Wildcat shelter seeks refuge

Tiff Clements

A public hearing tonight will play a part in deciding the future of 20 exotic wildcats and their home in the north metro area.

The Wildcat Sanctuary in Isanti County, which has ties to the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, provides housing and rescue services for exotic wildcats removed from private ownership.

The Athens Township Planning Commission and community members will discuss whether the sanctuary violated the terms of its permit by having housed a tiger for the past five years.

Rick McVenes, chairman of the planning commission, said the Athens town board granted the sanctuary an interim permit on several conditions. According to those conditions, the facility could not exceed 20 cats and was not allowed to act as a permanent home for lions or tigers.

If the sanctuary is found to have violated its permit, it could be forced to shut down and relocate.

McVenes said the town board granted the sanctuary temporary housing for a Bengal tiger named Meme in 2001; however, the sanctuary’s permit did not change when this happened.

Tammy Quist, director of The Wildcat Sanctuary, said the town board approved the tiger’s permanent housing at the facility without documentation.

“They never provided us approval in writing; it was verbal,” she said.

Quist said she later provided official documentation in the form of an animal inventory. The inventory included Meme.

“It is public knowledge that she has been housed here for five years,” she said.

Meme, a 26-year-old Bengal tiger, is at the center of the controversy. According to The Wildcat Sanctuary, Meme is too frail to be relocated.

In 2001, The Wildcat Sanctuary removed Meme and two other tigers from the property of a Redwood Falls man who had been breeding and selling exotic animals, Quist said.

When animal rescue workers found Meme, she was covered with feces in a 10-foot by 10-foot structure surrounded by carcasses of smaller animals, she said.

Estimated to have one year to live, Meme was taken to The Wildcat Sanctuary for temporary housing.

Since moving into the sanctuary, Meme has undergone two surgical procedures at the University’s Large Animal Hospital.

Veterinarians at the sanctuary diagnosed Meme with mammary cancer.

In December, Micky Trent, professor of large animal surgery and a team of animal surgeons removed three golf ball-size tumors and one grapefruit-size tumor from Meme.

The intention of the procedure was to improve the cat’s quality of life, Trent said.

“(Meme) is at that age in big cats where every year she lives is a bonus,” she said.

Many people think exotic animals are fascinating and try to make them pets, Trent said. But many are unable to properly care for the animals.

“Good sanctuaries fill an important role,” Trent said.

Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo and tiger species survival plan coordinator, agreed.

He said privately owned exotic animals often are abused, subjected to shock treatment and fed inappropriate food. They generally live in bad environments, he said.

Tigers also pose threats to those not properly trained to handle them.

“They can, in many cases, bite, severely maim or kill someone,” Tilson said.