...a pot-bellied pig that grunts like a dog...
...and a pair of llamas...
...who are inseparable...
...having earned the names "Frick" and "Frack."
There are also two donkeys and some snuggly goats that hide in a barn when it's too cold.
For a little extra money, you can sign up to actually feed an animal of your choice. Donations of supplies – including raw meat – are also accepted, but they could use anything from money to toilet paper to help keep the sanctuary in business.
Although it appears as though these animals are being kept safe and are receiving proper care, in this part of the Cleveland National Forest, wildfires are always a danger. Volunteers have the animals trained to trust them, so that if they have to pack them up and move them out (in transport cages, or horse trailers) in case of evacuation, the animals will follow them to safety and hopefully not freak out.
But whatever bond they have with the animals, they acknowledge that they're still wild animals that can turn on you without warning. Although the humans raise newborns (like in the case of Natasha who arrived pregnant), this is a no-breed facility, and once the big animals grow to a couple of years old, they're never in the same cage with humans again unless sedated for medical treatment.
They also are fed only raw meat (and, in the case of the bears, fruit) and no live game. But every now and then, one of those big cats finds a stray mouse or rabbit or bird that gets into its cage from the wild, and they eventually figure out what to do with it.
A Safe Place, Far from Home
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