March 28, 2021

Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary

Heaven on Earth

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.

In her previous life, Caroline was used as a breeder in the exotic pet trade. Now she enjoys all the amenities of Safe Haven, including her private in ground pool and lounging deck. Caroline is incredibly social and enjoys chuffing through the fence with her neighbor, Khan. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

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.

Autumn was rescued from the wild. Although she was eventually taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center, her human rescuers cared for her for too long. As a result, she is not able to be released back into the wild. She lives with two other bobcats, Amber and Kuma, and the three girls get along perfectly. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.


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.

Clarence, with his adorable face and laid back personality, taught us so much about the toxic inbreeding practices of the exotic pet industry. Clarence may have had a sad past, but his is living it up at Safe Haven. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

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.

Scooter and his friend Taco are two macaws rescued from Idaho when their owner could not meet local regulations. At 30 years young, Scooter has a long life ahead of him. Scooter is playful; he loves showing off on his swing and snacking on peanuts. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

Specialized Standards

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.

Even Fritz the Fox, who was once probably kept as a pet, and who is very friendly towards humans, is still a wild animal. He gets plenty of attention and interaction, but Safe Haven still adheres to strict safety standards that respect these beautiful creatures. Sanctuaries like Safe Haven have a lot of additional considerations to think about as they provide lifelong shelter and care for their residents. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

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.

Ben the black bear takes a dip in his private pool. Safe Haven offers a lot of enrichment in their animal enclosures. In addition to plenty of space, residents enjoy in ground pools, lounging platforms, and species appropriate toys. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

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.

One of the residents we didn’t get to see on our visit was Moe – one of two tortoises at Safe Haven. Moe was hibernating at the time. Before he came to Safe Haven, he was found wandering around a neighborhood right before winter. He was rescued just in time because he would not have survived the cold. Moe is 21 years young and loves climbing and inspecting food donations. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

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.

Sybre is the oldest of the current residents at Safe Haven and has been with the sanctuary for 8 years. At 21 years old, he is the elder of the big cats. Residents of Safe Haven are offered lifelong food, shelter, veterinary care, and love. Photo Courtesy of Safe Haven.

Other Ways to Help

  • Shop from Safe Haven’s Amazon Wishlist.
  • 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.
  • Purchase wildlife art by Taylor Ann; proceeds are donated to Safe Haven.

Further Reading

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:

Are you interested in supporting more Sanctuary Spotlights? Donate and help us make the world a more compassionate place! Veg-X is also seeking corporate sponsors to help us spotlight more worthwhile sanctuaries across the country. If you would like to work with us, email us at or check out our Work With Us page.


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About the Author: Stephanie Mathers
Stephanie Mathers is an educator, writer, and vegan explorer. When she's not blogging or saving animals, she is snowboarding, hiking, or reading.

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  1. Chelsea March 29, 2021 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Wow I’d love to visit Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary (and take my kids)! That’s pretty amazing they started off with smaller animals and ended up with big cats! I had no idea it took roughly $10K to care for a big cat per year. Organizations like this need donations more than ever. I love that they offer tours too!

    • Veg-X April 3, 2021 at 5:22 pm - Reply

      Chelsea, your kids would absolutely love it. You get so much closer to the animals than a zoo, you get to see them in their natural environments, and you help the animals via the donation for the tour. I hope you get to take them someday.

  2. Keirsten March 29, 2021 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    This is so beautiful 🙌 It would be my dream to one day open an animal sanctuary. I don’t think I’d be able to handle such exotic animals but what an inspiration. The all have such beautiful sweet faces. Thank you for sharing this info and showing us how we can help keep this sanctuary up and running. Also… I think you meant, “the three girls get along purrrfectly*” 😹
    I’d love to check this place out next time I’m in NV.

    • Veg-X April 3, 2021 at 5:20 pm - Reply

      😀😻😀 Thanks, Keirsten! I agree this is probably the most challenging type of sanctuary to run. How rewarding though!

  3. Cindy Moore March 31, 2021 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Wow I’m so impressed! I love that Safe Haven exists and cares for these beautiful animals. I’ll definitely make a donation.

    • Veg-X April 3, 2021 at 5:19 pm - Reply

      Thanks for reading, Cindy! It really is such an impressive place.

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