UNIONTOWN, Pa. – For most people, looking into the yard and seeing a lion or tiger would be more than startling. For William Sheperd, it’s just another day.
Sheperd has been seeing these big cats on his property for 21 years and he’s happy about it. In fact, he puts them there.
Sheperd, a veterinarian, owns and runs the Western Pennsylvania National Wild Animal Orphanage in Uniontown, Pa. Working with the state’s game commission, the USDA and law enforcement agencies, he rescues exotic felines from abuse and neglect.
The animals come to him from all over the U.S. Right now, the orphanage is home to 28 cats and two wolves.
Not pets. To an outsider, the lions and tigers appear cute, cuddly, friendly. But Sheperd is quick to say they’re not domestic creatures.
“They’re still lions and tigers,” he said. “A lot of people get themselves in trouble thinking you can tame them.”
These cats are socialized, however, and they’re used to Sheperd and the orphanage’s big cat handler Karen Osler. The cats know their names and they stand by the fence when they see the veterinarian or handler coming, waiting for a scratch on the chin or a pat on the head.
The animals aren’t meant to be pets, but once they’ve been exposed to human contact, an orphanage is about their only option. If socialized animals were released into the wild, they would seek out people, a situation that would end badly for everyone, Sheperd said.
“It’s very unfortunate there are more of these animals in captivity than the wild,” he said.
Getting familiar. Socializing the lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars, leopards and lynxes at the orphanage is based on one concept – trust. And that trust has to come from both sides of the fence.
Feeding them by hand, sitting near the fence and talking to them are some of the methods Sheperd uses at first to build that trust, but eventually it comes down to “getting brave and going in and sitting with them.”
As a veterinarian, Sheperd does have an advantage in getting to know the animals.
“A lot of them have medical problems when they come to me,” he said.
As he works to make the cats healthy, they get to know him. But even so, Sheperd said it “takes a while to turn them.”
And no matter how socialized an animal gets, the veterinarian doesn’t let down his guard.
“It doesn’t matter what you do with them, they’re still dangerous,” he said.
Luckily, the Fayette County orphanage has a clean record when it comes to accidents, escapes and harm.
Living space. Most of the animals are housed separately, although there are a few with roommates. The pens are made from 14-foot fence secured in concrete with an electric wire around the top. In addition to the individual pens, which are 5,000 square feet or larger, the perimeter of Sheperd’s property is also fenced.
Each pen has a concrete den or block building for shelter and large red and blue balls provide entertainment. Osler said some of the cats like to push the balls around after a heavy snow and make 7- or 8-foot snowballs with them.
Dinnertime. It takes a large animal to move that much snow and those large animals have matching appetites.
The cats eat about 6,000 pounds of food every month, consuming an entire cow every five days. Each month, the cats also go through 1,000-1,200 pounds of chicken, 600-800 pounds of hamburger and more than 20 cases of canned cat food.
Lions and tigers eat about 10 pounds of food every day. Cougars eat about 5 and bobcats eat 1.
Background. The nonprofit orphanage does not receive any government funding. It gets some private donations, but Sheperd pays for most of the care and upkeep himself, a bill that reaches upward of $75,000 per year.
The vet clinic allows Sheperd to pay the salary of the orphanage’s two full-time employees, so everything donated to the orphanage goes straight to the animals.
Before starting the orphanage, Sheperd didn’t have any particular experience with exotic cats. He’s a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades at his vet clinic, working on “tarantulas to elephants and everything in between.”
In 1986, a baby cougar with an injured neck showed up at the clinic. Sheperd was able to help her heal, but the cougar didn’t have an entry permit, making her illegal.
Working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Sheperd managed to get possession of the cougar and after that, the cats just kept coming.
“We’re about as big as we can get and still be able to take care of the cats,” Sheperd said.
One goal. There’s no buying, selling or breeding at the orphanage. Once the cats get there, the veterinarian has only one ambition.
“Our goal with these guys is to make them as content and happy as possible for the rest of their lives,” he said.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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