Cat fight

Planning Commission puts the kibosh on wildlife foundation expansion

HERE, KITTY KITTY Roberta Kirshner has been training exotic cats for 49 years. She’s consulted with keepers from the San Francisco Zoo about big cats there.

HERE, KITTY KITTY Roberta Kirshner has been training exotic cats for 49 years. She’s consulted with keepers from the San Francisco Zoo about big cats there.

It’s a purplish late afternoon in early spring, and I’m standing just outside two 10-foot-tall fences watching Roberta Kirshner—all 5 feet of her—manage to force a 225-pound white tiger named Chuffy onto a display stand.

Chuffy, it appears, isn’t in the mood to frolic. He lies on his belly looking dolefully up at Kirshner and swats at a fly buzzing near his broad face.

“Oh, you’re acting up, Chuff,” she says with a smile. “You crazy kitty.”

Kirshner snaps her whip in the air, and the huge tiger stands up and gives a little gallop before jumping gracefully onto its stand. It sits on Kirshner’s command and then lies back down again.

Kirshner, her eyes never leaving the big cat, backs out of the pen and locks the gate behind her. Chuffy yawns and watches her leave.

“I’ll leave him alone now. It’s getting close to feeding time,” Kirshner says, pointing at the fenced pens around her. “And these guys know it.”

“These guys” are the leopards, lions, tigers, bobcat and ocelots Kirshner has at her renowned Barry Kirshner Wildlife Foundation. The foundation sits at the end of a quiet, green, tree-canopied lane in Durham. Lately, it has become the focus of quite a neighborhood brouhaha over its mere existence.

Kirshner can’t understand it. The foundation has been open seven years, and she’s proud that she’s never had a loose cat or even had an escape attempt. The county reports that it has yet to receive a formal complaint from a neighbor about her management of the facility, and presentations of the animals there are so popular among schools that there’s a three- to five-year waiting period for one.

Given all that, Kirshner thought getting the green light for a modest expansion would be a cinch.

She thought wrong.

Kirshner found out just how wrong on March 8, at a Butte County Planning Commission hearing on her expansion application. About a dozen neighbors of the facility showed up at the meeting to protest the expansion. They gathered on one side of the meeting room, while the more than two dozen Kirshner supporters—clad in matching green wildlife foundation jackets—sat together on the other side.

Kirshner applied to amend her use permit so she could have up to eight more large exotic cats—such as lions and tigers—and up to 40 additional animals weighing 40 pounds or less. She emphasized that the new animals would be obtained over a period of several years and that new pens would be built to house them appropriately. There would be no additional traffic allowed on the quiet lane leading to the facility, and the staff would continue to remove animal waste at least twice a day from the pens.

County staff had recommended that the expansion be approved. However, neighbors of the foundation were so concerned about it that they hired a lawyer to outline their concerns to the Planning Commission. It was a surprise to the Kirshner folks, who hadn’t even made notes on the presentation they would give.

Attorney Dennis Hoptowit, however, had a list ready.

“This is a residential neighborhood,” Hoptowit said. “The first time I went out there, I was really struck by that … that there are people living in relatively close proximity out there.”

Several neighbors themselves also spoke against the expansion, saying that they believe a bobcat shot in the area two years ago was “lured” there by the presence of Kirshner’s animals.

Malaika is the only female African lion at the foundation. She’s much larger than her male counterpart.

In an interview after the meeting, Kirshner called that “a load of crap.”

“This is a rural area, and we have bobcats out there all the time,” she said. “They can’t blame that on me.”

After more than two hours of discussion, the planning commissioners were split evenly on the case. Commissioners Nina Lambert and Michael Mooney voted against it, and Chuck Nelson and Richard Leland Jr. voted for it. Commissioner Fernando Marin was absent from the meeting.

As she walked out of the meeting with her head down, several strangers handed Kirshner the $50 she needed to appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors. She took the money with a quiet “thanks.”

Later that afternoon, Roberta Kirshner admitted to being “stunned” by the defeat. She thought there might be some opposition to her expansion, but nothing like the organized effort that appeared at the meeting.

“We’ve always done exactly what they wanted us to do,” she said. “We’ve followed all the rules, and this is what happens. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

As she talked, she walked around her foundation, showing her visitors the animals. We saw two lions, four tigers, two leopards, a bobcat, a serval, an ocelot, a coatimundi and two fennec foxes. The foundation is also home to a bunch of large birds, several huge snakes, two skinks (a kind of lizard) and a couple of bearded dragons.

They are, Kirshner says, kind of like her kids. She has 49 years of experience with wild-animal training and says she loves what she does.

Her facility is immaculate. The floors of the animal pens are scattered with clean shavings, and each contains toys for the cats. As she passes their pens, the cats stand up and pace back and forth. Some purr or roar a little as she walks by. Each animal has a little wooden plaque with its name carved on it posted on its pen.

Many of the animals she gets come from private people who donate them because they have birth defects and are therefore unattractive to zoos or collectors. Several of Kirshner’s tigers have heart murmurs, and one of the white tigers is blind. A few of the reptiles are lacking limbs, and one of the big cats lacks motor skills and can’t groom itself well.

“Most of the animals here would have been put down if we hadn’t have taken them,” she says. “We’re small enough to rescue them and give them the care they need.”

The main reason she wants to expand, Kirshner says, is so she can rotate the animals that she takes on off-site presentations.

“Right now, when we go off site, I have to have that animal out of its home and on display all day,” she said. “If I had more animals, I could display the animals in shifts so they wouldn’t become stressed out from being away so long. We have to think about the animal’s quality of life first.”

Plus, she says, she’s had offers of big-cat donations that she can’t take because her use permit limits her to the number of animals she already has.

“There’s a lot of animals out there that need us,” she says.

It costs about $100,000 a year to run the foundation, Kirshner says. All of that is in animal expenses, since no one on the foundation’s staff is paid—not even Kirshner. Most of the 408 pounds of meat the foundation needs every day to feed the animals is donated from grocery stores and restaurants.

“We have a lot of community support,” she says. “Some places even buy extra food just for us.”

Kirshner, with her red hair and sparkly eyes, is a tough woman. She vowed to lobby the Board of Supervisors for the expansion she says she deserves.

“I just think this is the right thing for this community," she says. "I’m trying to do the right thing for these animals and for the people who love them."