Local schoolchildren were kept indoors Thursday while 15 full-grown African lions were killed after escaping from a ramshackle wild animal compound in rural southeastern Idaho.
Officials determined by Thursday afternoon that no more lions are at large. But the 146-student Lava Elementary School already had been closed and early morning phone calls had warned parents not to send their children to bus stops and to keep their pets inside after Wednesday night’s escape from the private Ligertown Game Farm Inc.
“I was glad to stay home from school, but I was a little bit scared,” Robbie Read, a Lava Elementary School first-grader, said Thursday evening.
He was with his mother, Suzette Read, as she drove to the compound from her Lava Hot Springs home to ask Bannock County sheriff’s deputies if it was safe to let her dog out. They said it was.
Read said she had signed petitions in the past urging local officials to do something about Ligertown, where officials said there have been problems for years.
“It’s been an accident waiting to happen,” she said. “This thing should be shut down.”
Lava Hot Springs Mayor Newt Lowe said later that the city would “leave no stone unturned” to punish owners Robert Fieber and Dotti Martin.
“We’ll do everything we can to prosecute these people to the full extent of the law,” Lowe said. “But they’re very litigious. They know their rights. They’re not good citizens and they don’t want to cooperate.”
Undersheriff Lorin Nielsen said 20 to 30 lions, tigers and crossbred “ligers” remained at the squalid Ligertown compound. A number of wolf-dog hybrids, whose cages were not breached, also remained at the compound.
National Humane Society officials arrived by helicopter Thursday afternoon and removed five bottle-fed lion cubs from the compound. They were taken to an animal shelter in Pocatello, 28 miles to the northwest.
Veterinarian Bill Torgerson of ZooMontana in Billings went into the compound with the regional director of the national Humane Society, two armed SWAT team members and two search and rescue team members. Other snipers watched from outside, ready to shoot if the rescuers were attacked.
“We put ourselves at risk going inside to rescue the kittens. Serious risk,” Torgerson said.
Three adult lions lounged on top of one of the compound buildings and could not be lured down, endangering those who entered.
Torgerson and David Pauli of the Humane Society said the compound is comprised of buildings and cages connected by makeshift tunnels, and they were unsure whether any lions or tigers were inside those. No one remained inside the compound overnight.
Torgerson and Pauli said the cages had no water and appeared not to have been cleaned for a long time.
“There’s a lot of filth … and feces, chicken parts, bones, all kinds of stuff,” Torgerson said.
They described the cages as makeshift, with chain-link fence attached randomly to form pens. Wooden pallets were used for gates.
“It’s horrendous, it’s just an accident waiting to happen,” Pauli said. “I haven’t seen anything like it ever. The facility is not up to any standards.”
The veterinarian and Humane Society workers planned to anesthetize the animals today so they can determine whether they are healthy and need to be moved. Some zoos have offered to take healthy animals.
Owners Fieber and Martin, who were attacked by one of the escaped lions Wednesday night, suffered minor injuries.
They returned to the compound Thursday afternoon but were turned away by deputies who refused to let them take milk and meat to five lion cubs.
“You can’t go in there. It’s blocked off as a crime scene now,” one deputy said.
“What the hell’s the crime?” Fieber asked. When he got no response, he said, “They’re violating our civil rights.”
Nielsen and others said there have been problems for years at Ligertown, where dead lions were strewn Thursday on both sides of the nearby highway. An unexplained sign at the compounded declared: “Ligertown Church of the Guardian Alien. An Equal Opportunity Cult.”
“I don’t want to paint an eccentric here, but we’ve got a guy who literally lives with lions and tigers,” Nielsen said. A few of the big cats have been allowed to roam freely even within the trailer Fieber and Martin share, he said.
Meanwhile, Wednesday night’s breach in the perimeter fencing of the smelly enclosure was patched and sharpshooters stood by in case any more animals got out of the compound about a mile outside Lava Hot Springs. The tiny tourist town is home to about 420 people.
Sheriff’s officials erected a new fence around the compound to provide another barrier.
The sheriff’s office was notified of the escapes by Bruce Hansen, who owns property neighboring Ligertown. Hansen saw a lion stalking some of his farm animals and shot it, Nielsen said.
A sheriff’s deputy was dispatched to the scene and shot another lion that was outside the compound, and yet another lion was shot after attacking Fieber and Martin. The last animal was shot Thursday afternoon.
Nielsen said the sheriff’s office had neither the tranquilizing equipment nor the trained personnel to tranquilize the animals and had to shoot them to protect townspeople.
Fieber and Martin refused to say how many animals in all were at the site.
Both owners had bandaged hands when they returned to the compound Thursday. Fieber also had several stitches in the corner of his mouth, but he dismissed the injuries.
“This happens to anybody who owns big cats,” he said. “I’ve been put together many times since the ‘70s.”
About 50 sheriff’s deputies from surrounding counties, SWAT teams, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers and Idaho State Police troopers took part in subduing the escaped animals.
Greg Tourtlotte, the Department of Fish and Game’s regional supervisor in Pocatello, said his staff had been worried for some time about the potential for escape from Ligertown.
“A lot of our people felt that it was just a matter of time before something happened.”
Fieber previously operated game compounds in, Newport, Ore., and Clearwater Idaho, and ran into trouble with the law in both locations.
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