Kirshner Wildlife Foundation

Where the wild things are

MADE IN THE SHADE Nyla the Bengal tiger regards her vistors with regal nonchalance as she lounges atop her sleeping enclosure.

MADE IN THE SHADE Nyla the Bengal tiger regards her vistors with regal nonchalance as she lounges atop her sleeping enclosure.

Photo by Stephanie Bird

A 10-year-old, 650-pound Bengal tiger stalks back and forth behind a chain-link fence. A small group of children, their parents and I stand gawking behind a chain-link fence of our own. Only 5 feet from each other, the tiger’s huge eyes stare at us as we peer in on him.

After a minute, the tiger gets bored and starts rolling around his cage with a large red medicine ball, then playfully nibbles on his back leg.

Adonas, this endangered Bengal tiger with cancer, is being treated in Butte County. In fact, he lives in Durham, just 20 minutes south of Chico, along with other tigers, lions, leopards, caracals, ocelots, foxes, coyotes, lemurs and more at the nonprofit Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation.

The Foundation invites the public to learn about these animals 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, though owner Roberta Kirshner stresses that visits are by appointment only. A small donation of $6 per adult and $5 per child contributes to the animals’ food, shelter and medical treatments.

Roberta Kirshner, a veterinarian and extremely devoted caretaker, lives minutes from Durham Park on Laura Lane in Durham. Exotic animals from around the world, and indigenous animals from around Butte County, live in pens in her backyard.

“It’s not entertainment, it’s education,” she says of the renowned foundation which welcomes school children and hosts 33,000 to 34,000 visitors each year. “It’s opening the door to understanding,” Kirshner says, especially when young visitors learn about endangered species and habitat conservation.

A tour with one of the knowledgeable volunteers is certainly educational. With her short blond hair up in a ponytail and her blue eyes squinting in the bright morning sun, volunteer Carrie Alexander leads my group away from Adonas and around the perimeter of the property where chain-link fences separate Zeus, the satiny black leopard with a heart condition, from Sean, the blind white bengal tiger, and Malaika, the sleek African lioness.

I NEED A HUG Scully the fennec fox , who lives at the Kirshner foundation with her partner Mulder, meets a new friend in Stephanie Bird.

Photo by Stephanie Bird

As Alexander lovingly explains each animal’s origin, condition and personality—ocelots are “pushy, snobby and rude,” she says—Nakobi, a 370-pound African/Asiatic lion with a grass allergy, calls to Malaika, his lioness.

Nakobi’s roar is a deep, guttural call. It is loud, as if amplified on stereo, even though our group is halfway across the property. We fall silent and listen to the bone-chilling sound. Alexander explains that we are lucky to hear the call. She says the roar is how the lion calls the lioness to a kill.

The sound is an amazing experience, unlike anything I’ve heard. I’d be afraid, but these animals are socialized and well-fed—some eat 35 pounds of meat or more a day—so I’m not worried.

These non-releasable animals receive first-rate care from the dedicated volunteers and especially Kirshner, who gets up at 3 a.m. to work with the animals. “No one else wants to take care of these animals,” says tour guide Alexander. “This facility provides the best quality of life.”

No one else wanted Wentz, a wallaby considered a “throw-away” at a breeding facility who now lives at the Foundation. Then there’s Nyla, an endangered Sumatran tiger, who was used in a commercial a few years ago and would have been put to sleep had Kirshner not taken her in and retrained her from scratch. Kirshner also takes in local animals that the Department of Fish and Game finds and provides them a comfortable new home.

Kirshner has big plans for the growing Foundation. She wants to open a treatment center on the site to limit the stress of travel on sick animals. She plans to expand the Foundation’s educational and research facilities.

At the moment, Kirshner needs to convert a large central area into a tiger exercise pen. But it lacks an exterior fence, which the Foundation, run purely on donations, can’t afford to install. “Chain link is like gold,” says Kirshner. “We need more.”

The Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation periodically holds fund-raisers, like the Nov. 6 Walk-A-Thon at Durham Park, and asks for community animal sponsors to help defray its costs, but help is hard to find.

“We hope the community will get behind us more,” says Kirshner. “Without places like this, there won’t be any endangered species left.”