I met Steffens on a crisp, beautiful October Sunday, just before Halloween. My husband and I had gone for a country drive, taking our usual “just drive north” approach to finding spontaneous fun. So drive north I did, while he picked out an exit from I-59 to explore.
“Take this exit and turn left,” he told me, “and we’ll jump onto Highway 11 and head north from there.”
When we got to Hwy. 11, I saw the sign that read “Tigers for Tomorrow,” with an arrow pointing right in the direction we were already heading. I’d been wanting to visit for years. I’m already a freak for cats of any kind, but the idea that there’s a tiger sanctuary in North Alabama… I couldn’t get over my excitement. Just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine had posted a photo of himself beside his girlfriend, who was bottle-feeding a baby tiger. The caption below the photo read, “What did you do with your Sunday?” When I ran into him a few days later and asked him about the experience, he went into excited detail — not just about the tigers, but about wolves, lions and bears he’d seen. As my husband and I drove the 12-plus miles from the first sign, making only a couple of turns before we were in the dirt driveway of Untamed Mountain, I felt my secretly competitive side emerge. I wondered how my experience would size up to my friend’s. (Incidentally, my friend had an inside track on getting to feed the baby tiger, so I already knew that was out of the question for us.)
We reached a little house on the hill where we paid admission to a lady who was kind and welcoming, asking us where we were from and whether this our first visit. Entering the gates, my husband and I swapped glances, both of us feeling a breathtaking wave of excitement.
“Are you scared?” I asked him.
Neither of us could suppress timorous giggles as we walked away from the house, past a few lazy domestic cats lounging about in the sun. Nearby, on our left we saw a petting zoo, with llamas, camels, goats, ponies and a zebra. A young worker sitting on the porch of the petting zoo welcomed us, and as we were passing her, called, “If you hurry, you’ll get to see them feed the animals pumpkins!”
It was hard to know what to do because suddenly we were walking amidst tigers, lions, wolves and foxes. We could hear that people were gathering at the bottom of the hill ahead and quickly headed in their direction. About a dozen visitors were assembled before the cage of a large lion. A Tigers for Tomorrow (TFT) animal-keeper was giving an educational speech to the group, discussing lions, the worldwide crisis about wildlife endangerment and the effects of human development on animal displacement. Meanwhile, he tossed a medium-sized, visitor-donated pumpkin into the cage, where it rolled right to the feet of the lion. For a moment, this colossal cat pondered the little gourd, but then, like a kitten, he reared back, standing up on two feet, forepaws splayed and fell forward onto the fruit. He batted it forward as though it were a soccer ball, dribbling it from paw to paw as he chased it around his domain. The crowd laughed and gasped as he did this for several minutes until finally, he took down his kill, the pumpkin making a loud cracking sound as his fearsome teeth pierced its shell.
The pumpkin toss is part of TFT’s predator enrichment program. Play is part of what keeps the animals at the preserve healthy, giving them exercise as well as contributing to their overall sense of well-being. The mission behind TFT extends beyond providing a piece of ground on which these animals can live. The founders, staff and volunteers strive to give these exotic creatures the best possible outcome for each of their situations, while also educating the public on exotic and predatory mammals. Public awareness is at the heart of all TFT does.
“We need people to realize these animals need to be respected and cared for,” Steffens says, “that they are individuals, have likes and dislikes, emotional and physical needs.”
She adds that it’s important to remember these animals are wild and have instincts. In fact, TFT strongly discourages private ownership of wild animals. According to Steffens, most people who adopt exotic breeds or wild animals aren’t prepared for the cost and commitment involved in the long-term care of the animals.
The thrill of the wild
A visit to the zoo hardly compares to the singular experience of walking the grounds at Untamed Mountain. At the zoo, thick glass separates you from whatever exotic species you might encounter. At the zoo, eye contact with an animal is fleeting if it happens at all. At Untamed Mountain, only a strong double-layer of chain-link fence stands between you and the pealing roar of a lion. At Untamed Mountain, the animals can smell you as well as you can smell them. The eye contact is protracted, interactive — an elegant Egyptian serval actually hissed at my husband. But like me, he is a devoted cat person. When he began to speak softly and reassuringly to her, she relaxed into a sphinx pose, gazing placidly into his eyes.
At Untamed Mountain, you may become transfixed by the golden eyes and the hidden spots of the black leopards. If you are rattled by the sound of dogs howling in the night, you will be haunted by the exponentially more eerie howl of the wolves at Untamed Mountain as they call to one another across the sanctuary. If you visit repeatedly, you can watch the inhabitants grow and change, adapting to their new homes, becoming happier healthier animals under the charge of TFT’s dedicated staff.
“The difference between us and a zoo is that we are these animals’ last stop,” Steffens says. “We aren’t going to be trading them out for younger or more exhibit-worthy animals. This is a 20- or 30-year commitment or more.”
Indeed, there is no breeding and no curating involved. Rather, these animals are being rescued from dire, dangerous situations.
“A zoo’s main mission is conservation while ours is preservation,”
One great example of this preservation is Ravi, a Bengal tiger cub who was gifted to Tigers for Tomorrow by a conservationist in Myrtle Beach.
“Ravi is not only an endangered species, but she is the rarest of the big cats,” Steffens says. “These cats were hunted to extinction in the 1930s.” Ravi is what is commonly called a golden tabby Bengal tiger, of which there are currently only 36 in the entire world, Sue says. Having such a species in their collection is a tremendous honor as well as a huge responsibility.
Another example of TFT’s preservation work is the recent acquisition of a lion from a zoo in Guatemala. “We’ve been working to rescue him since July,” Steffens says. Before the lion arrived at the zoo, his owner had him in the back of a pickup truck for nearly a year, evading Guatemalan authorities. There are still many steps involved in getting the lion safely to the preserve from the zoo where he is being held in Guatemala, the cost of safely shipping him alone being between $5,000 and $6,000. All told, this rescue mission will cost around $40,000. Many community participants have already donated to TFT, providing a jungle gym and inbox for the lion’s habitat. Once the lion arrives, the staff will put many hours into rehabilitation as they work to get the lion acclimated and back to optimal health.
“Our goal is to have him home by Christmas,” Steffens says. “We don’t want him coming here in the coldest part of the year,” noting that the stress of bringing a lion into a cold environment will only add to the difficulty of helping him to adjust.
When we first made our way down the path to the tigers and lions, I felt a primal curiosity about whether the animals might smell my fear, whether it would provoke them to be aggressive or at least restless behind their fences. The more time I spent in their midst, the more I understood my role as the observer. Later, when I described this twinge of fear to Steffens during a followup phone interview, she told me the animals are accustomed to the attention.
“You can tell by the way they come to the fence to engage you,” she said.
I also got a better sense of these animals’ relationships with their caretakers — they seemed like the trusting children of doting parents, each somehow respecting the razor-like boundary that they walk together.
As we made our way back past the petting zoo, we suddenly felt compelled to stop and notice the strange eyes of the black goat behind the fence, the zebra who was happily grazing in the sun some distance from us and the peacocks who suddenly appeared at our feet, roaming as freely as wild turkeys might on that mountain. Getting into our car to leave Untamed Mountain, home of Tigers for Tomorrow, I thought to myself, “I want to be just like Sue Steffens when I grow up…”
Tigers for Tomorrow will be at Chez Fon Fon for a fundraiser wine tasting on Thursday, Nov. 17, from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. with Ravi, the rare, golden tabby tiger cub. Cost is $25 and space is limited. Please RSVP to JoAnne at 256-527-8391.
To help TFT any time of the year, visit the refuge or donate via their website (www.tigersfortomorrow.org) by clicking the paypal link on the bottom left. Those who make donations of $25 or more will be invited to a special preview of the new lion when he arrives.