When Meme, a Bengal tiger, arrived at the Wildcat Sanctuary she had severe arthritis, a bladder infection and open wounds on her face and hips from rubbing against her tiny cage. She was rescued from a 10’ x 10’ corn crib filled knee-high with bones. She had no insulation from the harsh winter and could barely turn around in her cage. For 20 years Meme lived like this; her primary purpose was to produce, for profit, litter after litter of cubs.
Meme is one of hundreds of cats rescued by Wildcat Sanctuary founder Tammy Thies and her team over the years. While Meme has since passed away, she remains a constant reminder of the captive wildlife crisis in America.
Wildcat Sanctuary founder Tammy Thies greets her infrequent visitors with a bright smile. Her striking blond good looks and pink fingernails belie the tireless labor that drove her to establish the nonprofit sanctuary that is home to a variety of wild cats, from cougars to tigers to lynx.
The sanctuary, which is not open to the public, is located off the beaten path, down a dirt road, in the unlikely setting of Minnesota. Beyond the gates a mix of cats rescued from breeders, exhibitors and backyards, now live in spacious enclosures – playing with balls, snoozing in specially made hammocks and peering out from under their platforms. These cats are a long way from their natural homes, but for many this is as close to freedom as they will ever know.
For Thies, it’s an even longer road from the lucrative salary she made as a 24-year-old account executive for high-profile companies like Coca-Cola, BMW and Holiday Inn. It was during this bright advertising career that she was first exposed to the wildcat crisis at a photo shoot in Minneapolis, where an exhibitor had a tiger cub on a leash. Little did Thies know that 10 years later she would be rescuing that very tiger after the exhibitor lost her life to another of her tigers. She also soon learned that throughout the United States tens of thousands of these animals are privately owned as pets and used as performers or for-profit breeding. She was stunned to learn that once they outlived their usefulness, they had nowhere to go.
Thies began volunteering, but discovered that many who claimed to be conservationists and educators were actually breeding, selling and exhibiting animals while keeping them in inappropriate, small cages.
For her, the turning point was when one exhibitor chose to put down a tiger he deemed aggressive, but wanted volunteers to put the cat on ice to be skinned and taken to a taxidermist.
“My mom had read an article on actress, activist Tippi Hedren in Parade Magazine and sent it to me,” Thies recalls. “I called Tippi to see if she could help save this tiger before it was too late and to my surprise she was the one who answered the phone! We found a sanctuary to take the tiger, but it was too late. I respected her after that and went and visited. Her sanctuary, Shambala Preserve, was the first place I visited that actually was what they said they were and Tippi convinced me more needed to be done.”
While living and working in Atlanta Thies began her rescue efforts in earnest – bringing with it the beginning of the demise of her glamorous career.
“I got a call one night at midnight from Homeland Security regarding a tiger attack in Southern Minnesota,” she says. “I had to go.” She went to her boss and requested vacation. After the rescue she commuted an hour from work to care for the cats during the disposition hearing and then drove two hours the other direction to care for the cats she already at her sanctuary – all in addition to her regular work day. One day a news team showed up at her workplace to do a rescue story and Thies was given 30 days to choose between her career – or her cats.
“While my employer had been as supportive as they could be, I could no longer do my job and run the sanctuary,” she admits. “I chose the cats.”
The need for her services surprised her and after several years she was looking for a new location with room for up to 100 cats.
“I needed my family and my future husband for support if I was really going to run a nonprofit,” she says. So she headed back to Minnesota. The move, of course, required packing up the 10 cats already in her care and moving them with her.
At the other end she was greeted by her fiancé Scott at their new home where they spent the night on a hardwood floor, sans furniture or bedding. After 285 property searches, countless volunteer hours and the dedication of a very small staff, today the sanctuary sits on 40 acres and is home to more than 110 cats, each of which is given the opportunity to behave naturally in a free-roaming environment and receive exceptional vet care at the sanctuary’s on-site animal hospital.
Among the residents are Ekaterina the tiger, who originated from an exploitative breeder in Ohio, along with another tiger, Sierra. This breeder charged the public to pet and have photos taken with adult lions and tigers that were declawed and chained down to platforms. The breeder was eventually closed down after multiple allegations of animal attacks on visitors.
Nikita, a white tiger, also calls the sanctuary home. Nikita’s first owner was an Ohio breeder, exhibitor, and ex-convict, whose history of abusing animals is notorious and well-documented. Her owner charged the public to pose for pictures with Nikita, who was taken far too young from her own mother for this purpose. It is this kind of cruelty that drives Thies to continue her work.
“I say it only takes one person to starve an animal or mistreat it, but it takes a pride of people to save one,” she says. “From the person who makes the initial complaint, to the law enforcement, to our vets, our donors, our staff and volunteers, there is a lot more positive than negative and I think it is important that people are a part of something good.”
The Wildcat Sanctuary is accredited by The American Sanctuary Association and is the only big cat sanctuary in the upper Midwest. Animals are not bought, sold, exhibited, bred or traded and they will live out their lives there. The staff also provides educational outreach to help the public understand the captive wildlife crisis.
As well, Thies has helped draft legislation that restricts the breeding and selling of exotic animals and keeping them as pets. In 2004, she played an integral role in getting a Minnesota law passed to ban private ownership of wild cats, bears and primates. In 2006, the law was strengthened by improving public safety requirements. In 2007, she was a consultant on the Iowa law banning exotic animal ownership and in 2012 has provided written testimony on both the Ohio exotic animal bill and the federal Big Cats and Public Safety Act bill.
These days Thies commutes about a day a week – not to work, but from it. Relying on exceptional, experienced staff, she leaves the sanctuary to visit her husband who works and lives in Minneapolis. Ironically allergic to cats, he completely accepts and supports his wife’s life-long, all-consuming commitment to the sanctuary’s mission.
“When he married me, he thought it was a hobby,” she laughs. “He’s a real dog guy. He jokes about our six house cats just being small wild cats that would kill you just like a tiger, but their size prevents it.”
A self-professed “planner by nature,” Thies and her board have worked to create a long-term, sustainable vision to secure the future of the sanctuary long after she is gone.
Yet her ultimate goal remains clear.
“I want to see a world where wildcat sanctuaries won’t be necessary.”
July 5, 2012 Holly Henry Examiner.com