Penny Torres, one of the founders of the Oregon Tiger Sanctuary, rubs the belly of tiger Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Safe Haven

Lions and tigers — but no bears — and other exotic animals have called the hills near Eagle Point home for more than 20 years. About 30 cages containing Bengal and Siberian tigers, squirrel monkeys and lions are hidden in the landscape near Highway 140.

Since its founding in 1991, the Oregon Tiger Sanctuary has cared for both exotic and domestic animals that have been abused and continues that care even as the economic downturn makes the job more difficult.

The nonprofit organization works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide a permanent home for primates, lions, tigers, snakes and domestic dogs. It is one of about 50 privately owned exotic animal sanctuaries in the United States.

One tiger, named Indie, was found about 15 years ago in a Florida drug house. Owners chained her up, beat her with baseball bats and fed her fast food. Many of the animals at the sanctuary have similar backgrounds.

Despite financial setbacks during the economic recession, Penny Torres, one of sanctuary's four founders, said the facility is running strong.

Torres, 52, who lives on the property, said within the last few years, she and 12 full-time volunteers have put forth more effort into raising funds for the Oregon sanctuary.

"Instead of being the USDA's best-kept secret, we've had to reach out a bit more," Torres said. Unlike many other exotic animal sites, she said, the sanctuary is fortunate that it hasn't had to close its doors.

Although public tours are not usually given, volunteers from the sanctuary give presentations to local schools to raise awareness about caring for exotic animals. The sanctuary has been recognized as a model animal rescue facility by the USDA.

"We've had no injuries, no escapes, nothing," said Robert Nagato-Needleman, 45, head of veterinary services and co-founder of the organization. A large part of the organization's continuing success, he said, comes from help from local and national businesses. (Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Robert Nagato-Needleman's name.)

To feed and care for dozens of lions, tigers and monkeys is no small — or cheap — feat. Nagato-Needleman said the sanctuary goes through about 6,500 pounds of meat every month for the animals. That adds up to about $8,000, which doesn't include the cost for fruits, vegetables and vitamin supplements, he said.

Torres and Nagato-Needleman said the meat distributor, Central Nebraska Packing, Inc., has allowed the sanctuary to pay for food on a monthly basis, rather than pay up-front for each weekly purchase. A local resident, who raises rabbits, also has helped the facility decrease meat costs by donating rabbit meat.

Nagato-Needleman said Albertsons in Medford donates leftover fruits and vegetables three times a week to the organization.

The organization has also received grants from large corporations such as Microsoft and Google. Robert Spinnler, 52, who helps with construction and design of the cages, said Microsoft has given about $20,000 during the last few years. Google has given about $12,500 worth in free advertising and services in the past six years.

Torres said the money helps the organization upgrade its cages to give the animals more variety each year. The tigers spend most days inside cages — made out of heavy-duty fence material — about the size of a backyard. Sometimes, tigers are able to spend time either outside the cage or in a large caged area with a small pool.

The funds have also help the sanctuary continue to raise awareness about the dangers of owning exotic animals, Torres said.

With help from government agencies, the organization has worked to pass legislation in several states, including Oregon, to ban the sale and ownership of large exotic animals. Torres and others at the organization have their sights set on passing federal legislation to ban ownership and interstate sale of exotic animals.

"We want to protect not just animals, but the public at large," Torres said. "Tigers and lions do not belong in people's homes."

Reach University of Oregon reporting intern Josephine Woolington at 541-776-4368.

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