Perilous times for big cat sanctuary in Wise County

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by JIM DOUGLAS

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaajdouglas

WFAA

Posted on July 20, 2010 at 6:24 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 21 at 2:18 PM

Big cat sanctuary

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WISE COUNTY — Dozens of tigers, lions and leopards rescued from dangerous situations could be in a tough spot again.

The group that saved them — the Center for Animal Research and Education, or CARE — is in danger of closing because of falling donations.

Heidi Berry, the director of the sanctuary near Bridgeport, talks to the big cats like house pets as they lounge inside spacious enclosures.

"Hi, Boula. She's our new baby," Berry explains. "Come on out, sugar!"

Boula, a huge lioness, presses her face to Berry's hand on the fence, then rolls over like a dog.

Berry knows her big cats by name — all 53 of them. She knows their habits, too.

"He's a kisser," she says as a 500-pound tiger named JP lumbers up to the fence and puts his face to hers.

Berry also knows their ailments. "This is Calamity. She's got cancer," Berry says as another tiger responds to her voice.

But what Heidi Berry doesn't know is how much longer she can keep this sanctuary open.

"There's no money. Absolutely no money coming in," she said.

The Center for Animal Research and Education is a registered non-profit group, one of few places that can take in huge cats like Milo the leopard.

"He was a woman's pet and lived in her home," Berry explained. "And he had his own bed and ate at the dining room table."

Some of the felines come from wealthy eccentrics or professional athletes who misguidedly got them as pets. But four mountain lions recently arrived from a zoo in Iowa that lost its public funding.

Donations to this refuge have also dropped sharply with the economic downtown. Berry says some of her regular donors lost their jobs.

"I'm scared," she said. "I'm honestly scared to death of what's going to happen next."

To make matters worse, one of CARE's two water wells has run dry and there's no money for a new one.

Unpaid college interns provide labor. Occasionally, donors show up with food.

"The cats eat 4 to 6 pounds every other day," Berry said.

Other sanctuary operators say it would take an international effort to place all the cats if Berry can't keep CARE open or has to scale back.

It would also break her heart.

E-mail jdouglas@wfaa.com

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