Almost eight months after Walk in the Wild zoo closed, problems continue to stalk its animals.
Two tigers and a cougar died early Monday after being flown from the Spokane zoo to a new home in Texas. One cougar, a 13-year-old sickly male named Chip, survived the flight.
The animals died about 5 a.m., a half-hour after arriving at their new home - the 11-acre Wild Animal Orphanage, which cares for more than 180 unwanted exotic animals in San Antonio.
The cause of the deaths has not been determined.
“We’re just devastated over the whole deal,” said Carol Asvestas, vice president and director of the animal orphanage, which received thousands of dollars’ worth of donations to provide a home for the Spokane cats.
“In 13 years, I’ve rescued at least 180 animals. … I’ve never, ever had a death. That’s really what’s hurting me the most.”
It’s the latest knot in a string of bad luck for the 23-year-old Spokane zoo, forced to close last December due to financial woes.
Two snow leopards on loan from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo were euthanized last June because they were too sick and old to return.
In 1994, Walk in the Wild’s only zebra died from shock after being gored by an African eland. In 1992, several elk and a bear escaped, intruders stole snakes and a monkey, and crews building a fence broke a natural gas line.
Parade magazine named Walk in the Wild one of the 10 worst zoos in the nation in 1989. In 1991, the magazine said the zoo was one of the four most improved of the zoos formerly named the worst.
Now the zoo is out of money, relying on donations and board members’ money to transport animals to new homes. Expenses are running almost $8,000 a month since the zoo closed, with no money flowing in.
The bleak outlook prompted a concerned Spokane businessman to place a $1,600 advertisement in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, asking the public for help. By Monday, the appeal by Richard Rollnick, president of Crown West Realty, had generated about $1,000 in pledges.
Walk in the Wild officials were upset about the large cats’ deaths Monday afternoon and nervous about new negative publicity.
“I don’t know why this happened. They were beautiful, and I just can’t believe it,” said a tearful Carol Snyder, president of the Inland Northwest Zoological Society, which runs Walk in the Wild.
Tiger Lily, a 10-year-old female tiger, had lived at Walk in the Wild since 1989. Kasey, a 7-year-old male tiger, came to the zoo as a cub in 1990. Dandi-Lion, the 11-year-old female cougar, arrived in 1989, rescued with Chip and Tiger Lily from a Montana game farm.
“Those were three healthy cats when they left here,” said Joan Versteeg, zoological society treasurer.
A veterinarian will perform animal autopsies this morning at the Wild Animal Orphanage to help determine why the cats died. Possible theories include a drug overdose, or a combination of stress, elevation and drugs.
Asvestas and three co-workers spent almost 24 hours taking the cats from Spokane to San Antonio. Asvestas said she used a minimal preloaded dosage of ketamine and rompun, both veterinary sedatives, to mellow the cats before the plane trip.
She said she was concerned the animals could have been overmedicated, with people working on them who weren’t from her staff.
Dr. Kevin Rogers, a Spokane veterinarian who helped sedate the animals Sunday, said safe, commonly used drugs and dosages were used. Rogers said the levels were prescribed by the San Antonio staff, except for Chip, whom he’s treated for renal failure for months. The San Antonio staff listened to his recommendations on Chip.
Rogers said Tiger Lily was growling as he left the zoo Sunday.
The plane left Spokane International Airport about 6:30 p.m. Sunday and arrived about 4 a.m. in San Antonio. All the cats except for Chip were sleeping heavily, Asvestas said.
Within a half-hour of arriving at the animal orphanage, the three cats had died, showing heavy bleeding from their mouths, Asvestas said.
“Animals do die, but this is a situation I’ve never come across before,” she said. “I know what I did. I know what I did would not kill those cats. I know personally, we were not responsible for the death of those animals.”
Walk in the Wild workers and volunteers cautioned against leaping to any conclusions before blood tests and animal autopsy results are available.
“I think it’s probably going to be determined to be a combination of the stress, altitude and anesthetics,” Rogers said.
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