A place where beasts rediscover their beauty

Posted Sunday, Jul. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go • The International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, on Texas 114 about a mile east of Boyd, has daily tours at 11 a.m. (except for Thanksgiving,Christmas and New Year’s Day). • Children under 7 are not permitted on tours. • The sanctuary recommends a donation of $20 for adults and $10 for students. • Information: www.bigcat.org; 940-433-5091

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The inquiries come in several times a week.

Somewhere in the United States, a bear, a lion or some other wild animal needs a home and the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary is one of the first places people contact.

Since the Wise County facility took in 11 bears from North Carolina in June, the calls have been even more frequent.

“I’ve had calls over the last month from people looking to place 20 to 25 bears, but we’re not in a position to take them,” said Richard Gilbreth, executive director of the sanctuary, about a mile east of Boyd. “It would require land purchases and construction of new habitats. That’s just not something you can do overnight.”

It’s a sign of how far the 50-acre sanctuary has come since its rocky beginnings more than two decades ago. In 1997, the founder of what was then the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation, Gene Reitnauer, was ousted by a judge for commingling the sanctuary’s funds with her own.

Now, the sanctuary has filled almost all its 50 acres and has 76 animals, including 28 bears, 21 tigers and four lions. The most recent additions, the 11 bears from the Chief Saunooke Bear Park in Sylva, N.C., have drawn plenty of attention because People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal-rights activists had long called for the North Carolina park to close.

Like the bears, almost all the other animals at the preserve have been abused or abandoned or were orphaned in the wild.

While the sanctuary may eventually grow, the priority is caring for the animals.

“We have to make sure we’re improving the lives of animals given that we’ve taken them from bad conditions,” said Louis Dorfman, animal behaviorist and chairman of the sanctuary’s board. He is also chairman of the board of the Dallas-based oil and gas exploration company Dorfman Production.

Emotional enrichment

Since he became involved with the preserve 17 years ago, Dorfman has been developing his emotional enrichment program, in which he interacts with the animals.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is funding a study of the impact of emotional enrichment. The sanctuary is one of 13 in the U.S. that have AZA certification and the only one in Texas.

Dorfman, 75, believes improving the environment of animals is essential.

He points to the 11 bears that came from North Carolina. They had been confined to concrete enclosures, where they had never seen anything but the sky above. When the bears arrived, some didn’t want to interact with anyone.

A month later, they have become accustomed to roaming around their multiacre wooded enclosure.

“They’re all quite comfortable now,” Dorfman said. “These bears had never seen a tree before.”

But Dorfman, who grew up around animals in Longview in the Piney Woods of East Texas, does more than engage the animals. With many of them, he enters the enclosure and spends time with them.

During a recent tour of the sanctuary, he could be seen rubbing noses with bears through the screened enclosure and scratching the backs of others. He also went in enclosures with several tigers, as well as a young lion.

‘I just talked to him’

Spending time with dangerous carnivores is controversial, and there have been plenty of instances when keepers were hurt or killed.

This year, a lion killed a 24-year-old intern at the Cat Haven Sanctuary in central California.

The website Born Free USA has documented 80 deaths from exotic animals since 1990.

Dorfman, who said he has worked with animals for more than 60 years, agrees that most people should avoid direct contact with wild animals. But he said he is an exception.

“Some of these animals, I would go so far as to say they love me,” Dorfman said. “That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t kill me. I never take it as routine anytime I go in with a dangerous wild animal.”

Dorfman tells of a close call with a lion 15 years ago.

“He rolled over and laid on top of me with his head on my chest,” he said. “If he had done that with just about anyone else, they probably would have been killed.”

But Dorfman said he didn’t panic and was able to extricate himself.

“I just talked to him,” Dorfman said. “It took about seven to eight minutes and I started scratching his mane. We never had one negative encounter after that. I was acting like another lion he was playing with. Typically, it all starts with play. Then it converts into aggressive action that initiates their instincts.”

‘Mr. Dorfman has been very lucky’

The Washington, D.C.-based Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which has accredited 148 facilities worldwide, opposes humans entering enclosures with wild animals. The Wise County sanctuary is not accredited by the group.

“Our standard of care calls for that not to happen,” said Patty Finch, the federation’s executive director.

Finch visited the Wise County sanctuary in 2009 and said the level of care was fine.

“I would say that the enclosures were very nice that I saw at the time,” Finch said. “I think the animal care was good; the internship program was good.”

That doesn’t mean she believes that having direct contact with animals is a good idea.

“We never know when it’s going to go wrong,” Finch said. “Thus far, Mr. Dorfman has been very lucky.”

Finch said her organization would not allow a sanctuary to have photos of humans with wild animals, such as those that appear on the sanctuary’s website.

“It is something he should not do in front of the public or post photos,” Finch said. “It sends the wrong message. We’ve even seen situations in some sanctuaries where wild parrots have sent some people to the hospital.”

‘A very special ability’

While some question Dorfman’s methods, he has influential supporters.

Jeffrey Bonner, president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis Zoo, said that Dorfman’s ability to safely interact with wild animals is extremely rare and that his approach shouldn’t be dismissed.

“It’s unique,” Bonner said. “It’s something not everybody could do and most people should not do. He’s got a very special ability to interact with wild animals in a way that is so nonthreatening that it is mutually beneficial. I couldn’t do that. Very few people can read those microexpressions in animals. I don’t know of anyone else who can.”

Studies are underway to look at the benefit of emotional enrichment on animals. Those do not include having individuals enter enclosures. But Bonner was at the Wise County sanctuary last year and saw Dorfman’s effectiveness at working with the animals.

“I got to see some of the transitions in a day,” said Bonner, a past board chairman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “It was almost like seeing these animals getting better right in front of you. It’s a lesson that every animal is worth saving, whether it’s a dog in an animal shelter or an abused wild animal. That’s a wonderful lesson.”

Expansion not ruled out

As for the sanctuary, Dorfman said it will grow as needed.

With laws making it harder for individuals to breed lions and other big cats, the need for housing those animals will likely decline, Dorfman said. But the laws are less strict for bears, so they will likely continue to need homes.

The sanctuary has 21 acres dedicated to bears and still has room for a few young ones. But they couldn’t come unless they fit in with the population already on site. There is also one empty tiger enclosure and one empty lion enclosure.

Dorfman doesn’t rule out expanding, though land costs have soared near Boyd since the sanctuary was founded. He also hopes to strengthen the relationship with the AZA and other groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States. A breeding program is also possible.

“That would be a big departure for us,” Dorfman said. “It’s not something we would engage in precipitously, but it’s intriguing. We’ll do anything that helps the wild animal population.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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