The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado seeks to expand into Baca and Las Animas counties; SCLA opposes the move | TheFencePost.com

The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado seeks to expand into Baca and Las Animas counties; SCLA opposes the move

Rachel Spencer Gabel
for The Fence Post

The Southern Colorado Livestock Association is opposed to the proposed expansion of The Wild Animal Sanctuary into Baca and Las Animas counties.

The sanctuary, located in Keenesburg, Colo., has purchased a 9,004-acre ranch in southeastern Colorado to house some of its 450 lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other rescued animals. According to their website, the purchase of the property will allow for 100, 200, and 300-acre habitats.

Kent Drotar, public relations director for the sanctuary, said people's reactions to the center or how they do things is oftentimes based in misunderstanding. Drotar's hope for an upcoming meeting with the SCLA is to meet their neighbors and answer their questions to allay people's concerns.

Drotar said the SCLA met in April and passed a resolution opposing the Wildlife Sanctuary without first contacting the sanctuary to fully understand the situation.

"Maybe they were just going by thoughts of having large carnivores next to their livestock," he said. "From that, concerns and fears grew to the point where they wanted to oppose us without really knowing what we're going to do."

Drotar said a misconception may be assuming the sanctuary will simply build a perimeter fence around the property, known now as The Refuge. He said their plans are to build smaller habitats within the confines of the 9,000-acre property that meet the safety requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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"We're not a fly-by-night organization that decided we want to rescue large carnivores," he said. "We're the largest, oldest such sanctuary in the world and we've been doing it for 38½ years without an escape."

The animals' psychology has much to do with their comfort in confinement, he said. The animals at the facility have never lived in the wild and therefore, do not view livestock as prey. Large spaces outside of the habitats pose a threat to the animals, making them more comfortable within the safety and familiarity of their habitats.

The sanctuary has obtained an initial approval for a special use permit from Baca County, where the portion of the property that will have the most development, is located. The sanctuary has already placed alpacas on the property and plans to begin habitat construction and animal placement this fall. Drotar said he does not anticipate the property being open to the general public on a scale similar to the Keenesburg facility but perhaps open annually to donors. The donors known as founder members have donated $777, the price of one acre.

CONCERNED ABOUT COW COUNTRY

House District 64 Representative Kimmi Lewis, R, said the property is located in the middle of cow country and she has concerns not only for the safety of people and livestock, but about the intentions of the group.

Lewis ran across an ad on United Airlines for the sanctuary touting the $777 founder members donation. Her concern, though, was with an image of a caged tiger with the words "Set her free!" below. Based on the set up of the Keenesburg facility, a walkway located above a number of pens that allows visitors to walk above and view animals, Lewis said it is misleading to advertise setting the animals free.

Lewis said she understands the need for a facility to house rescued animals but placing them in the middle of what she calls cow country, isn't ideal. Several news reports have reported that the sanctuary has recently taken in lions from South Korea that mauled and killed their keeper.

"I'm concerned about cow country," she said. "Historically, Baca and Las Animas counties have been known as cow country. Agriculture is the backbone of these counties. They have the right to own that land but the right to bring those large carnivores in the middle of cow country. I'm questioning their right."

Lewis, who is a former president of the Southern Colorado Livestock Association, said the group has passed a resolution opposing the sanctuary and will carry the resolution forward to the convention. She expects the Colorado Independent CattleGrowers to pass a similar resolution at their annual meeting in Pueblo July 20-21.

Drotar will be available to answer questions at the SCLA meeting on Saturday, July 14 at the Branson Community Center at 2 p.m. Lewis said the SCLA is one of the largest producer groups in the state and she will be in attendance to defend the rights of cattle producers affected.

"Agriculture is the backbone," she said. "The reason why there's a bank on every corner in these little towns, it's because of agriculture." ❖

— Spencer Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She lives on a farm near Wiggins, Colo., where she and her family raise cattle and show goats.