Oh my! Lions, tigers and bears call San Diego County sanctuary home

A dirt road near Cleveland National Forest leads high up to an old ranch bathed in morning sun and silence. Then, an occasional low roar rumbles through the stillness.

Then, Louie is visible. He is a roughly 500-pound, rare white lion lying in his fenced-in bedroom. Alert and calm, Louie occasionally closes his eyes or shakes his head to ward off a fly drawn to his mammoth face and waxen mane.

Louie, 12, arrived at Lions, Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary in April with Zula and Arusha. They are not his biological sisters, but the three lions grew up together, which means they form a pride or family in lion-speak. Their trainer gave them to the sanctuary after the trio spent years performing in circuses, films and commercials.

The 94-acre sanctuary in San Diego County is home to 65 animals belonging to 17 different species, said founder Bobbi Brink. Many of the animals here were abused. To make room for more animals, the sanctuary is working on a $440,000 expansion. Plans call for a big cat habitat that will include a pool, rocks, trees, grass and a natural pond.

Lions, Tigers & Bears is among about 135 animal sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a nonprofit formed in 2007. The federation reviews a sanctuary’s animal care, availability of veterinary care, safety and the long-term sustainability of the organization to determine accreditation, said Kellie Heckman, the federation’s executive director. The accredited sanctuaries house animals ranging from monkeys, horses, tigers, lions and elephants to chickens, pigs, sheep and goats.

The work of such sanctuaries “really touches on every form of animal abuse there is,” Heckman said. “The goal of the sanctuary is to try to make it as close as possible to the natural habitat.”

Brink was honored by the federation for her work in 2015.

“She goes above and beyond, not only providing care for the animals in her sanctuary, but being an advocacy voice to create solutions for the animals in sanctuaries,” Heckman said.

Brink became passionate about rescuing animals from the exotic animal trade when she saw a newspaper ad for tiger cubs about 25 years ago in Texas. The owner was keeping the cubs in her mobile home.

“It was really hard to keep my mouth shut and just watch,” Brink said.

Soon, Brink began volunteering with anyone who worked with these animals, including breeders and exhibitors, to learn more about the animals and those who were abusing them. Rescue groups were scarce. Brink and husband, Mark, searched for three years for a home for the sanctuary before buying the Alpine property that was an old ranch in 2003.

Among the residents is Albert, a grizzly bear who shuffles near the fence to see visitors here to see him. He has neurological issues from malnourishment as a baby and being bounced among roadside zoos. The result is he walks with difficulty because he doesn’t know where he’s putting his feet, but has no pain, Brink said.

In the center of the sanctuary is Maverick, a 4-year-old tiger who authorities learned was being kept as a pet. California bans the private ownership of big cats, bears and most wild animals as pets.

Maverick was afraid of water when he arrived, but now enjoys it and is expected to love the new habitat pond through which the cats will rotate.

An alleyway allows animals to move between habitats at the sanctuary at designated times.

Many of the animals have had no medical care until they arrive at the sanctuary, said head veterinarian Jane Meier. She and a team of volunteers work with the animals to address issues ranging from root canals and eye surgery to muscle weakness from confinement in a former life.

A challenging case from about two years ago was when a rattlesnake bit the nose of Baloo, a Himalayan black bear. Baloo recovered but at the time anesthetizing him for treatment was too high-risk because the bite had affected his ability to breathe, Dr. Meier said.

“The poor’s bear’s face just swelled up. He couldn’t see and he couldn’t eat,” she said.

Now, all animals at the sanctuary receive vaccinations to protect them against rattlesnake bites.

The sanctuary relies on donations, and each animal’s care runs about $10,000 a year.

Later in the morning, Bakari, a dark-maned, male African lion who weighs about 600 pounds, munches on some chicken and beef that a member of a tour group was allowed to give him by a pole extended through the fence that contains him. Bakari, 10, was rescued as a cub from a failing sanctuary in Louisiana.

Bethany Marks, the visitor who helped feed Bakari, was thrilled by the opportunity.

“I love cats,” said Marks, who sported a tattoo of a lion along her right arm. “They’re just beautiful, magnificent creatures. Very majestic. That is the next best thing to being able to touch him. To be that close is amazing.”

Brink’s aim is to help people appreciate wild animals as they are.

“You just learn every day. If you listen, they’ll teach you,” Brink said. “I think animals don’t have greed. Their being is about survival … They show love. If you listen, they talk.”

Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.