Impressions of Wolf Haven, The Elephant Sanctuary, & Tiger Haven

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July-August 2013: 

HOHENWALD,  KINGSTON,  Tennessee;  TENINO,  Washington––The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee,  Tiger Haven,  and Wolf Haven International have in common housing several of the most difficult species to keep safely in captivity,  controversial histories before achieving current stability,  and high public profiles. 

They sharply differ in how they define their missions,  not so much in how they describe themselves as in how they resolve the conflicts inherent in keeping dangerous animals and at the same time doing public education. Taking recent opportunities to visit The Elephant Sanctuary and Wolf Haven International by arrangement,  and Tiger Haven incognito,  ANIMAL PEOPLE found that while animal care needs dictate some of how they interact with the public,  much reflects different philosophical outooks.

Both The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and Tiger Haven sprawl through hollows and across low ridges in the Tennessee hills––The Elephant Sanctuary just north of Hohenwald,  in mid-state,  Tiger Haven near Kingston in the eastern part of the state.  The Elephant Sanctuary is farther from an Interstate highway,  but not much farther from a main-traveled road.  

Wolf Haven International is about the same distance from I-5 in Tenino,  Washington,  as Tiger Haven is from I-40.  But while signage for Wolf Haven begins on I-5,  ANIMAL PEOPLE found no signage for Tiger Haven at all.  The difference is that Wolf Haven International receives about 12,000 visitors per year for guided walking tours,  offered six days a week.  Tiger Haven,  like the Elephant Sanctuary,  does not admit visitors to the animal areas.  The Elephant Sanctuary does,  however,  operate a visitor center located prominently on the main street of Hohenwald,  near the town’s busiest crossroads.

Wolf Haven 

Wolf Haven International,  the oldest of the three sanctuaries,  was informally begun in 1980 by Steve and Linda Kuntz and Ed and Elizabeth Andrews,  who had kept wolves as quasi-pets in Colorado before relocating to Washington state.  After operating a traveling educational wolf exhibit as Wolf Country for several years,  Ed and Elizabeth Andrews turned their 22 wolves and their Washington property over to the Kuntz family.  

Moving to the present site in 1982,  the Kuntz family obtained nonprofit status as Wolf Haven America,  later renamed, according to the Wolf Haven International web site,  “because we recognize that wolves need help all over the world,  and our supporters can be found around the world.”

Steve Kuntz resigned as Wolf Haven executive director in 1994 after a series of board conflicts.  He and Linda Kuntz,  who managed the Wolf Haven gift shop,  continued to live on the premises until 2000.  By then Wolf Haven was attracting 30,000 visitors a year,  two and a half times as many as now,  and was in the middle of a dizzying serious of management transitions and changes of mission.  

Among other roles,  in addition to housing the original Kuntz and Andrews wolves and doing public education about wolves, Wolf Haven housed wolf hybrids who had either been abandoned by their people or impounded by law enforcement;  housed several coyotes who had been live-trapped after becoming dangerously habituated to humans feeding them;  participated in the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service captive breeding and pre-release programs for endangered Mexican grey wolves,  producing 11 young wolves who were among those reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico;  funded wild wolf research in Alaska and British Columbia;  and lobbied for a leading role in a plan,  which has not advanced,  to reintroduce grey wolves to Olympic National Park.  

Along the way,  Wolf Haven International went through eleven chief executives in one 18-year span. Perhaps the most bitter split and transition came in 1997,  when the Wolf Haven board recognized that the distinction between itself and a roadside zoo had become blurred by the combination of high visitor traffic with staff and volunteer practices which conveyed an impression contrary to the professed message that wolves and wolf hybrids do not make good pets. Staff and volunteers were ordered to refrain from petting the then 39 resident animals.

“Mima mounds”

Amid the many conflicts and transitions,  Wolf Haven International expanded up from the original 60 acres to 82 acres, including swamp,  woods,  and 55 acres of “mima mounds,”  a geological feature unique to southwestern Washington. Apparently created by long-ago seismic activity,  “mima mounds” seen from the air are evenly spaced knobs of gravel and earth resembling the tops of giant Lego blocks.  Once stretching across the ancient sea bottom from the Olympic foothills to the Cascades,  “mima mounds” were mostly bulldozed out of existence in the early-to-mid-20th century by farmers clearing and leveling fields.  But “mima mounds,”  besides being the only known habitat of threatened Mazama gophers and several threatened and endangered butterfly species,  make excellent captive wolf and coyote habitat.  The Wolf Haven animals can hide behind them,  burrow into them, survey the landscape from on top of them,  or hunt insects all around them,  as many do.

Wolf Haven International is still involved in most of the many diverse projects it took on in its early years,  mixing public education,  on-site species conservation,  and housing rescued animals.  The Wolf Haven strategic plan for 2010-2014 calls for increasing capacity to perform all three missions,  as well as replacing and renovating the existing facilities.  The work is visibly underway,  on an operating budget of close to $1 million per year.

The most critical concern in appraising any sanctuary is of course the well-being of the animals.  Many of the present 50-odd Wolf Haven animals,  including Mexican grey wolves who may be returned to the wild,  are kept off exhibit.  The rest may be as visible or as seldom seen as they choose.  They range in personality from wolves who enjoy stalking and rushing at passers-by,  from the far side of fences that include safety barriers at twice the distance from fencing as required by the U.S. Animal Welfare Act,  to other wolves who warily watch humans from deep in high grass at a discreet distance,  to some who are mostly nocturnal,  waiting in burrows during visitor hours.  

The Wolf Haven coyotes,  like many of the coyotes who share suburbs with humans,  don’t seem to mind being seen if they know the observers cannot approach more closely.  Even the rabbits seem to feel safe,  nibbling grass in plain sight of some of the wild canids,  as if aware that the fences will protect them.

Elephant Sanctuary 

The Elephant Sanctuary,  founded on 112 acres in 1995 by former circus elephant trainers Carol Buckley and Scott Blais, but now grown to 2,700 acres,  has from the beginning actively pursued public education,  yet at the same time has maintained as a fundamental tenet that the 15-or-so elephants in care at any given time should be protected from any public exposure. Instead of admitting visitors to see the elephants in any manner,  The Elephant Sanctuary introduced a live-streaming webcam in 1999,  called the Elecam,  added five more by 2004,  and currently has 14 video cameras mounted on 11 towers scattered over the property,  plus three webcams inside the elephant barns.  Thousands of donors and other people interested in elephants visit The Elephant Sanctuary web site every day to watch the elephants.  Some keep the site visible for hours.

The video project is an enormous success,  as is The Elephant Sanctuary’s experiment in keeping former circus and zoo elephants in expansive outdoor habitat.  The eastern hardwood forest and rolling hills of Tennessee much resemble the Ghatts range in southern India.  The Elephant Sanctuary property could almost pass for Bannerghatta National Park,  near Bangalore, where wild elephants roam and sometimes venture into outlying suburbs.  

The Elephant Sanctuary has survived stresses including the July 2006 death of senior caregiver Joanna Burke when an elephant knocked her down with her trunk and then stepped on her,  a 2009 tuberculosis outbreak that spread from an elephant to eight staff members, and an ensuing bitter split between Buckley and Blais.  Buckley exited in March 2010,  Blais in mid-2011,  and Buckley’s successor,  Rob Atkinson,  resigned in September 2012,  only two years after his arrival.  

Despite the instability,  The Elephant Sanctuary has remained true to Buckley’s vision of creating a largely human-free environment for the resident elephants,  including Tarra,  her first elephant,  whom she taught toroller-skate.  The Main Street visitor center offers a variety of elephant-related exhibits and a gift shop,  but the webcams are the focus of educational activity,  meaning that most of what visitors see in person is what they could see as easily on their cell phones or laptops anywhere.

Buckley’s founding concept,  as she explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE,  was that The Elephant Sanctuary elephants had endured so much stress and abuse from humans that they should be allowed to spend their last years––or decades––off exhibit. This idea has obviously appealed to the individuals and foundations who contribute more than $4 million a year.  

But is it realistic?  Elephants in the wild are often among the most obvious moving objects in their habitat.  Dozens and perhaps hundreds of eyes are watching almost every wild elephant at all times.  

Elephants in the wild seem as unperturbed by human observers as by observers with horns,  hooves,  wings,  or manes––so long as the humans remain well outside their “flight zone,”  the distance from other beings at which animals feel safe.  

The “flight zone” for elephants varies,  as for all species,  but elephants are among the most easily poached of animals in part because they don’t tend to avoid humans who are at least a quarter mile away. Much of The Elephant Sanctuary could afford spectacular views of elephants from ridges and hillocks so far from where the elephants actually are that the elephants would be oblivious to the viewers’ presence.  This could create an impression much more likely to endure––especially for children––than any image confined to an electronic screen.  

It is not necessary,  or desirable,  for sanctuaries to become zoos,  or facilities like the San Diego Wildlife Park and Northwest Trek.  (But Northwest Trek,  whose primary function is accommodating public viewing,  is an acknowledged influence on Wolf Haven International.)

Sanctuaries can,  however,  help demonstrate to zoos how they could use their space to educate about animals and habitat in a much more humane and effective manner,  involving fewer animals,  held in less intensive captivity––and how zoos could enthrall visitors by displaying animals rescued from traffickers,  brought for rehabilitation after suffering accidents in the wild,  or captured after demonstrating problematic behavior such as raiding garbage cans,   without any captive breeding or captures of healthy,  non-problem wildlife. 

Tiger Haven

Tiger Haven,  whose web site proclaims it to be “much like an animal shelter for dogs and house cats,”  though it is not open to the public and does not do adoptions,  was begun in 1991 by former Knoxville Zoo volunteers Joseph and Mary Lynn Parker.  Almost from inception Tiger Haven ran into controversy over both fundraising methods and location.    

A longtime bingo game operator in the Knoxville area,  Joseph Parker was reportedly charged with skimming proceeds from charity bingo games held in 1986-1987.  He served three months in a halfway house for conspiracy and tax evasion after turning prosecution witness in a joint federal/state probe of alleged corruption in bingo gambling.     

Tiger Haven won nonprofit status in 1993.  Parker opened a Knoxville bingo hall to benefit the sanctuary in May 1994.  The bingo hall closed in 1996,  several months after Knoxville News-Sentinel staff writer Wesley Loy questioned Joseph Parker’s methods.  Joseph and Mary Parker later divorced.  Joseph Parker left Tiger Haven;  Mary Parker remarried.  

Tiger Haven fundraising since 1999 has mostly been done by direct mail firms owned or controlled by Bruce Eberle.  In only one year since then––when Tiger Haven was briefly represented by another direct mailer––have the Tiger Haven IRS Form 990 filings shown fundraising and administrative costs amounting to less than 48% of the sanctuary budget.  

Unlike many other animal charities doing high-volume direct mail,  Tiger Haven does not claim direct mailing as a program expense in the name of “public education.”  What education Tiger Haven does appears to be done mainly through a seldom updated question-and-answer page on the Tiger Haven web site.

Conflicts over zoning and litigation from nearby property owners have meanwhile erupted,  smouldered,  and re-erupted. The focal claim,  restated various ways,  has been that Tiger Haven activities “threaten the life and property of the plaintiffs and the environment.”

Nearby on other business,  ANIMAL PEOPLE took the opportunity to have a first-hand look––not that most of the Tiger Haven property is very visible.  The oldest part of Tiger Haven fronts on a steep,  narrow,  sparsely inhabited two-lane paved road. Tigers and cages may be seen through narrow gaps in the plywood covering the outer perimeter fence.  

Most of Tiger Haven lies at the end of a long unmarked dirt side road,  including the housing for most of the approximately 170 tigers,  45 lions,  25 pumas,  20 leopards,  and various other large cats on the premises.  Altogether,  about 45 acres of the 75-acre Tiger Haven tract are actually used for the animals.  Both ground observation and satellite photos indicate that Tiger Haven has few neighbors within easy walking distance. But there are some,  whose most recent lawsuit,  filed in 2011,  is apparently still in court,  along with a Tiger Haven countersuit.  

ANIMAL PEOPLE suspects that a loose hunting pack,  a pit bull breaking off a chain,  errant shots from a deer hunter,   sliding off Harvey Road in an ice storm,  or the combination of drought and a wildfire are all more likely threats to local safety.   Yet,  while Tiger Haven has never had an escape,  if a tiger or other large cat did get loose,  for example after a falling tree damaged an enclosure,  the animal might remain at large indefinitely in the heavily wooded terrain.  The habitat is enough like wild tiger country that a tiger might feel at home. Obviously the courts will have to sort out the alleged risks.

Meanwhile,  it is easier to question keeping animals in small cages whose range in the wild may be hundreds of square miles,  than to recommend alternatives for carnivores who can leap or climb out of any but the most secure facilities,  and accordingly must be kept in cages with tops.  Reality is that Tiger Haven is a big cat prison––and,  keeping the species it does,  for most of whom there are no alternatives,  it could scarcely be anything else.     

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  • Barbara Lovenvirth

    I have supported all three of these facilities, and continue to do so. Wolf Haven and the Elephant Sanctuary are truly that, sanctuaries. It does trouble me that the tigers are not really living in freedom, and possibly not as well as a good zoo, such as in San Diego. There are so many, I am sure it would be impossible. Still, one considers the alternative. I hope the dispute ends, and in Tiger Haven’s favor. Resources are better used for the animals. All these safe places are doing good work.

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