By KATIE-NELL SCANLON
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
THE 400-POUND CATS ROAM restlessly through the grass. Pacing to and fro, the wild beasts protect their domain from intruders. A single roar, and the lion warns his opponents for miles.
Not quite the description of a household pet.
Yet Ohio and other states have no concrete regulations governing big cats and many other exotic or wild animals.
More than 12 exotic-animal auctions each year give zoos the chance to get rid of excess animals and give backyard breeders a place to pawn off abused wildlife.
Doug and Ellen Whitehouse think something can be done.
The two are struggling through their third year as owners of Noah's Lost Ark Animal Sanctuary on Bedell Road in Berlin Center. The nonprofit charitable organization is the home of 125 exotic creatures and 25 large cats.
Noah's Lost Ark, the largest big-cat sanctuary in Ohio, doesn't breed or sell the animals once they're restored to health.
Ellen Whitehouse, director of the sanctuary, said the animals come in horrible shape, having been beaten, abused and starved.
"Once they come here, they stay here," Whitehouse explained. "This becomes their permanent home."
The animals at Noah's Lost Ark are viewed at a safe distance, out of respect and acknowledgment for their abuse-filled pasts. Whitehouse said these animals are too often put on display for spectators and their freedom rarely considered.
An expensive task
Each large cat needs a cage of its own, structured with heavy-linked steel fences and a "lock-out" box to protect it from dangerous weather and cold. The box is welded to the main frame and constructed from the same fencing as the rest of the enclosure. Each animal can maintain a comfortable home there during the winter with heated carpets and durable walls.
Unlike zoo animals, the beasts cannot live in the same cage because of long-term effects from abuse. Therefore, the animals cannot interact with one another or return to the wild.
However, the cost of the enclosures is far beyond what the couple can afford. Some of the animals can climb or jump up to 15 feet and require carefully built pens at least 6 to 8 feet high, constructed of 12-foot posts. A black bobcat named Aspen, rescued from a drug house in Nashville, is one such animal at the sanctuary that needs a special roofed cage.
The most severely sick animals are crippled by metabolic bone disease and rickets, a form of arthritis. Although the Whitehouses do all they can to nurse the animals to health, some cannot be saved.
Philo, the sanctuary's double-humped camel, could not escape its ill fate. The couple nursed the camel for two years and designed a contraption to correct its sagging humps. The humps improved and the camel appeared healthier, but kidney and liver failure caused its death last winter.
But the Whitehouses don't give up on the animals. They think the worst disease or injury can be treated, based on their success with the animals so far.
A veterinarian comes in about once a month, or more often depending on their conditions. Whitehouse said that treatment is expensive, around $363 per day, but gives the animals a chance to live the lives they deserve. The couple travels to Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee to rescue creatures from hazardous homes.
"It isn't their fault that they were born in those conditions," Whitehouse said. "You can't just walk away."
The Whitehouses have lived in the area for about 10 years, when they began buying animals for their 30-acre farm. They no longer buy, but instead are asked to adopt those sick and abused. It may have started as an ostrich farm, but the sanctuary is now known for its large cat compound, which grew from 12 to 25 beasts.
Educating the public
Their hope is that visitors to the sanctuary will remember the animals and the abuse they were exposed to. Educational tours inform the public of the importance of conservation and proper care for such animals.
But it just isn't enough.
"We depend on donations and admission fees in order to care for the animals," Whitehouse explained. "I don't know how much longer we can afford it."
To bring in funds, Noah's Lost Ark is creating a Face to Face encounter with the cats, for viewers 18 and older. The $25-per-person tour includes a one-hour, up-close walk through of the big-cat compound, filled with individual stories and histories of each animal. Lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, caracals and cougars are just a few of the beasts that can be seen. Other animals at the sanctuary include a binturong or Asian bearcat, black bear, prairie dogs, zorse (zebra-horse mix), alpacas, ostrich, African genet, sulphur-crested cockatoo, cotton-top marmoset and many more.0
Tour participants travel in groups of 10 and meet Jax, Nook, Kenny, Bubba and Saber, to name some of the unique members of the Noah's Lost Ark Family. Not only do tours provide a fascinating experience, but viewers help ensure the animals' care and health through their donation.
Whitehouse said the Face to Face tour will be up and running soon. Reservations are required; for more information, call the sanctuary at (330) 584-7835 or visit its Web site at www.noahslostark.org.
The sanctuary also appreciates volunteers, who help prepare food and housing for the animals. They currently have a group of 20 volunteers who perform regular duties but could always use more.
Although Whitehouse acknowledges much needs to be done to accommodate the large beasts, every bit helps.