Denise Flores completed a familiar chore Sunday morning — using a garden hose to fill metal bowls with water for her tigers.
“You’re not going to grab the hose,” Flores chided. “You want to play …”
It was destined to be a bittersweet morning for the Ashland woman, as the clock ticked down on her time with her four remaining cats.
Denise and Jose Flores run Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center in large enclosures behind their house on Ohio 511, north of Ashland.
They began seeking new homes for the animals this spring, as they prepared for House Bill 310 to go into effect. Ohio’s new exotic animals law, enacted after a Zanesville man turned wild animals loose from their cages and then committed suicide, resulted in new requirements the couple doubted they could afford.
By June, Denise had transferred the four youngest of her eight tigers to Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn., and Wildcat Haven in Sherwood, Ore.
But she’d hoped to keep the four oldest animals — Sammy, 17; Delilah, 15; Taz, 14; and Ticha, 13.
Two weeks ago, she realized she’d have to find new homes for them, too.
Jose Flores recently was hospitalized. Medical bills have tipped the balance on their ability to keep their tiger rescue operation going, Denise said. Facing foreclosure, she said, they have begun making plans to move to an apartment, which will be closer to her husband’s job in northern Ohio.
Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Indiana was contacted to see if it could take in any or all of the four remaining tigers.
Black Pine’s director, Lori Gagen, and assistant director, Kati Speer, drove three and a half hours to Ashland on Sunday afternoon to take a first look.
Before making a commitment, they will confer with their nonprofit agency’s board, Gagen said Sunday.
If the animals are moved, that could occur by mid-October.
Tigers accepted by Black Pine would be placed in temporary living quarters. Fundraising would then begin to allow them to be housed in more spacious quarters, Gagen said.
Black Pine Animal Sanctuary houses close to 50 species of animals, including primates, big cats, reptiles and grazing animals.
“We take maybe 10 percent of the animals we encounter that need re-homed,” Gagen said. “We want to make sure that the animals we take really have no other options.”
Flores’ biggest concern has been finding homes for the older animals, which are harder to place.
“Hi, Buddy!” Gagen said Sunday, getting her first look at Taz shortly after arriving at Tiger Paw.
Denise pointed out a raised knot on Taz’ hind leg where cagemate Ticha had apparently nipped him. The fur on the leg had been sprayed with a medical ointment, which Ticha then began to lick off.
Sammy, the oldest tiger, and Delilah, his cagemate, were introduced next.
“With Sammy’s pain and arthritis issues, that’s one of the reasons we’re down here to take a look,” Gagen said.
As she paused near Sammy’s cage to take a photo, a low growl rumbled out of the 460-pound animal. “That’s all right.” Gagen said. “If he looks (ticked off), our donors will want to help him.”
Jose and Denise worked for a series of wildlife parks and other big cat operations, before starting their own rescue operation for unwanted big cats.
Jose told visitors how Taz saved his life in 2001, when he was in a cage with several tigers, at another facility. Animals began fighting. Taz blocked another tiger from attacking him, he said.
“Taz, he jumped in front of me,” he said, miming how the tiger reared up, claws out, until the other animal backed off.
That facility did not have lockdown areas where animals could be directed to make it safe for people to enter the cage, Denise said. Early in their careers, they were willing to take that chance, she said.
“That’s how we were trained. There’s no way I would ever do that now. I’d never go in with big cats.”
Jose separated himself a few minutes later from the visitors, spending quiet time with Taz. The male jumped up onto a perch made from a utility line spool, then flopped down with his paws over the edge, close to him.
“Hey, boy! You relaxed?” Jose asked.
Later, in the house, Denise felt emotions rise up.
She wondered what might happen to an elderly tiger like Sammy, if by default he were placed with a new owner who only cared about an animal’s cash value. She worried he could be euthanized.
“Most places don’t want elderly tigers,” she said. “But he can’t remain here. I’m not going to see someone come in here and do that like he’s nothing. I’ve dedicated my life to these cats and trying to keep them safe.”
Exotic animals owners’ concerns about being forced into a horrific placement for their animals are not well understood, Gagen agreed.
“Until you’ve seen the worst of the worst of them (facilities), people just don’t get it,” she said.
Tim Harrison, director for a Dayton based nonprofit group, Outreach for Animals, was among the group assembled at the Flores’ house Sunday.
Harrison said he has been impressed with Jose and Denise Flores’ ability to deal with animals who were mistreated by past owners.
“You did a perfect job with these cats,” he told them. “The cats were brought over from some very bad facilities.”
Flores said her beliefs have changed since she first began working with big cats. Now, she believes no individuals should be permitted to breed, sell or own big cats, unless a sanctuary with Black Pine’s considerable resources is involved.
“This (giving up the last cats) is something I never thought I’d have to do,” she said.
Harrison has begun forming a plan to move the metal tiger enclosures on the Flores’ property to a new location.
The Outreach for Animals director would then work with state officials in hopes the enclosures can be used as temporary holding facilities for tigers, lions or bears.
Gov. John Kasich supports a plan to build a multi-million dollar temporary holding facility for exotic animals seized from owners who can’t meet state regulations near the state agriculture department offices just outside Reynoldsburg, according to news reports this week.
Harrison said he believes it makes more sense to allow experienced animal handlers to care for animals at existing facilities, rather than build a hugely expensive new state facility.
“I would like to see people like these (the Floreses) taking care of these animals,” he said.
Photos by DAVE POLCYN, News Jouirnal