When you stand outside the gates of Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary, you can turn for 360 degrees and see mountains from every angle. If we were to design heaven on earth, we would put it somewhere like this. Somewhere off the beaten path. A basin surrounded on all sides by mountains. Wide open spaces, with plenty of blue sky. The picture is nothing short of perfect.
But it’s not the scenery at Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary that makes it heaven on earth for its residents. What makes it so special is a combination of the things that are not there and the things that are. What you won’t find at Safe Haven are chains, hooks, small cages, or neglect – all things prominent in the animal entertainment industry and exotic pet trade. There are no humans forcing animals to breed or trying to train them to perform unnatural tricks.
However, you will find a lot of other things at Safe Haven: the security of a lifelong home, species appropriate shelters with plenty of enrichment, and caring humans who see the residents as the majestic beings that they are instead of just human entertainment. For animals rescued from the entertainment industry and exotic pet trade, Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary is truly paradise.
Breaker of Chains
Anyone who works in rescue knows that it takes a special type of soul to dedicate herself to animals through sanctuary life. Special (not to mention kind, knowledgable, determined, and worthwhile) is exactly what we found when we met Lynda Sugasa. Although the sanctuary is currently located in Imlay, NV, Lynda actually founded Safe Haven in 1998 in Illinois. At the beginning, the sanctuary focused on rehabilitating and releasing injured or orphaned wildlife. Safe Haven helped a wide variety of animals from birds to opossums. They also provided lifelong sanctuary for animals unable to be released back into the wild.
During Safe Haven’s work with wildlife rehabilitation in Illinois, the sanctuary started accepting exotic animals who required permanent placement. Many wild animals end up in sanctuaries as products of the entertainment industry or due to the exotic pet trade. It started with a bobcat who came to the sanctuary; two cougars rescued from a roadside zoo followed.
Moving On Up
Soon, Lynda realized that Safe Haven needed more space to meet the growing demand to provide lifelong sanctuary for so many animals in need. Wildlife rescues often require individual habitats, and the habitats need to be large. By 2006, the Safe Haven moved to a 160 acre property in Imlay, NV. Safe Haven has steadily expanded its facility to meet its growing needs. This included purchasing an additional 160 acres of adjoining land and the construction of a veterinary care center with a quarantine area. Now, the sanctuary focuses primarily on providing lifelong care for its residents. However, they still work to rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild when possible. Safe Haven also provides education and outreach to Nevada communities.
Every animal at the sanctuary has his or her own story, and they all have so much to teach about what they have survived. But none of them stole our hearts like Clarence did. Maybe it was because he was the first animal we saw up close when we arrived. Maybe it was because his adorably crossed eyes reminded me of my snowshoe print rescue cat, Birdie, who recently passed away. Or maybe it was because he taught us so much about the damage the exotic breeding industry had wrought. Sometimes animals just touch your hearts, and Clarence did that to us.
The Myth Behind the Legend
Many people – including us, until we met Clarence – believe that white tigers are a unique breed of tiger. Nothing could be further from the truth. All white tigers are actually descendants of one, single white tiger found in the wild in India in 1951. The only way white tigers continue to be born is through inbreeding. As a result, many white tigers are born with serious health issues: crossed eyes, poor eye site, cleft palates, spinal issues, and immune deficiencies. Clarence himself is extremely crosseyed and his caregivers estimate that he only has about 20% of his eyesight. However, he has memorized his enclosure and, like so many animals taken in by sanctuaries, found a way to not only adapt but to thrive.
Started at the Bottom, Now He’s Here
Before his upgraded life at Safe Haven, Clarence was privately owned. He shared a 20 x 30 ft cage with three other tigers. Most tigers – even at Safe Haven – prefer to live alone, and one of the other tigers in the cage attacked Clarence. Sometime after the attack, Clarence’s owner moved him to an even smaller enclosure. This second cage was barely big enough for him to stand up and turn around in. This was no place for a big cat. During this time, Clarence suffered from dental issues and high kidney levels.
Eventually, Clarence’s owner could not comply with Ohio’s regulations for exotic pet ownership and he was surrendered. Clarence underwent veterinary care to address his dental and kidney issues, both of which have improved. Now, Clarence enjoys the enrichment toys of his enclosure and interacting with Safe Haven staff by following them along his fence line. His large habitat is filled with structures and enhancements. Although rescues like Clarence cannot survive in the wild, they can still lead meaningful and enjoyable lives at places like Safe Haven.
When Running a Sanctuary Gets Wild
Running any type of animal sanctuary is a tremendous task, but a wildlife sanctuary like Safe Haven has many extra considerations due to the unique nature of its residents. Everything at Safe Haven is bigger: the sanctuary itself, the animals, the enclosures, and the price tags for everything from vet care to food.
Feeding, sheltering, and caring for wildlife has a special set of requirements. That’s why the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) developed an expansive set of over 500 animal care standards. To be deemed a true sanctuary by the GFAS, animal care facilities must meet or exceed these conditions. The list of standards ranges from requirements for veterinary care to administration to overall operations. As one small example, big cats, bears, and cougars at Safe Haven have enrichment filled habitats of at least 10,000 square feet. Small felines and other animals average at least 5,000 square feet. Safe Haven is proud to be accredited by GFAS as a true sanctuary.
Another unique aspect of Safe Haven is that the staff does not physically interact with the most of the animals (with the exception of veterinary care). The sanctuary has the utmost respect for who these animals are and their natural behaviors. Even the seemingly tamest of the Safe Haven residents, such as Fritz the fox, would bite a human if exposed to physical interaction. However, the animals still get plenty of non-physical interaction and love. As we toured the sanctuary with Lynda, every animal ran up to her her as she walked past. They eagerly rubbed against the fence, vocalized, rolled around on their backs, and showed off for their sanctuary mama.
In Case of Emergency
Beyond meeting high animal care standards, Lynda and her team also have to think of every possible emergency and how Safe Haven can plan for those events. They have procedures for blizzards, power outages, wildfires, and more. These emergency plans include everything from solar power to evacuations. Now, evacuating any sanctuary is a monumental task, even if the residents are cats, dogs, and rabbits. Just imagine the complications with lions, tigers, and bears!
Just when the emergency plans seemed all set up, the Covid-19 Pandemic hit and scientists discovered that big cats could catch COVID-19. The sanctuary quickly adopted additional safety measures regarding masks, quarantines, and sanitation. These procedures were still in place when we visited. We were impressed to see all the ways in which the sanctuary staff had adapted to running a sanctuary during a pandemic.
An Exotic Price Tag
Speaking of the Pandemic, Covid-19 hit sanctuaries hard by disrupting the supply chain and also reducing donations. Wildlife sanctuaries like Safe Haven really felt the economic effects: caring for just one big cat at Safe Haven for a year can have an average price tag of $10,000. This high price tag is a result of many things including a specialized diet and premium veterinary care. Thankfully, several foundations including the David and Cheryl Duffield Foundation and The Humane Society of the United States were able to offer some financial relief during this unique event.
Visiting the Sanctuary
Something unique about Safe Haven is that they are open to the public for tours 7 days a week. For a variety of reasons, many other sanctuaries do not give public tours, or give tours by appointment only. Tours at Safe Haven are $20 for visitors 12 years to adult, $10 for kids 6-11, and free for kids 5 and under. They take place every day of the week at 9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. Reservations are not required. Tours last over an hour and participants get to see all the animals at the sanctuary and hear their unique stories. Safe Haven also has a private tour option and a special tour for photographers. These specialized tours cost $50 and require appointments. Visiting the sanctuary is a great way to learn about the animals and see them in an environment that is as natural as possible.
Helping Safe Haven
Now that you know more about Safe Haven, you’re probably inspired to help in some way. We were! Safe Haven provides a variety of ways to get involved. All of these opportunities and more are on their website. On the website, you can also subscribe for email updates.
Make a Donation
Even though Safe Haven often partners with state and federal agencies in order identify animals in need of rescue, they actually get no funding from these sources. Instead, the sanctuary relies solely on donations. There are a few ways to donate. If you are looking to make an immediate impact, you can make a one time donation online. This option works great for any budget.
If you are more inspired, you can become an annual donor. There are seven different levels of annual donors, starting as low as $25. Each donor level offers membership benefits ranging from newsletter subscriptions to private tours. Becoming an annual donor helps the sanctuary plan for the future and adds consistency to their budget.
Sponsor a Resident
Probably the most fun way to donate to the sanctuary is to sponsor a specific animal. Annual sponsorships vary depending on the animal and include a ton of perks including a photo of the animal, an adoption certificate, and updates. Sponsorships of residents (and the annual donor option described above) can also be given as gifts to your favorite animal lover.
Volunteer: Safe Haven uses volunteers to help with tours, animal intake, fundraising, answering the phone, and more. Volunteers work directly under the Volunteer Trainers. Shifts are once per week for two hours. You can find more info on their volunteer page.
Professional Skills: The sanctuary seeks individuals willing to donate talent in the following areas: construction, engineering, painting, landscaping, fundraising, marketing, and public relations. If you are willing to help, reach out to the sanctuary and sign up to volunteer.
So what to do you guys think? Would you visit Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary? What surprises you most about what they are doing? If you are like us, you learned a lot! If you liked this post, check out these others:
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