Steve Gibbs/Circa 71 Media
Nola, the 600-pound white tiger leaps ten feet in a single bound onto the chain-link fence containing her. To our relief, it’s not us, but Conga, the German Shepard-sized leopard, taunting the big cat from a nearby enclosure.
Lions and tigers and bears. Is it possible to say the words without at least thinking of Dorothy’s punch line? But a stronger exclamation might be appropriate as Nola the 600-pound white tiger leaps ten feet in a single bound onto the chain-link fence containing her. To our relief, it’s not us, but Conga, the German Shepard-sized leopard taunting the big cat from a nearby enclosure, that is the target of what, in the wild, could have proven a deadly vault. As Conga retreats, Nola hits the ground with a somehow graceful thud before slithering into the comfort of her luxury watering hole.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs/Circa 71 Media
Aside from being a musical chorus, Lions Tigers & Bears is the name of the big cat and exotic animal rescue facility in Alpine, situated on 94 acres of pristine scrub oak and sagebrush on a parcel rivaling the African savanna for stillness and sparse beauty.
While Lions Tigers & Bears was opened by Alpine native and facility director Bobbi Brink and her husband Mark in 2003, the seed for the operation was planted years earlier. Back in 1990, Bobbi was living in Sugar Land, Texas running a restaurant and a hay farm. According to her, “I was flipping through the newspaper when I saw an ad for big, exotic cats that were being bred and sold. Out of curiosity, I answered the ad and ended up at a mobile home on five acres where they kept 33 big cats while their cubs crawled all over the ground. The cats were being bred for big names like Disney and Siegfried & Roy, but the breeders would sell to any willing buyers for $200 to $800. Later, I discovered that most of the people who bought these animals as pets couldn’t properly care for them, and eventually looked to find a sanctuary.”
Lions Tigers & Bears is the only accredited animal sanctuary of its kind in San Diego. While similar to a zoo in some ways, it differs in others. The main difference is that a sanctuary does not breed, buy, or sell the animals under its care. Additionally, the majority of sanctuary animals have been rescued from abusive environments or were victims of the multi-billion dollar exotic animal trade. Lions Tigers & Bears lacks four-deep crowds, cement walking paths, tour buses, and gift shops. Attendees come into close-yet-safe proximity (36 inches to be exact) to creatures that could prove deadly if encountered in the wild.
Lions Tigers & Bears was opened by Bobbi Brink and her husband Mark in 2003.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs/Circa 71 Media
The sanctuary houses 65 different animals from 17 species, including lions, tigers, American and Himalayan black bears, grizzly bears, leopards, bobcats, mountain lions, and servals. One of the lions has had her teeth filed down, and most of the bears have been declawed after being confined for years within cinder block walls referred to as “the pits.” None of these alterations make the animals any less intimidating.
There’s a sense of intimacy, but no danger here. That’s not accidental. According to Brink, “These are wild, top-of-the-food-chain apex predators with innate instincts. They’re dangerous and can turn on a dime. You can’t get that out of them. Because of that, everyone here has safety training. All the keepers work in pairs, and enclosures are double fenced, even though only one fence is required by law. When cleaning habitats, we shift the animals into their bedroom enclosures until we’re finished. We are a strictly no-contact facility, and nobody ever goes into the enclosures with the animals. They know the routine, and that they’ll get their treats when they come out.”
A moment of enlightenment occurred for Bobbi when she volunteered to help a keeper tend his bears back in Texas in the early ’90s. According to her, “He would leave the bears for days with no care and if I didn’t feed them, they would have starved. I soon called the sheriff, Animal Control, the Humane Society, and any other animal-related facility to seek help. They couldn’t do anything, however, because it was perfectly legal to keep bears as long as they had food and water and could stand upright on their own.
“One day, I saw the keeper load up the bears and I followed him from Southwest Houston, Texas to the Arkansas border. Once there, he set up this big ring where you could wrestle a bear for a $1000 while the spectators bet on the outcome.
“After that, I looked around and began to see that in Texas, the exotic animal trade was everywhere. I’d see tigers for sale in Walmart parking lots, or at auctions, where they were held up by the back of the neck and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Most times, the breeders were selling them right out of their houses. From then on, I tried to give these animals a voice and a better life.”
Conga the leopard
Photograph by Steve Gibbs/Circa 71 Media
As one might imagine, the idea of sheltering wild animals in San Diego County was met with some resistance. According to Bobbi, “It took a couple of years to get our permits. We surpassed the minimum safety standards and even then we had one neighbor complain. Although she lived hundreds of acres away, she was fearful of what she thought might happen. She has since apologized for what she put us through. She didn’t understand how safe our facility would be, and that if we didn’t rescue these animals, they wouldn’t have had anywhere to go.”
Because of Lions Tigers & Bears, Nola the white tiger has a good home. She wouldn’t exist at all, however, without human involvement. Nola weighs in at around 600 pounds. Her white coat aside, she is everything you would expect from a tiger: powerful, fast, agile, graceful, and potentially deadly. She paces near the fence as we observe her. Then, without warning, she leaps toward Conga the leopard with savage ferocity. Conga is saved by the fence between them.
“The only way to get a white tiger,” according to Brink, “is through inbreeding. They all have bone deformities, crossed eyes, and visual problems." If you look closely, you can see that Nola’s eyes are crossed. “You won’t see any [Association of Zoos & Aquariums]-accredited zoos breeding white tigers. In the wild, there might be one of them born for every 10,000 births. Our tigers, Nola and Moka, are about two years old now and they’ll continue growing for about two more years. Moka’s scared of anything new, but Nola has no fear.”
While Nola was humanly engineered for appearance, Louie the white lion is a natural blond. Louie was “captive-bred,” but white lions, while rare in nature, do exist. According to Bobbi, “White lions come from Timbavati, South Africa where there are only 10 to 15 of them left in the wild.”
In the wild, a lion’s favorite meal includes zebra, giraffe, and antelope on the hoof, most with their flesh still twitching while they bleed to death. But lions will settle for most any flesh they can get their paws on, about half of it being carrion. When they do take down live food, it’s generally the females performing the honors. Once the victim has fallen, the pride eats quickly to avoid sharing their prey with other species of predators. Since the next meal could be days away, the lions eat as much as 15 percent of their body weight (up to 90 pounds) in a sitting.
Most mornings, Louie devours 13 pounds of raw chicken, beef, duck, elk, horse, or rabbit along with his supplements. Mimicking his diet in the wild, Louie fasts one to two days a week. Like most sanctuary male lions, he was never neutered, because male lions will lose their manes and the tips of their tails if they are. The females, Arusha and Zulu, are spayed, however. All three of the sanctuary’s lions have been retired from traveling shows and the movie industry.
Lions Tigers & Bears is the only accredited animal sanctuary of its kind in San Diego. While similar to a zoo in some ways, it differs in others. The main difference is a sanctuary does not breed, buy, or sell the animals under its care.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs/Circa 71 Media
According to Bobbi, “Arusha is the boss of the pride, and Louie needs to seek her permission when he wants to come close by to rest in the grass near her. He will mount the females occasionally, but they have a way of communicating in similar ways that a wife does to a husband. Louie knows when he is allowed to come around or not.
“Sometimes, all three lions will be lumped together in one place, while at other times, Arusha makes Louie sit apart from her and Zulu. Whatever Arusha does, Zulu does the same. We think Arusha and Zulu are sisters, but we’re not certain. They’ve been near each other since birth, but until recently they were in separate enclosures. You have to be careful when you put animals together that have never before shared the same space, because they could kill each other. We had to introduce them slowly. It’s a very long and slow process — if we attempt to introduce them at all. If we’re not sure, we don’t do it. Lions are naturally pride animals and want to be together. Leopards and tigers are more solitary.
Lions Tigers & Bears is surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest, and the vibe lies somewhere between a bush outpost and a five-star hotel for some of the toughest critters on earth. They may share instinctual traits, but these animals are unlike their forebears who once earned dinner the old fashioned way— chasing it down and killing it.
The annual cost of feeding a big cat is between $10,000 and $15,000 per year. Meals are well measured, prepared fresh daily, and offered on a three-foot-long fork through a wire fence. Feeding is a big job, but there are other, less immediately gratifying ones that need doing. Enclosures need to be cleaned. Visiting students need supervision and instruction. Emails and phone calls need to be returned. As you might imagine, there are dozens of other little and big jobs, including wading through a sea of paperwork. There’s always something for the 21-person paid staff and 80 to 82 volunteers to do. According to Bobbi, “We can always use more volunteers.”
Also according to Bobbi, “The hardest part of this job is that you get very attached, especially to animals who have suffered the most abuse, because you spend more time working with them. Over time, you get to know each animal in a variety of ways. You watch their eyes and how they move to determine their emotional states. It soon becomes apparent that each one of them has a different personality. It’s your job as a keeper to know your animals.
“We get a lot of bobcats and servals. People bring these cats home, thinking they’re going to be house pets, but it doesn’t work out. Once they sexually mature, they become aggressive. Sometimes they escape and sometimes people realize that they have to get the animal out of the house.
Moka is about two years old. Brink says “Moka’s scared of anything new.”
Photograph by Steve Gibbs/Circa 71 Media
“We get a lot of calls about bears. It starts when people feed them. Bears are so smart; they know where to find a food source. Once they do, they keep coming back to the same places until eventually, they get into trouble. The key is to keep them afraid of humans, keep them wild, and not to feed them. If you’re going to feed a wild bear, you might as well just shoot it because it’s going to cost the bear its life. We have a saying: ‘A fed bear’s a dead bear.’
“At the bear pits, you will see some bears displaying behavior that can only be described as psychotic. They pace back and forth and are stressed. You will see them pacing normally, but there’s good pacing and bad pacing.
“Our grizzly bears, Cherry Bomb and her late brother Albert, came out of a roadside attraction in North Carolina. They were confined there in “bear pits,” which are cinderblock enclosures in the ground. There’s a boardwalk where people can look down into the pits and throw food to them while the bears can’t see anything except them and the sky above. It’s heartbreaking to see.
“Many of these bears are put into breeding pairs, and their babies are pulled from their mothers when they’re about six to eight days old — before they can even open their eyes. Then the babies are put up for public photo opportunities. Because our bears were housed on concrete floors before they came here, they tend to get arthritis when they get older. Here, for the first time, they can get out on the dirt and walk around. It’s really good for them.
“When they are raised for entertainment, bears are given sugar-flavored drinks and sugary cereal to get them to cooperate and do photos. They often end up with malnutrition and neurological diseases. When we got Albert, he couldn’t walk, and Cherry Bomb would only walk on her tiptoes. They ended up in someone’s backyard as pets. Then, of course, the owner couldn’t keep them any longer, and here they are. The wife of the man who kept them still comes out here on her vacation and spends a week volunteering with us.
“Worse than anything are the “canned hunt ranches,” where you can pay to shoot a bear or another exotic animal in its enclosure and take home the carcass as a trophy. I don’t get how anyone could shoot a living, breathing, beautiful animal.
“Bears naturally eat more in the summer than they do at other times. In summertime, they can eat anywhere from 10-25 pounds. They forage for food and are omnivores so they eat cooked meats, raw fish, raw fruits and veggies, grain or nut breads, raw nuts, nut spreads, and fruit spreads. Avocados, however, are a favorite.
“Two of our Himalayan black bears, Teddy and Baloo, are brothers. They were bounced around from roadside zoo to roadside zoo until they ended up in someone’s backyard as pets in North Carolina. The owners couldn’t keep them any longer, and here they are. As babies, they were declawed. They can still climb trees, but they can’t get back down. We let them climb trees that are more horizontal than vertical.
“Like all the animals that end up here, our bears improve emotionally because now they have space to move. They can dig, they have rocks and pools; they pretty much have everything here, including medical, dental, and daily room service. We say of all the animals that come here that they have gone from rags to riches. When bears are kept in small enclosures, they get bored and often chew on the iron bars of their cages. Because of that, a lot of the bears that come here need a lot of dental work. We do root canals and fillings, and almost anything a person would have done by a dentist.
“Ninety percent of the animals we receive have been abused before they get here. Many times, we give them the first medical care they’ve ever had. We try not to dart them when we rescue them. When we go on a rescue, we provide a thorough medical assessment right there in the field. When an animal arrives at our sanctuary, they are placed into our quarantine area, which gives them time to get acclimated and for any medical issues to be addressed. Then we take our time to introduce them to their new habitat. This is not a one-man job. There has to be somebody on the property 24 hours a day. We have nine vets that work with us."
The need is great and the work unending, says Bobbi. “An estimated 10,000 big cats are being kept in backyards and roadside zoos, and most of them are living in deplorable conditions. If you see a place selling exotic animals and there are a lot of babies, that’s a really bad sign. Most of those animals become disposable once they get bigger. A lot of places will breed a couple hundred animals a year, and suddenly, they disappear. There’s no federal tracking of these animals. But there’s not one legitimate place in our country that offers photo opportunities now.
“I have easily driven 300,000 miles placing cats in sanctuaries. My team and I once moved 300 lions, tigers, bears, and cougars out of Ohio after the state law passed prohibiting possession of exotic animals. Before that, every type of animal you can imagine was being sold in that state. When we go on raids, the first responders go in and secure the people first. We come in behind them and secure the animals. Sometimes, you want to free the animal and put the person who has been abusing it in the cage.
“We get some grants from family foundations. One of the pools the animals use came from a grant from Pam Slater when she was a county supervisor. Still, we are constantly fundraising."
Initially, the Lions Tigers & Bears gala was scheduled for May 9th. It has always been a family event, and the biggest annual fundraiser; they seat about 600 people. They hoped to raise around $250,000 of their $2.8 million operating costs at that time. COVID-19, however, threw a wrench in the event while closing the park to the public.
Brink had hoped to use some of the profits from the gala for “expansion of habitat, so we can accommodate more animals and have the funding required to aid animals in other regions of the country. We recently traveled to the Philippines to do medical on some animals. We were trying to get the animals moved, but that’s difficult because their country has never before released exotic animals to the United States."
While Brink attempts to aid needy animals internationally, there’s still a lot to be done at home. “Right now, we’re working on a law in the state of Virginia to make the private possession of exotic animals illegal there. We’re also working on a federal bill, the ‘Big Cat Public Safety Act,’ that would make it illegal to own big cats as pets. The resistance to these bills comes primarily from the breeders and roadside menageries. They make a lot of money on exotic animals, and they argue that a tiger is their private property and that it’s their constitutional right to own them as pets or to breed them. They call what they’re doing conservation, but it isn’t. Nola (the white tiger) has no conservation value, that’s why you’ll never see an [Association of Zoos & Aquariums] zoo breeding white tigers. These animals can’t go back into the wild, or they wouldn’t be here.
“When we started Lions Tigers & Bears in 2003, 23 states allowed private possession of exotic animals; now there are seven. It’s all about greed for them. For us, it’s all about education.
“My husband Mark and I live right above the lion enclosure where we can hear them and the other animals at night. For me, that sound is my paycheck for the work we do, and it’s something I love sharing with others. To that end, we have a few rooms where people can spend the night.”
Brink's obvious comfort in natural surroundings makes me wonder if these her charm and ease of conversation transfer to artificial environments, where she is forced to speak on behalf of her beloved animals, not in jeans and work boots, but, more likely, in evening gown and heels. I get the impression that little but her love for the animals who depend on her for their lives would lead her to make this sacrifice. When questioned about fundraising she said, “I am a true country girl and only go to town for business, and wear a dress and heels when necessary.”
As of this writing, Lions, Tigers & Bears expect to be open by July 1st of this year. Until then, private “behind the scenes” visits can be booked for those desiring to see wild animals that are given human care.