Construction of a large predatory animal sanctuary in Colorado has caught the attention of cattlemen and local residents, sparking concern and questions about land use, property rights and public and livestock safety.
The Refuge is a 9,000-acre tract of land near Springfield, Colo., that will allow for 100-, 200-, and 300-acre habitats for large predatory animals, such as tigers, lions and bobcats that have been rescued from circuses and private owners. Purchased in early 2018, it is an extension of The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., which has been in operation for more than 38 years. Focused on habitat for additional animals, the Refuge will not be open to the public like the sanctuary.
In an open letter, state Representative Kimmi Lewis (R-District 64), a cattle rancher in Las Animas County, says she is concerned with the introduction of wild animals into the region—an area already known to have problem with coyotes.
“One of the reasons why they picked Baca County is because they have no zoning. They just kind of pushed this thing through,” Lewis said. “Housing a wild animal is regulated by our state and federal government, but there’s quite a bit of case law that shows where they have been a public nuisance.”
The Refuge was purchased from a local rancher who plans to continue running about 700 head of cattle on the grazing lands for the foreseeable future, says Kent Drotar, PR director for The Wild Animal Sanctuary. The property also includes grazing land, many rock formations and forested land.
“I think one of the misconceptions down there is that we're just going to turn a whole bunch of animals loose on the 9,000 acres and call it good, which is ridiculous,” he says. “That's not how we operate.”
The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg is the oldest sanctuary in the world, with about 789 acres and more than 450 animals. “The sanctuary has been in it’s current location for almost 25 years now, and has effectively become landlocked,” Drotar says. “So in the future, as we rescue more animals, the ones that are able to go down [to the Refuge] will go down there, if we have older ones or ones that need special medical care or something like that, they'll stay in our facility up here in Keenesburg.”
Who Provides Regulatory Oversight
Farmer and ranchers know the unthinkable can happen. When asked about fencing concerns and safety measures to livestock and humans, Drotar agrees—keeping these large animals from escaping is a high priority.
“First of all, people don't understand the fencing,” he says. “We have a number of oversight agencies. We are inspected regularly by USDA, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“All of our animals were rescued in captivity,” Drotar adds. “So to them, they've always been behind the fence in a cage and an enclosure. To them that's what feels like home, that's what feels safe. That's what they're used to.”
In 39 years, Drotar says The Wild Animal Sanctuary has never had an escape, and the mentality of the animals is different than the natural behavior of a wild animal. Some animals were confined to small cages before being rescued and they are hard to coax into larger spaces to socialize. He adds, in their current facility they often show no aggression to other animals, even when a carnivorous animal is housed next to a prey animal.
Specifically, The Fences
But ranchers know animals, of any kind, are unpredictable, as is the weather. Lewis says she worries about the types and height of fencing, especially over many types of terrain. “There is nothing flat here. I don’t think their fencing will work here, with the amount of rock and ravines. You can’t stretch mesh wire 20’ feet apart between the poles. You could have a 15 ft. snow drift and those animals would go right over the top of those fences,” Lewis says. “I'm concerned in the ramifications of what could happen.”
Drotar says they are still in the planning stages of deciding where habitats will be placed on the property, and they will be working with regulatory agencies to figure out where the best placements would be. The habitats will require double fencing with high tensile game wire, as well as eight strands of electrical wire. Depending on the species, the fence will be 8’ to 16’ high, he adds.
There will not be catwalk structures like visitors use at the sanctuary, he says, since the refuge will not be open to the public.
A Question of Property Rights
Similar questions have been raised about fenced-in bigger game facilities in Colorado, especially to prevent spread of diseases, said Terry Fankhauser, director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “We talked to USDA and state Parks and Wildlife to ensure that they were actively engaged and they were ensuring those protocols are going to be in place. They were going to inspect the facility, and make sure it has been properly licensed. That that all came back as being done.”
Fankhauser, who lives near the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Adams County, says he’s seen little impact from the facility in his area. And as long as facilities like this are legally compliant, it comes down to property rights.
“We want people to respect our property rights and our freedom to do with our land, as long as it’s not harming others. It's a little hard for us in agriculture to turn around and change the rules on everything else if they are following the law,” Fankhauser says. “And so that's sort of where we ended it with an assurance to our members to say yes, there is a monitor; yes, it needs to be done transparently; yes, they need to work with the neighbors and the people in the area to make sure their concerns are addressed. But beyond that, we’re not going to invade someone’s property rights because we don’t want it there.”