Wild animal farm
Kirshner Wildlife Foundation looks to the community for help constructing a new facility
Roberta Kirshner grabbed a small whip and headed straight into the lion’s den.
“Get back, back,” she said firmly to a lion named Dallas who obeyed though it was clear she’d have rather been mischievous. A helper followed close behind Kirshner and swiftly but thoroughly used a rake to clean the cage.
Dallas is an endangered Barbary lion—the kind that the ancient Roman Empire captured in northern Africa and used in gladiator games at the Coliseum. The young lioness—less than a year old—is one of several animals housed for non-invasive behavioral research at the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation in Durham.
What she didn’t know—couldn’t have known—is that her life, and that of the 99 other animals at the facility, is about to change dramatically—if all goes as planned. The foundation is in the final, frantic months of building a brand-new, much larger facility 11 miles to the east, but it is racing desperately to get the job done by an October deadline in the face of greatly diminished revenues.
In an enclosure near Dallas’ den, another cat, a white Bengal tiger, lounged atop its wooden den, a flat-roofed structure resembling an oversized dog house. Minutes earlier, Kirshner, an expert animal trainer, had stood just feet from the large cat, ordering her to lie down. Dana is a good-sized cat, though not nearly as big as she should be as a 2- to 3-year-old animal of her species.
Kirshner explained that Dana’s former keepers in Texas had underfed her. Their idea was to keep her weak so she could be used with the public for photos. The tiger bounced around to a couple of places in her young life before finding a permanent home at the foundation.
“When she came she was in rough shape, that poor cat,” offered Kyle Crowson, a volunteer at the facility.
Being starved of vital nutrients stunted Dana’s growth and also caused rickets, a bone-softening disease. Kirshner motioned to Dana’s face as further evidence of abuse, pointing out that her nose has been broken in two places. The cat was understandably unruly when she arrived. “She would hiss and spit and drool,” she said.
After studying the tiger’s behavior, Kirshner determined something else was wrong. Indeed, Dana had swallowed a towel and was in a great deal of pain. A veterinarian removed the obstruction during exploratory surgery and also fixed an eyelid condition called entropion that resulted in ulcers in both eyes. If the creature’s original caretakers had given her the proper medical treatment and diet she required, she would look like a different animal today.
“She’ll never be the way she should be, but we love her—and we’re not perfect either,” Kirshner commented wryly.
That being said, the tiger has gained more than 100 pounds and appeared content during a couple of visits last week to her home tucked into a quiet neighborhood of ranchettes about 20 minutes from Chico.
“She’s really happy,” Kirshner said. “She runs up to the door and plays with you. She’s not the same cat.”
For Dana, the foundation was the “last stop.” Like many of the other animals at the facility with imperfections, she was bound for euthanasia. Kirshner explained that a majority of the exotics (animals requiring permits) have special medical needs. Some of them came from other licensed facilities that are closing down or do not have the expertise to treat them. Others came from private donors or were seizures.
Still, all of the animals are magnificent, and, as Kirshner put it, they are “ambassadors to their species.” The nonprofit facility is open for tours seven days a week —by appointment—making Kirshner an extremely busy woman. That was clear during the few minutes she took last Tuesday (June 15) to sit at her kitchen table to eat half a sandwich. Phone call after phone call came in during her short lunch break (her cell phone chiming with an appropriate ringtone of “Mbube”—a song made famous in The Lion King), while a dedicated cast of volunteers wandered in and out checking in and looking for chores to do around the facility.
Meanwhile, visitors rolled in for tours, greeted by any one of the half-dozen hardworking helpers.
Kirshner appeared unflustered by the activity. After 17 years running the place, she’s used to the endless amount of work that goes along with caring for the sanctuary’s animals, including the 36 exotics.
These days, though, her mind is also focused on the task of moving the entire operation to the new facility on Durham-Pentz Road in Butte Valley. For years, neighbors in Durham had complained that the center violated its county-issued use permit by attracting too much traffic. In 2008, the Butte County Board of Supervisors, after years of controversy about the location of the foundation, gave the organization two years to vacate its current property near the Durham Park on Laura Lane.
Kirshner knew that purchasing a new place and getting it operational would not be easy. It would require finding just the right spot—one that the nonprofit could afford and a place suitable not only for the animals, but also for a larger number of visitors. Kirshner had been hunting for a new location for some time before the supervisors’ decision. And out of the 41 places she looked at, only two were deemed suitable by the county planning division.
Shortly after the supervisors made their decision, Kirshner entered an eight-month escrow on the Butte Valley property. The former owners were flexible with the process to give the county the time to approve the use permit for the new site. They also reduced their price significantly—by several hundred thousand dollars.
Kirshner took out a second mortgage to buy the place. A beautifully landscaped and modern ranch-style home with a wrap-around porch sits at the highest elevation of the 19 oak-studded acres, overlooking the gently rolling landscape. Someday, the property will be an amazing sanctuary. For now, though, it’s a work in progress.[page]
But time is running out to turn the property into even the most rudimentary sanctuary. It’s now crunch time for Kirshner and those helping her to make the transition possible.
For Kirshner, the move is daunting. “It’s scary. It’s a nightmare for me,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I can’t sleep.”
The task is not as simple as it may seem. The state requires that all the exotics be moved within a seven-day period. That means constructing all-new enclosures.
Chuck Tatreau, owner of M&T Construction, gave a tour of the progress last week. The father of four, who is expecting his fifth child, couldn’t remember precisely when he met Kirshner. It was years ago, he said, when he visited the foundation for a tour with his kids. He was impressed by the educational aspect of the foundation and, of course, with the woman behind it. “When you meet an amazing woman like Roberta, you just want to help,” he said.
As he surveyed the area, a couple of people were busy working with concrete to set large steel poles for a set of enclosures. Kirshner noted that the workers—a young boy and his uncle—were from a family who had decided to volunteer their time to the effort.
Tatreau, too, is a volunteer, and thus the de facto developer of the sanctuary. He’s also raised funds for materials, holding benefits at his other business, The End Zone, a Chico sports bar and grill, and organizing a golf tournament. The Chico developer pointed out that he’s one of many local businesspeople who are contributing their expertise to the project. He pulled a development plan out of his truck—noting that folks from local architectural firm Thomson and Hendricks drew up the document free of charge—to illustrate the vast scope of the project.
During a walk around the property, Kirshner and he rattled off dozens of names of people, organizations and companies helping with the transition, pointing across the landscape to where some Butte College students and their instructors were working that day on grading a portion of the site for a parking lot.
“A lot of people want to see this happen,” said Tatreau, as he stood next to some post holes in a shady area that will be the future home of a black-tailed deer and wallaby.
Fundraising has paid for a significant amount—but not all—of the supplies for the basic construction. The foundation is still short of materials (such as several rolls of chain-link fencing, lumber, plywood, gravel) needed to finish the animal enclosures and the roadway. The project is also in need of volunteers with skills such as welding, landscaping, plumbing and carpentry.
Kirshner said the economic difficulties of the past couple of years have been extremely tough on the foundation’s everyday operation, which is reliant on donations, sponsorships and the small fees from tours of the facility to pay for care that includes feeding the animals 680 pounds of meat per day. The books are down by 29 percent, she said. Of course, that’s made it more difficult to raise funds for the new site.
“Maybe five years ago, people would be writing checks [to the foundation],” she said. “But today, we’re looking for time and materials.”
The former came in spades from the Stephens family of Cherokee over the past few weeks. By Saturday, June 19, husband and wife Jim and Linda Stephens, along with their adult sons, Jerry and BJ, and BJ’s son, Trevor, had all of the poles set and had completed a significant amount of welding to the point where they had wrapped, but not yet stretched, the chain-link rolls that form six enclosures and its perimeter safety fencing. (Jerry and Trevor were the ones working in the mid-day heat Tuesday to finish setting poles.)
It helped that BJ, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force temporarily stationed at Beale Air Force Base, had enlisted the help of his colleagues over the past couple of weekends. Jim, a mechanic with Chico Unified School District and jack-of-all-trades, said the family is aiming to finish the enclosures in about three weeks.
“If everyone would take just a little bit of time, we’d have this place up and running in no time,” he said, as Kirshner looked on, amazed by the progress.
Getting the new sanctuary in order will help greatly with the organization’s financial woes, because more visitors to the facility means more revenue generated through tours. Indeed, the current location is restricted to only one bus per month, as well as 10 vehicles per day. Kirshner has a years-long waiting list for classrooms, camps and other large groups. It took three years, for example, to accommodate a group from the Sacramento Zoo that wanted to come in for a training session on safety.
The new place will open up public access exponentially, since the facility has room for two buses and more than 40 vehicles at any one time. That undoubtedly will make life much easier for Kirshner and the other volunteers, who, to make up for the lack of access, take animals on the road, to schools and other sites interested in the educational component. Because of the foundation’s diverse array of volunteers, as well as the training they’ve received, the programs are offered in nine languages, including Hmong, German and American Sign Language, at eight levels of education. More than 40 educational programs are offered through the nonprofit, with the primary focus on conservation and animal science.
Volunteer opportunities will also increase with the opening of the new sanctuary. Kirshner currently has a waiting list of about 175 people, including college students with studies in pre-veterinary and animal science, looking to gain hands-on experience with the exotics. Kirshner will take on only those who are committed to starting from the ground up. Working with wildlife is serious business, she stresses. Nine of the facility’s volunteers are certified by the state in safe-capture techniques, and tranquilizer guns and a shotgun are kept on hand behind the scenes.
“You can train them, but you can’t tame them,” said Kirshner, whose mantra was echoed by volunteers.
That being said, there’s never been an escape, nor have there been any serious injuries (not even stitches).[page]
It’s easy to see why Kirshner is nervous about the move. This year’s unusually rainy winter has put the project two months behind schedule. With dozens of other enclosures in various states of construction at the Butte Valley location, it’s clear that there’s a lot to be done.
She pointed out that the focus right now is simply on constructing housing for the exotics. Unlike the foundation’s current set-up, the new place doesn’t have a quarantine room or a structure for the reptiles. Those projects are on the backburner for now, as are other plans. Kirshner fully expects to be dragging 700 feet of hose to water the animals, for instance, because the property isn’t set up for irrigation.
Meanwhile, she is busy keeping the current facility running smoothly. It’s an around-the-clock job. Kirshner goes to sleep around midnight each night and gets up at 3 a.m. to check on the animals, each of which gets individually tailored care based on its special medical and dietary needs. The animals are also kept stimulated with exercise and play, and appeared content during several visits to the foundation last week.
Kirshner doesn’t complain about the work the animals require nor the fact that it keeps her from, say, traveling to get some time off.
“It’s a vacation here, every day,” she insists. “The inspiration these animals give the volunteers and the public—it’s worth it.”
The foundation is home to an impressive array of non-native species, many of which are critically endangered, including a Sumatran tiger, as well as local rescued creatures that are unable to be released into the wild, such as a coyote and a one-winged great horned owl (both hit by cars). Some of the more recent additions include some youngsters—a black-bear cub and an African leopard cub. The latter has been featured on both The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Chelsea Lately, though it was Animal Planet’s Dave Salmoni who displayed the young animal.
Kirshner is able to have such a diverse assortment of wildlife based on her experience with various species. The permit she gets for each one requires proving that she has qualifications.
Her expertise actually goes back to her childhood in Simi Valley. When she was 8 years old, she began apprenticing with her grandmother’s neighbor, a Hollywood animal trainer named Ralph McCutcheon. She paid her dues, scrubbing out 64 water buckets a day for a year. She went on to do work for Universal and Columbia studios, as a stunt woman and child stand-in, including spending four years as Natalie Wood’s double.
Kirshner has some amazing—and amusing—stories about working with exotic animals. One of her earliest experiences led to her first spanking when she was 8 years old. She recalled being worried about McCutcheon’s four baby grizzly bears being left in their pens during a storm. Kirshner knew that the animal trainer wasn’t home and she wanted to make sure the cubs were safe, so she snuck out with a baby buggy, brought the animals home and tucked them into bed with her. Needless to say, her parents were quite upset upon this discovery.
As an adult, she has run large wildlife research facilities in Canada and Missouri.
“There are people who can train lions and tigers, but not alligators,” said Kirshner, who cares for an alligator local wildlife officials found loose in Butte Creek. “I’ve even had rhinos.”
At the Durham facility, the volunteers spend time building rapport with various animals. But when Kirshner comes around, the creatures respond as though she’s one of their own, in many instances running up to her for attention or calling out to her. As volunteer Kelly Campbell said, “You can tell who mom is around here.”
Tragically, what brought Kirshner back to California and to Durham was the death of her only son, in whose name the sanctuary is dedicated. Barry, an animal lover for obvious reasons, actually started the current facility in 1994. He purchased the home and property on Laura Lane, and began the foundation with a cougar and a Burmese python.
Barry had a high-functioning form of autism that made it difficult for him to learn how to read as child. Yet, he had amazing skills in other areas, and with the help of teachers overcame his obstacle. He went on to a very successful career flying helicopters. He even owned his own business.
“Because you have a challenge in one direction doesn’t mean you don’t have abilities in others,” Kirshner said.
His dream, she said, was to give back by opening the sanctuary and working with both animals and children with special needs.
Barry died just a year later in a car accident on the Midway. The borrowed vehicle he was driving had faulty brakes, and the road was slick with rain. Kirshner, who will not allow volunteers to come out to the facility for two days after having even one alcoholic beverage, noted that her son’s accident was not alcohol- or drug-related.
Kirshner left a great job, making a good salary, to keep the foundation going. She, like her helpers, makes no salary from the operation. Her only sources of income are her Social Security benefits, some consulting work she conducts for other wildlife organizations, and her small horse-breeding program.
Of course, because the foundation started in Durham, the upcoming move is bittersweet. Eventually, she will sell the current property, which, even if the county would allow for more animals, doesn’t come close to having the expansion opportunities available at the new site.
It will take time and the support of the community to get the sanctuary running smoothly, but with the strides taken thus far, the vision for this world-class facility is within reach.
“It’s totally a dream—my son’s dream,” she said, “and it proves if you stay on track, you can make the dream come true.”