Ten Years Ago This Month, The Colton Tiger Story - The Largest Big Cat Rescue In U.S. History
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)
June 2014

None of the tigers arrived at ARK 2000 with a medical record and we doubt that any had received regular medical care. No one knew how old they were. No tiger had a name.

Many tears of joy were shed in the weeks following each group of tigers' arrival. We cried as we watched these majestic animals hesitate to touch unfamiliar grass for the first time. We wept as they quickly adapted to their new surroundings and began to run through the grass, hide in the dense brush, play in their pools, sharpen their claws on logs and lounge beneath the trees.

Colton tiger rescue
Couch

June marked a monumental event for PAWS - the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first of 39 tigers to ARK 2000, from the defunct, pseudo-sanctuary called Tiger Rescue in Colton, California. PAWS has been challenged, changed and strengthened as a result of accepting these very needy tigers, and providing them a permanent, safe, and healthy home.

In 2002, the California Department of Fish and Game seized 10 tigers from the Tiger Rescue facility after finding them in filthy cages without water and suspecting the owner of illegal breeding. In April 2003, officials conducted a search warrant on the owner's residence and discovered 90 dead tigers, including 58 dead baby tigers in freezers. Many other big cats and exotic wildlife were found sick, injured, and barely alive. The State of California seized control of Tiger Rescue, where 54 big cats remained.

The Fund for Animals' Chuck Traisi and an army of volunteers provided 24-hour a day care for the animals, and were able to rehabilitate and find homes in accredited sanctuaries for all but 39 tigers. Finding suitable placement for the remaining animals was difficult. Tigers are prolific breeders in captivity, and irresponsible breeding - such as the inbreeding required to produce white tigers - produces a large number of cats that end up unwanted. Sanctuaries around the country were at or near capacity, and most zoos did not want tigers of unknown genetic origin. PAWS committed to taking the remaining 39 tigers from Colton.

 Colton tiger rescue
Volunteers stepped in to care for the animals in this deplorable setting until suitable homes could be found.

Fund For Animals provided PAWS with the funds to build the initial enclosure. All housing was specially designed for this group of cats. Each tiger would have a den where he or she could eat and sleep undisturbed - a stark contrast to the chaotic situation in Colton where they often fought over food. Compatible groups of tigers would be housed together at PAWS, so the entire facility was designed to accommodate these groups of between two and eight tigers. All tigers would have access to grass, trees, swimming pools and room to roam.

PAWS President and co-founder Ed Stewart immersed himself in this mind-boggling construction project from day one, designing every detail and doing much of the work himself with the help of volunteers. Providing a proper home for one tiger is no small feat and requires strong fencing, adequate space, access to water and a commitment to provide food and veterinary care for life. Now multiply that by 39!

Dr. Jackie Gai, PAWS' veterinarian, was put in charge of the enormous task of transporting the tigers from Colton to ARK 2000. The special transport cages were designed by Ed Stewart and were big enough to allow a tiger to stand up, stretch and look around. A group of volunteers with large horse trailers were enlisted; each trailer would carry two or three caged tigers on the trip. The tigers were moved in groups of six to eight per trip, for a total of six trips that took place over an eight month period.

On the morning of June 11, 2004, the first group of tigers were coaxed into the transport cages. Each cage was filled with a thick bed of hay and attached to a doorway leading to the tigers' Colton enclosure. One by one, at his or her own pace, curiosity led each tiger to check out the transport cage and eventually step inside; the door was then quickly closed. Each cage was loaded into a horse trailer and secured in place. Many people think that tigers and other animals need to be tranquilized before loading them into a transport cage, but PAWS prefers to encourage animals to voluntarily load and travel awake and alert, avoiding the risks that can sometimes be associated with tranquilization.

The caravan of trailers hit the road for the 400-mile trip to ARK 2000 with Dr. Gai following behind, keeping watch on the trailers and communicating with drivers by walkie-talkie. Volunteer veterinarian and longtime PAWS supporter Dr. Kim Haddad rode with Dr. Gai and fielded calls from the media during the drive to ARK 2000. The group stopped periodically to check on the tigers and to top off their water buckets. We still remark on how well the tigers traveled - most sleeping peacefully throughout much of the journey. This trip was repeated five more times until the last group of tigers was moved to San Andreas in February of 2005.

Upon arriving at ARK 2000, each transport cage was carefully lifted out of its trailer and secured to the doorway of a new den. When the cage door was opened, each tiger stepped into its new and forever home. After a short period of acclimation the tigers were released into their spacious, grassy habitats.

Many tears of joy were shed in the weeks following each group of tigers' arrival. We cried as we watched these majestic animals hesitate to touch unfamiliar grass for the first time. We wept as they quickly adapted to their new surroundings and began to run through the grass, hide in the dense brush, play in their pools, sharpen their claws on logs and lounge beneath the trees.

The initial "rescue" of any animal is always exciting and garners a lot of public attention. This was a rescue on a grand scale, and the story was covered widely in the media. But soon after, the story fades from view and the true work of rescue begins - the lifetime commitment to the daily care and rehabilitation of these animals who had suffered so much. None of the tigers arrived with a medical record and we doubt that any had received regular medical care. No one knew how old they were. No tiger had a name.

Our first priority was to make them comfortable and to help them feel at home. Dr. Gai and PAWS' dedicated keeper staff immediately began keeping records on each tiger, including writing down their observations each day, a practice that continues for these tigers as well as all animals under PAWS' care. Our donors were given the opportunity to name the tigers and each tiger then assumed a new identity, one based on love and respect.

Colton tiger rescue
PAWS staff unload the first group of Colton tigers

Over time we have gotten to know the unique personalities and needs of each tiger. As most of the tigers were reproductively intact when they arrived, spaying and neutering was necessary. A host of medical problems were diligently and expertly treated.

Whenever a tiger was under anesthesia for a necessary medical procedure, Dr. Gai would estimate his or her age by the condition of the animal's teeth. As none of them were young when they arrived, we can safely estimate that the tigers currently living at ARK 2000 are at least 16 years old, and several are estimated to be over 20.

Many of the Colton tigers arrived in poor health. Most recovered and have thrived during their time at PAWS. Others have passed away during the past 10 years from a variety of causes including cancer and renal failure. Eighteen of the original 39 tigers still live at ARK 2000. For those no longer with us, we remember each and every one - the hardships they experienced in Colton, as well as the nurturing and dedicated care that we were able to provide them in sanctuary.

Colton tiger rescue
Colton tiger habitat, 2014

PAWS acknowledges the many people who have helped the Colton tigers throughout the years, and we thank our generous donors for their ongoing support. We estimate our costs to date at more than $3.75 million for housing, food, staff and veterinary care for the tigers. All of the remaining tigers are considered elderly. Most have age-related issues such as arthritis and kidney disease, and receive daily nutritional supplements, special diets, and medications.

You can help support the medical needs of these tigers by making cash donations, becoming an adoptive parent, or by purchasing items from our Amazon Wish List that are designated for tigers.

Colton tiger rescue
Alka

Ironically, there are more tigers in captivity in the USA than there are in all of the world's wild populations combined. Most are privately owned like those from Colton's Tiger Rescue, where breeding is unregulated and often irresponsible. It is a myth that these puppy mill-like breeding facilities that produce tiger cubs for photo opportunities or media appearances contribute anything towards the conservation of wild tigers, whose numbers are dwindling as poaching and habitat loss take their toll.


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