I had just moved to Mississippi and I didn't have a job yet nor much money. I told the guy that I had a 1947 Farmall D tractor (it never did run very well) that I would trade for the cub, but he said "No, I want the money!" I told him that if he should change his mind, I lived about a mile down the road.
Two weeks later he arrived with a trailer for the tractor and the cougar chained in the front seat of the guy's truck. After days of phone calls trying to find Zack a home at a zoo, I came to the realization that I either had to build an enclosure for him or have him euthanized. Zack was the beginning of Cedarhill Sanctuary, which has since become my life's work and greatest challenge.
Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary, Inc was incorporated in 1990 and received a 501(c)(3) non-profit status in 1992. The animals began arriving in 1990.
Sparkle our 31 - year - old Chinese spotted leopard came to us after her owner was killed in an auto accident. Along with Sparkle came Big Al who had been living in an underground cement bunker for three years.
Sparkle and Big Al's owners bred and sold exotic cats as a business. The wife held a very high-paying job with the telephone company and when she died, so did their income. All of their exotic cats had to placed elsewhere.
One-by-one, the animals started coming to Cedarhill. Friday, our wonderful lioness was literally dropped off at a veterinarian's office in Kansas almost dead when she was 2 months old. She was in a coma and only weighed 7 pounds. Her little face was covered with bruises and abrasions. I later learned that she had only been fed small amounts of goat's milk to make her more marketable as a miniature lioness.
K.C., a cougar, was left abandoned by drug dealers in 10-degree weather with no food, water or shelter ---his face and front legs had been shredded with a weed eater and he had been left for dead.
Caeser, another cougar, was locked in a closet for several months during the summer when his owner was jailed for numerous DUI's.
As time passed. more animals came...each with a story worse than the last. In 1993, I began to realize that the problem of displaced exotics was bigger than my backyard. I held a conference at the sanctuary and representatives from seven states attended. It was then that I began to understand the magnitude of the horrible plight of exotic animals in the United States.
There are no federal laws and at the time, only seven states had any laws controlling the breeding, selling and trading of exotic animals.
I began to work on legislation for the state of Mississippi. After four years of hard work, a law was passed to outlaw canned hunts, exotic auctions and to require the registration of all exotics with the State Game and Wildlife Department. Cedarhill got its USDA license, became accredited by The Association of Sanctuaries and The American Sanctuary Association.
I did everything I could to make us legitimate, always fearing that someone would find a reason to take the animals from Cedarhill. But in reality, there was no one who could take the animals. There was no where else for them to go.
I guess you might say that I was one of the pioneers of the sanctuary movement. Before this, my background had been in education. I was a counselor and teacher in the California school system for 12 years. I specialized in the junior high and senior high kids, who had never learned to read.
I worked with drug addicts, gang members, prostitutes, thieves---the outcasts who no one had been able to reach. I home schooled children dying with cancer; taught in a home for unwed mothers, taught in reform schools and spent my last two years teaching in Watts in the armed security wing.
Since society's rejects have always challenged me, I guess my transition to rejected and abused animals was a sensible progression.
These past 15 years have been the most rewarding, the most challenging and the most difficult of my 60+ years. At times, the magnitude of taking care of over 300 animals has been almost more than I could bear.
I have sat up many nights looking at the bills and wondering how I was going to hold it all together. But when I'm really down, I go visit "Little Stevie Wonder."
Stevie is blind and deaf, but often I find him out in the dark happily playing with his favorite toy, a ball in a plastic ring. His acceptance of life and the happiness he exhibits is beyond my comprehension. Sometimes I think Stevie was sent to Cedarhill just to teach me how to cope.
My days begin very early, as my home has become the geriatric/hospice ward for the aging dogs and cats. After my first rounds with the animals, I go to my desk and answer correspondence, work on direct mail for fund-raising, answer 30-40 emails and deal with the massive amount of paperwork that seems to multiply overnight.
There is never enough money to adequately satisfy our $45000-monthly operating budget. There are always animals going to the veterinarian, 200 gallons of bleach to pick up, 1500 pounds of cat litter to transport, 9,000 pounds of beef to unload...
I wake up every morning to the roaring of the lions, the howling of the coyotes, the crowing of the roosters, and I can't wait to get started. It's a wonderful feeling to know that you are making a difference in the lives of so many animals, but most of all, that I am doing what I want to be doing.
I work 15-18 hours a day, but I never seem to run out of steam. I see the staff out in the cold, breaking ice, thawing locks with a blow-torch, feeding and cleaning. In the summer, the heat and humidity in Mississippi is almost unbearable,
but every water container for each animal is changed everyday by devoted, loving staff.
I look out my window, study the animals and watch the staff and I am sometimes overwhelmed by the responsibility on my shoulders, but rather than be intimidated, I am motivated to make each life entrusted in my care the best that I can possibly make it.
It all started with a newspaper ad in the local Sunday paper in 1987. "Six-month-old cougar cub for sale. $1,000.00."
Out of curiosity, I went to see it and what I found broke my heart. This little cougar cub was in a small dog pen, very thin with badly infected paws from a botched declaw job. Although he was so despondent, he already had proved to be too much for his owners to handle.