SANDSTONE (WCCO) -- There was a big rescue of sorts in Northern Minnesota Tuesday. Two big cats from Ohio – a cougar and white tiger -- found refuge at the Wildcat Sanctuary, a nonprofit wild cat rescue in Sandstone, Minn.
"We are usually at capacity (120 cats), but because this was a very important case, because of what happened in Ohio and because of the pending legislation (in Ohio)," said Tammy Thies, founder and director of the Wildcat Sanctuary.
Thies said the effects of the Zanesville, Ohio animal tragedy means more exotic animals need a safe place to call home.
Last October, in Zanesville, a suicidal man released dozens of wild animals from his farm and authorities were forced to kill almost all of them, including lions, bears and endangered Bengal tigers.
Currently, Ohio lawmakers are considering legislation to ban ownership of exotic animals. Thies said she received a worried call from an Ohio big cat owner, fearful she can't meet regulations likely to come forth.
"She researched a lot of facilities that were not open to the public," said Thies, who agreed to provide a home for two of the woman's animals.
Tuesday morning, her crew returned from Ashland, Ohio with a trailer hauling Tasha, a 9-year-old cougar, and Nikita, a 7-year-old white tiger to their new home.
"The goal of the sanctuary is to not be needed. We really need to stop the breeding," said Thies. "We teach people to keep the wild in their heart, not their home. These animals cannot be tamed, they have wild instincts."
Thies says in 2005, Minnesota banned the ownership of big cats, primates and bears, while Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets.
Tuesday, the issue came before an Ohio legislative panel hearing. The Associated Press says the measure, which seeks to regulate wildlife in the state, would ban new ownership of lions, tigers and other exotic animals, allowing current owners to keep their pets by obtaining new permits by 2014. The owners would have to pass background checks, obtain insurance, install microchips in the creatures and show they can adhere to caretaking and safety measures. Zoos, circuses, sanctuaries and research facilities would be exempt.
Thies said she also supports federal legislation, HR 4122, the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, to ban the ownership and breeding of big cats, since there's an estimated 10,000 pet tigers in the U.S.
"I hope the Zanesville tragedy hasn't happened in vain, this is a wake-up point for America, that we do need stronger regulation and enforcement to prevent tragedies like this. Not just for the animal, but for public safety as well," she said.
Tasha, the cougar, went into quarantine as protocol, but Thies says Nikita, the white tiger, struggled with the transition. She was used to a small space and now has her own 8,000 square foot habitat to roam.
"She used to be an exhibit animal and was very traumatized by her past so we will give her a quiet free-roaming habitat for a better life at the sanctuary," said Thies.
Thies says while the animals belong in a land far from Minnesota, she's happy her sanctuary can offer a last resort, where the animals can stay for the remainder of their lives.
"These animals will never know freedom, they have to live their life behind fences, so don't they at least deserve dignity?" she said.
The animals have heated areas to endure the Minnesota winters, and all their care is provided by donations.
It cost $30,000 just to move them here, according to Thies, who says Tasha, Nikita and the other wild cats need ongoing funding. The organization has a waiting list for dozens more big cats in need of homes, many of which have been abused or mistreated.
She says donations to her organization will be matched through April.
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