Meet the Animal Sanctuary of the United States

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2001:

SAN ANTONIO, Texas–New Texas legislation allowing counties to opt into a ban on keeping any of a long list of dangerous and exotic species is raining big cats and wolf hybrids on sanctuarians–and may force some sanctuaries to move or close, as well. Although the law also allows counties to regulate keeping the animals as an alternative to enforcing the outright ban, few are choosing the additional work and expense that regulation requires.

Wild Animal Orphanage founder and American Sanctuary Association president Carol Asvestas says the new law has added 40 animals to the 600 already under her care. But Asvestas also has a Texas-sized dream to counter the nightmare. Effective on January 1, 2002, her organization became the 10-division Animal Sanctuary of the U.S.

WAO, started in 1983, continues as the “permanent sanctuary for unwanted, abused, or neglected wild and exotic animals” it always has been, along with six existing satellite programs. The biggest satellite is the Primate Sanctuary of America, described as “a permanent sanctuary dedicated to the lifetime care of primates retired from research and the pet and entertainment industry,” and “the only bio-safety level 2 sanctuary in the U.S.” It is not open to the public because many of the 300 resident macaques, vervets, and capuchins were exposed to deadly diseases in laboratories, and/or could transmit endemic simian diseases to humans.

Chimp-Aid, nearby, houses chimpanzees formerly used in labs and entertainment. It is also closed to the public.
Cat Haven and the Feral Cat Rehab Center are no-kill facilities to assist domestic cats. Kids On The River is an
environmental and humane education program. The Humane Train, on the road since early 2001, provides
“humane transportation for animal rescues throughout the U.S.,” which Asvestas discovered was in short supply in 1996 while attempting to fly three big cats back to WAO, near San Antonio, from a defunct roadside zoo in western Washington state. Flying the animals required prolonged confinement in small cages. Heavy sedation
was needed–and a tiger and a puma died on the plane from apparent oversedation.

Fined by the USDA, Asvestas endured bad publicity that might have crushed some sanctuaries, although veterinary experts told ANIMAL PEOPLE that she really just had bad luck. Asvestas herself told ANIMAL PEOPLE that she would find and implement a way to move big cats and other problematic species in greater comfort, with less sedation and the ability to provide veterinary care as needed en route.

Formerly a registered nurse, in Britain, Asvestas may never have met a creature in need whom she didn’t try to help. Programs listed as “Under Development” include a wildlife care center, bird sanctuary, and horse sanctuary, each to look after species for whom the present facilities are inadequate. All of this will take a lot of money, Asvestas admits, but like her heroine Martine Colette, who founded the Wildlife Waystation sanctuary near Los Angeles in 1973, Asvestas believes that if she takes on a mission and gets started in the best way she sees, the necessary support will come.

Also like Colette, Asvestas has come through years of hard times with some bitter critics among other sanctuarians and a growing number of admirers. Some first noticed Asvestas in April 2000 when Wildlife Waystation was closed for nine months by the California Department of Fish and Game and was repeatedly bashed by the Los Angeles Times over allegations which mostly fell apart under scrutiny. When the flak was thickest, Asvestas stood up for the Waystation in media statements, risking getting hit herself.

“The International Fund for Animal Welfare to date has given us $244,000,” Asvestas told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “$175,000 was used to purchase 52 acres adjoining WAO’s 50 acres, giving us a total of 102 acres. The balance has been used for enclosure and transport costs,” in connection with the December 2001 evacuation of 23 lions and tigers from the so-called Gate Keepers Animal Sanctuary formerly run by Ken Alvarez near Rapid City, South Dakota. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service seized the big cats after an investigation by the activist group Wild Cat Valley and the Humane Society of the Black Hills found them starving, diseased, in a three-week accumulation of feces, mud, and snow. Alvarez, said Asvestas, had “left for Mexico, leaving only $30 with the inexperienced ranch hands for food.”

An elaborate prospectus assembled to help attract further funding for ASUS doubles as an excellent primer on sanctuary management–by intent, because in Asvestas’ American Sanctuary Association role her job includes mentoring other sanctuarians, much as Colette mentored her. Another part of the work of both ASUS and the ASA, the
prospectus mentions, is dealing with “hundreds of facilities that call themselves sanctuaries or wildlife preserves,” like the Gate Keepers Animal Sanctuary, which “even acquire nonprofit status,” but “breed, sell, trade, and exploit these animals in deplorable, substandard facilities,” as Asvestas knows from having accepted the collections of many that eventually failed.

Currently Asvestas is preparing to receive 24 Bengal tigers from the Tigers Only Preservation Society in Jackson Township, New Jersey, as soon as the state Division of Fish & Wildlife completes seizure proceedings. Tigers Only founder Joan Byron-Marasek is apparently out of room to appeal, after contesting the seizure since January 1999. The case began when police shot an allegedly escaped tiger in a nearby residential neighborhood. Byron-Marasek denied
involvement, but genetic tests linked the tiger to her colony, begun in 1975 with five tigers she kept following a five-year stint as a trapeze artist for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife previously relied on Asvestas and ASA wildlife coordinator Sumner Matthes to accommodate lemurs, mandrills, jaguars, and two tigers left homeless by the 1997 closure of the Scotch Plains Zoo.

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