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5 Sanctuaries For Exotic Animals in California

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When you can't have a hundred square miles of rainforest, a spacious and safe enclosure is sometimes just the thing | Photo: Dave Stokes/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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This story was published in tandem with a segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

Whether they're native to California or some other place, animals deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. Sadly, that doesn't always happen. And that's why animal sanctuaries exist: to give animals who are neglected or mistreated a chance to live out their lives in comfort, with adequate food, protection, and veterinary care.

Unlike zoos, the best sanctuaries don't focus on public display of the animals in their care. Where public visits are permitted, they're often rigidly controlled to ensure that people and animals interact only in ways that are safe for visitors and constructive for the animals. They don't breed or sell their charges.

Many California sanctuaries work with a range of species, some specializing in farm animals and others in circus or other performing animals. Listing here isn't necessarily an endorsement of the sanctuary or its sponsoring organization: we just think the facilities here are worth knowing about.

Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS):
Founded by animal trainer Pat Derby in the early 1980s, PAWS and its network of sanctuaries in the Gold Country foothills of the Sierra Nevada have been giving shelter to refugees from the performing animal industry. Their charges include big cats, bears, and both African and Asian elephants.

PAWS was in the news a decade ago when the sanctuary helped re-home some tigers rescued from a facility in Colton, whose proprietor was eventually convicted of animal cruelty. You can see updates on recovered tigers from that unfortunate episode on the PAWS website.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears
In addition to the Oz-themed animals listed on the tin, this 93-acre ranch in the San Diego backcountry town of Alpine also shelters a mountain lion, three bobcats, a serval, and a leopard.

Among the ranch's ursine inhabitants is a local native celebrity: Meatball, the bear who achieved Twitter trending status when he raided a chest freezer in Glendale in 2012. Relocation to the San Gabriel Mountains failed to keep Meatball out of local backyards, so the California Department of Fish and Wildlife moved him to Alpine to rest up for a trip to a permanent home in Colorado. When Colorado changed its laws to prevent wild-born animals from being brought into the state for placement at sanctuaries, Lions, Tigers, and Bears started fundraising to build Meatball a permanent home.

Wildlife Waystation
Located on 160 acres in Sylmar, this sanctuary has worked with both native and exotic animals for almost half a century.

With native animals, Wildlife Waystation's emphasis is on rehabilitation and re-release, if that's possible. That's not as easy with exotic animals, of which Wildlife Waystation has worked with an almost ridiculously broad variety from opossums to llamas to chimpanzees. In fact, Wildlife Waystation claims the largest colony of chimpanzees in the Western U.S., with 50 lifetime residents.

The Waystation's description of where their guests came from could apply to almost all sanctuaries:

These animals may have been former circus performers, members of animal exhibits, baby animals orphaned or abandoned by their parents, or they've come from research labs. Many of the animals were adopted by owners who thought they would make 'novel' or 'cute' pets until they grew up and became unmanageable. Sadly, in several such cases the animals were declawed or even de-fanged in a cruel attempt to maintain control over the animal.

Shambala Preserve
80 acres in Acton acquired as part of an environmental filmmaking project, Shambala Preserve is the brainchild of actress Tippi Hedren, whose Roar Foundation works to educate people about the unsuitability of large cats and other wild exotic animals as pets.

Nowadays the preserve, which narrowly escaped serious damage in the 2009 Station Fire, is home to 47 cats ranging from lions and tigers, to bobcats and Asian leopard cats. Among the clientele is Michael Jackson's former tiger Sabu. Sabu's pal Thriller lived at the sanctuary until he died of lung cancer in 2012.

Charmingly, the preserve's website FAQ lists the inhabitants as "47 big cats... as well as assorted species of duck."

California Wolf Center
Unlike the other facilities on this list, the California Wolf Center near Julian in San Diego County works with just one species of animal, which we're bending the rules to count as exotic even though it won't be for long.

Founded in 1977, the California Wolf Center is home to several packs of gray wolves, as well as a handful of individuals of the highly endangered Mexican wolf subspecies.

The center explicitly advocates for protection and restoration of wild wolves in California, providing education about the benefits of the large carnivores, and encouraging visitors to its website to speak out at state and federal levels to protect gray wolves.

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