Can Wild Animal Orphanage be brought up to par?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1995:

SAN ANTONIO, Texas––Keeping perhaps the
biggest collection of former crackhouse guard-cats in Texas,
Carol Azvestus’ Wild Animal Orphanage lies beside a nar-
row, lightly traveled road on the extreme northwestern edge
of the city, just down a low grade from an old-fashioned
Pentecostal church that still holds Sunday picnics. Scrub oaks
and grazing horses across the road complete a superficially
tranquil vista. In fact, WAO is only minutes from a major
shopping center, Sea World San Antonio, and several trans-
portation arteries, some of them being widened in anticipa-
tion of rapid development.
Already Azvestus has used almost all the land she
has. A quarantine area is going up in one of the few vacant
corners. Yet her menagerie is still rapidly growing. In addi-
tion to the 150-odd animals on site when ANIMAL PEOPLE
paid an incognito visit, another 13 big cats were to arrive
within a week from a defunct roadside zoo in North Carolina.

Space is just one of WAO’s problems. Money, as
at all sanctuaries, is another. WAO reportedly raised $95,000
last year, but spent $98,000, and is concerned that the clo-
sure of local military bases could cut donations. Animal care
conditions and some management practices are also problem-
atic. And Azvestus has antagonized many people, including
at least one local newspaper editor and several fellow sanctu-
arians. She adds to her colleagues’ annoyance with brochures
asserting, “Wild Animal Orphanage is the only shelter of its
kind in the United States licensed by the USDA under the
Animal Welfare Act.” In truth, there are hundreds of
licensed facilities comparable to WAO––and two much better
established sanctuaries, Primarily Primates and Wildlife
Rescue and Rehabilitation, are within a 40-minute drive.
Roadside zoo or sanctuary?
Wally Swett, of Primarily Primates, is tolerant of
Azvestus, opining that she’s trying to do a good thing and
learning as she goes. “But I wish she didn’t have primates,”
he adds. While the big cats at WAO seem reasonably well
adapted to their usually cramped quarters, the smaller pri-
mates are visibly distressed at their proximity to predators,
and two chimpanzees all but beg for something to do.
WRR director Lynn Cuny maintains diplomatic
silence. Azvestus was a volunteer at WRR before founding
WAO, who departed because she and Cuny didn’t see eye-to-
eye. One obvious difference of opinion involves the propriety
of supporting an erstwhile sanctuary with paid admissions.
The Association of Sanctuaries, which Cuny now heads,
holds that charging admission and admitting the general pub-
lic turns a purported sanctuary into a roadside zoo. While
WAO admits the public only on escorted tours, and had no
other guests for the hour that ANIMAL PEOPLE visited, on
a sunny Sunday afternoon, the resemblance to a roadside zoo
is evident. There are the tiger cages close to the perimeter
fence, for instance––the biggest and best cages at the site,
arranged so that the animals are clearly visible to attract
passers-by, or perhaps be harassed or even shot at. The
cyclone fencing is secure, but it isn’t tall enough to intercept
thrown objects, nor could it stop gunfire. Since the San
Antonio Zoo a few miles away has had problems with break-
ins and vandalism, the threat isn’t strictly hypothetical.
A donkey and a llama kept together in a “petting
area” are another hallmark of a roadside zoo, as is the
menagerie aspect of the back part of the lot, where many
unrelated species are kept in small concrete-floored, wire-
fenced cages resembling humane society dog runs. In addi-
tion to the big cats WAO seems best at handling, there are
raccoons, skunks, coatimundis, a badger, wolf hybrids, and
wolves. But there are no garish signs, and no neon lights,
not even at Christmas. Nor are there souvenir stands, or food
On the whole, WAO most resembles a no-kill dog-
and-cat shelter: crowded, yet clean and well-maintained.
The animals, except for the most recent admissions, have
sleek coats and seem generally healthy––even One-eyed Jack,
a severely malnourished puma who wasn’t given good odds of
survival when he arrived.
The only evidently unhealthy animals are an obese
African lioness, who came that way and is still slimming
down, and Tripoli, a former circus tiger who lost his job in
show business after suffering multiple fractures of his right
front leg in a jump. WAO has been raising funds for nearly a
year to pay for surgery to enable him to walk normally again.
Although some animals are pregnant on arrival and
give birth at WAO, most are promptly neutered; the excep-
ions are two young jaguars, who according to a WAO tour
guide have never mated.
The biggest problem at WAO, as at many relatively
new sanctuaries, is simply that the number of exotic animals
needing sanctuary greatly exceeds the resources available to
them. Azvestus and WAO have not yet learned to say “no.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Association of
Sanctuaries will be bringing facilities of this kind up to
scratch and into the fold. TAOS will have to develop out-
reach and assistance programs that respond to the realities of
fundraising and animal care as the second, third, or fourth
sanctuary in a municipal area––which does not necessarily
mean being redundant. In the San Antonio area, for instance,
there is little need for Azvestus to take primates, since
Primarily Primates is nearby and Wildlife Rescue and
Rehabilitation also takes them. There is a shortage, however,
of permanent placement facilities for exotic cats.
Sanctuarians running roadside zoo-like facilities
meanwhile must be persuaded to seek help from better-estab-
lished sanctuaries, which they may see as rivals. Until then,
many struggle to invent solutions to problems others have
long since solved.
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