NOTE: This is a narrative piece I wrote that didn’t get finished in time for publishing, but I’m still proud of the level of reporting I accomplished and how I’m progressing as a journalist. Some things have changed since this piece was written, but I invite you to sit back and read it.
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Bobbi Marie Brink slips on purple latex gloves. She wears brown hiking boots, jeans, and a dark shirt with rolled up sleeves, with the logo: “Lions, Tigers, and Bears.” She stomps through manicured green grass with her assistant beside her, who wheels in a wagon stacked with stainless steel containers each holding up to fifteen pounds of chunked raw pork, beef, and chicken, food for her brood of hungry felines.
With over ninety total acres of hilly terrain in Japatul Valley, a California town in the foothills of San Diego’s backcountry, this non-profit animal sanctuary is cordoned off with electrical wire fencing. Brink and her husband cohabit ate here along with ten bears, three lions, two tigers, three bobcats, a mountain lion, leopard, African serval and a group of domesticated rescued ranch animals.
This is not a zoo, and don't you dare call it one. It is a no-breed, no-kill accredited facility where large bears roam on their shared plot of land. Their big cats live in their own habitats among large pools, hammocks and heated concrete dens. Out in this open space, gusts of wind carry the faint odor of cat fur and a group of peafowl parades through the ranch, squawking like throaty songstresses.
Forty-nine-year-old Brink doesn’t have children. Instead, she has given her life to these animals, many of them previously malnourished, endangered, and feeble backyard pets of collectors, exhibitors, and breeders who wanted to own exotic animals but didn’t properly care for them. Brink carefully shifts her cats from one habitat to the other, using a metal stick through the fence to lift the latches and directs them into empty enclosures while she sprays, scrapes, scrubs, and rakes their habitats clean.
From the outside, Brink separates Bakari the lion from his sisters Jillian and Suri, each 350 pounds. She’s had them at her sanctuary since 2007, when they were all just four-weeks-old. Bakari, the seven-year-old male weighs around 585 pounds. He grunts impatiently as Brink pulls out a barbecue fork and sticks out a thick slab of meat, pushing it through the fence between them. He takes one, two, three sumptuous bites and licks the fence after each gulp. Bakari lies down. Brink kneels in front of him. It’s a quiet moment, which she doesn’t get much of these days like she used to when she started.
“It takes a team to care for these animals,” Brink says. “I was infatuated with them before I started, but then I quickly learned what it takes to care for them.”
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When Brink was a child she brought home a stray cat and told her father that it followed her on the walk back from school. She used to decorate her paper bag book covers in doodles of tigers, dreaming that she would one day work with them.
After high school, Bobbi worked many jobs in the restaurant business throughout San Diego County and eventually became a manager, where she trained new service employees. Despite her success in the industry, she ditched it all, and in 1992 she moved to Sugar Land, Texas with the goal of starting her own Italian restaurant. At the time, the city was thriving economically and had minimal sales tax; she thought it was the perfect place to start her own business and serve up her favorite lasagna dish.
While looking through the local ads for restaurant equipment, Brink noticed several classified ads selling tigers on the front page. Why would someone sell a tiger? And how did they get a tiger in Texas in the first place?
She called one of the breeders and spoke to Devera, a single woman who housed up to 30 cats and made a living breeding big cats, claiming to have sold tabby tigers-or rare golden white tigers- to Walt Disney and Siegfried and Roy. Brink asked if she could come over and get a glimpse of these majestic creatures.
Devera lived in a mobile home that sat on five acres of land, just an hour north of her home in Sugar Land. They quickly became friends, and Brink helped care for her big cats on and off for five years. It was through Devera where she learned husbandry and how to properly build their cages.
Around the same time Brink found Devera’s classified ad on the newspaper, she pulled up another ad and contacted a man, who she describes as an evil, gruffy old guy whose name wasn’t worth remembering. His bears were used for photo ops at hunting conventions, where people paid to take photos or for a chance to wrestle with his bears.
His animals were often left in unsturdy cages without food and water, where they curled up in their own feces, which stuck to their concrete dens like putty. Upon discovering this Brink called animal control, the local Sheriff, and the HSUS to report his negligence and to have his business shut down with no success.
Despite these deplorable conditions, Brink offered to care for his bears because he wouldn’t. Brink eventually came to the realization that she was the sole caregiver of those bears and felt as if she was also enabling this man. She parted ways with him and his bears, where their fate fell on uncertain hands. It was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do.
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No one knows exactly how many tigers are privately owned in the U.S., but a report provided by the Humane Society estimated that up to 7,000 are held in the country, with fewer than 400 living in accredited zoos. Many of them, Brink fears, are kept in tiger farms, exotic hunting ranches, or in private homes that breed for profit with no regard for their well-being.
In today’s digital world, all it takes is a quick Internet search to acquire an exotic animal through the black market. While the illegal wildlife trade has always been a lucrative business, grossing billions of dollars annually, it has since spiked- as the world population grows, so does the demand for wildlife.
Brink is active in legislating H.R. 1998, a bill that would prohibit the breeding and possession of big cats in unaccredited facilities. Although the bill didn’t pass last year (2014), she knows that all it takes is small steps toward a larger goal. Her hope is to at least have these tigers microchipped by law.
“We need to take it in baby steps- we need to know where all the animals are,” Brink says, “For instance, you need a license to have a dog, but don’t need one to own a lion or a tiger. If we could get them to at least have a registry, that would be huge.”
Many people think an owner needs a federal permit to have them, but they don’t. They only need a permit if they are exhibiting to the public, Brink says.
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After five years in business, Brink’s Italian restaurant was sold and she moved back to Alpine, California in 1997, where she reunited with her family and old friends, including a man named Mark, a custom paint and vinyl graphic designer whom she hadn’t seen since high school. They dated and got married shortly after. Brink had long settled into her new apartment with her husband.
Then in 2002, Devera left her a message: The news in town reported that a man named Grant from Alvin, Texas had put an ad in the paper for two Bengal tigers, but threatened to kill them after the Texas Fish & Game warned him that they would seize the tigers because of his negligence. Brink called, and the authorities warned her that she had 30 days to obtain permits from the city and pick them up from his property or else they would be seized. Brink felt the urge to step in.
Brink and her husband searched for a large property to house those two grown Bengal tigers from Grant’s property, named Raja and Natasha. Two properties in escrow fell through, until a friend of Brink’s named Elizabeth “Cis” Nunnery offered her backyard as a temporary habitat for them.In September 2002, Raja and Natasha arrived to their new home, with a modest twenty-four by twenty-four foot cage, built for their arrival in Cis’s backyard.
On a drizzly November night in 2002, an unusual feeling nudged Brink out of bed. “I think something’s wrong with the tigers,” she said. “Go back to sleep, you’re crazy,” Mark whispered, half asleep.Brink sat up. She couldn’t ignore it: she had to drive out to the property where the tigers were. When Brink arrived, Raja, the male tiger, was peeking through the chain link fence into Natasha’s enclosure, watching her closely. Natasha breathed heavily through her nostrils, sprawled on her side.
She looked like she carried two bowling balls in her stomach. Her legs were limp like jelly: she was in labor.Brink called her best friend Barbara. “Come over now,” Brink said, delighted. “We’re going to be mothers!”Natasha gave birth to three cubs: two females had survived, but the last male cub didn’t make it.
When Barbara arrived, Natasha was licking herself in her den. Barbara weighed one of the cubs; two pounds, seven ounces. The cub’s eyes were closed, but one of them was hissing and making spitting noises. Barbara named her Tabu, also known as “Bu.” Brink named the other cub Sitarra, after Sigfried and Roy’s long-time sidekick, a pure white tiger that spelled Sitara.At first, Cis had no intention of selling her property, but her husband had recently passed away, and touched by Brink’s dedication to her tigers, Cis decided to sell her the property, saying she would be proud to pass it down to the Brink family, which had been in her family since 1948, and the ranch had been there since 1876.
It was then, that “Lions, Tigers, and Bears” was born, named in honor of Mark’s father, who passed away before the sanctuary opened. Before his death, the couple used to visit him in Sonoita, Arizona, and while bedridden, he warned the couple, “Watch out for those lions, tigers, and bears when you go hiking!”Since then, Brink has expanded the sanctuary outward by more than ten acres of land, with a new 5-6-acre bear habitat that opened in May.
One of the sanctuary’s inhabitants is Meatball 210, the infamous Glendale, Calif. black bear whose misadventures includes rummaging through trash cans and breaking into a garage and helping himself to a bag of frozen meatballs from the fridge. In his honor, the City of Glendale dedicated a float to him at this year’s Rose Parade as the poster bear to promote the coexistence between humans and wildlife.Liberty the black bear used to live in the Angeles National Forest and learned to get food from campers and was brought to the sanctuary by a Fish & Game agent.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife policy says that if the frequent presence of a bear becomes a threat to human life, they may be captured and euthanized or killed on site without a permit by a public safety officer or a department employee.The department conservatively estimates the current black bear population in California to be between 17,000-23,0000. Many of them become habituated to humans as they forage for food, which puts them at risk- Meatball 210 and Liberty were spared from euthanization.
There are three functioning wells on site, but electrical bills run up to $3,000 a month. The cost per animal, Brink says, runs at about $10,000 a year, which doesn’t include the upkeep of their individual habitats. The total cost for the new 5-acre bear habitat added this year was $300,000. All of this wouldn’t be possible, she says, without putting in her and husband’s personal funds and the long list of private donors who make it happen.Brink has come to love the animals as if they were her family. Last year (2013),
Sitarra ruptured a disc and severed her spinal cord while she was playing in her enclosure. She was paralyzed and humanely let go.Months later, Raja, her mate who suffered from arthritis, unexpectedly passed away from renal failure. These were two of Natasha’s progeny of three, with Tabu being her last. Although every big and cat and bear story touches her heart, Natasha’s grips her the most. Natasha has an arched back and she walks with limp. Her left paw is badly infected from a declawing she had while she was in captivity with Raja, where they both shared a cage smaller than a standard bedroom with concrete floors and no roof for five years.
Brink apologizes as she wipes away her tears. “Every time I talk about Raja and Sitarra’s death, I can’t help it. It breaks my heart,” she says, quietly sniffing back her tears. “When Raja died, the animals whimpered. The tigers were in pain, just like we all were. They felt it too. See, they will teach you something if you listen.”What have they taught her? Patience, she says, looking out at the sanctuary she has built. “I’m no hero. My work is far from over.”
* For more information on Bobbi Brink’s “Lions, Tigers, and Bears” exotic animal sanctuary, please visit her website at http://lionstigersandbears.org