Denise Flores runs Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center — caring for displaced or neglected big cats.
She is concerned the Ohio legislature will adopt new regulations that could make it financially impossible for her to continue caring for unwanted big cats like Nora, 10, or Katie, 7.
If the proposed rules go into effect, small operations like hers that can’t afford to comply may resort to euthanasia, she fears.
“I don’t think they realize the extent of how this is going to affect all of the animals,” Flores said.
Instead, she would like to see Ohio crack down on exotic animal breeding operations — and on auctions where casual customers have been able to purchase wild animals, almost on a whim, with little knowledge of their needs.
“It’s those people who, down the road, are calling you, saying ‘I can’t take care of this cougar!’ ” the Ashland woman said.
The Ohio General Assembly is pondering a bill that would require small rescue operations like hers to purchase expensive liability policies, and microchip their animals, Flores said.
She grew so concerned about her ability to comply she started searching for accredited sanctuaries outside Ohio that could offer her rescued big cats a better life.
“I’m going to give the four youngest ones a chance at life,” Flores said. “They deserve to live. They didn’t ask to be put into this world.”
Nikita, a 7-year-old tiger, and Tasha, an 11-year-old cougar, recently were transferred to The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn. In May, Nora and Katie will be moved to Wildcat Haven in Sherwood, Ore.
“I just got lucky. They (the sanctuaries) could have said ‘no,’ ” she said.
Flores’ remaining big cats are older animals: Ticha, 13; Taz, 14; Delilah, 15; and Sammie, 16. Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center is 8 miles north of Ashland, on 820 Ohio 511.
Flores has 20 years of experience working with wild animals. She and her husband met while working at a 400-acre wildlife park in Texas, where she was park manager and he was a caretaker. In 1997, the business’ assets were auctioned “out of the blue,” she said.
“A lot of people showed up that were buying animals for canned hunts. They weren’t screening people.”
She expressed dismay to women she had been asked to show around. At the end of the day, to her surprise, they forwarded a sales slip granting her ownership of Sammie, Delilah and Taz.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh? What am I going to do with them?” she remembers.
The park’s new owner allowed her to keep them on the premises.
“We probably saved them from certain death or whatever happened to the others,” Flores said. “A lot of the big cats went to not-so-good places.”
She vowed to keep the tigers safe for the rest of their lives. Two baby tigers were given to her by a veterinarian who treated them after they were attacked by a Rottweiler.
“He was not going to give them back to the owners,” Flores said.
Flores, who has family in Ohio, worked for Noah’s Lost Ark in the Youngstown area — feeding and watering 100 big cats every day.
Between 1999 and 2003, she took care of Lorain County resident Sam Mazzola’s exotic animals. After he was found dead at 49 last summer, she learned he had made arrangements to turn over some of his tigers to her.
“One was like a skeleton. She was starved. I just cried when I saw her,” Flores said. “I put 70 pounds on her.”
Some of her big cats have emotional quirks that probably developed after they were used extensively for photo opportunities.
Sammie, a large male, came in declawed on all four feet, requiring that she pay attention to the type of flooring provided in his cage.
“They were breeding and selling cats,” Flores said. “They would declaw them in advance, because they’d get more money for them.
“All of my animals are rescue animals. They’re not pets.”
The Flores have lived in the Ashland area since December 2005.
Except for a short period when U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors asked Tiger Paw Exotic Rescue Center to build an 8-foot-high perimeter fence surrounding the tiger cages, which are kept locked, the facility has been USDA compliant, Flores said.
The Ashland County Sheriff’s Department was provided a list of all of Flores’ animals, and has been told to shoot if an animal somehow escapes, she said.
Though Flores bottle-fed some of her tigers as babies, and they are accustomed to being in fairly close proximity to her, she would never consider being in a cage with them.
“If you fall, you’re taking a chance. Tigers have a natural instinct to go after things,” Flores said. “I’ve never been injured by these animals, because I have a protocol for handling them.”
The Ashland woman said she watched with consternation after Zanesville resident Terry Thompson apparently let 56 wild animals escape from his farm. State officials considered tighter regulations after the incident, in which all but a handful of the exotic creatures were put down.
“It’s all going to come to an end because of what they (the state) want to impose on us,” she said. “What they want to put into place, I’m not going to be able to do.”
Flores works at a cleaning job, earning less than $10,000 annually. To keep Tiger Paw operating, she obtains expired meat through a Wal-Mart program to help animal shelters.
“The fees (per animal) and the liability insurance would cost me at least $10,000 a year,” she said. “And the cost of microchipping? I don’t even know, because they want that with transponders.”
Tigers have to be sedated to be microchipped, a risk for elderly cats who may not survive the procedure, she said. Insurance to keep exotic animals “is not even available in Ohio,” and policies from some out-of-state companies “don’t pay out” if anything happens, Flores said.
Instead, Flores would like to see Ohio adopt a program that is friendlier to small rescue operations doing things the right way.
“They need to weed out those bad places from the ones that are doing things right,” Flores said. “It’s the people that are hiding things where they have the problems.”
Ohio should create a program to register exotics, so law enforcement can keep tabs on who owns them, she said. The USDA requirements for exotic animal care, cage space and safety precautions should be adopted by the state, she said.
In addition, Ohio should discourage exotic animal breeding and auctions of wild animals to people who aren’t equipped to care for them safely and properly after they reach their full size.
“That’s the problem, they’re so darned cute as babies,” Flores said.
firstname.lastname@example.org ASHLAND, OHIO April 11, 2012