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Rescued from Ukraine, lion cubs romp happily at Minneota's Wildcat Sanctuary

The Wildcat Sanctuary is the new permanent home of four young lions who were bred to be pets in war-torn Ukraine. The cubs joined over 125 other big cats at the Sandstone facility.

Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of The Wildcat Sanctuary, talks to lion cubs Prada, Taras, Stefania and Lesya inside the Bob Barker Big Cat Building at the sanctuary near Sandstone
Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary, talks to lion cubs Prada, Taras, Stefania and Lesya inside the Bob Barker Big Cat Building at the sanctuary near Sandstone, Minn., on Jan. 10. The cubs were rescued from war-torn Ukraine.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SANDSTONE, Minn. — Their species evolved on African grassland, but lion cubs Prada, Taras, Lesya and Stefania don't mind the Northland winter. That is, as long as they can keep their footing.

One of the Ukrainian lion cubs carries around a branch as it plays in the snow
A Ukrainian lion cub carries a branch as it plays in the snow at the Wildcat Sanctuary.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"They don't mind the cold at all," said Tammy Thies, "but they don't necessarily like to have their feet drop through the snow. So the staff will plow paths for them."

Thies was standing outside the cubs' enclosure at the Wildcat Sanctuary. The cubs are among the newest permanent residents at the sprawling facility, which Thies founded and still runs as executive director.

"These lion cubs came all the way from Ukraine during the war," explained Thies. "They were destined for the pet trade, just like we have here in the U.S."

In Ukraine, said Thies, it's perfectly legal to own big cats as pets. That's no longer the case in the United States as of just last month, when President Joe Biden signed the Big Cat Public Safety Act. That law, explained Thies, "outlaws cub petting and public contact with big cats, and outlaws private ownership so nobody in the United States can have a pet tiger."

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The law doesn't apply to cats born before the law was passed, so big cat owners can keep their current pets — they just can't buy or breed new ones. That's an important step forward for people who believe, like Thies, that "wild animals should never be kept as pets."

Finding sanctuary

Pandora the tiger shows off her belly as she rolls in the snow
Pandora the tiger shows off her belly as she rolls in the snow.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The Wildcat Sanctuary is the only accredited big-cat sanctuary in the Upper Midwest. A sanctuary is different than a zoo; the Wildcat Sanctuary is not open to the public. In the interests of peace and privacy, the sanctuary doesn't even publicly share its exact location.

A sign welcomes workers to The Wildcat Sanctuary near Sandstone
A sign welcomes workers to the Wildcat Sanctuary near Sandstone, Minn. The sanctuary is not open to the public.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"We ... have really wonderful accredited zoos in our state where people can go learn about the species," said Thies. "A lot of times, we take in animals that nobody except a caretaker or two can be around because they're so fearful or fear-aggressive because of what they've been through. It would be really upsetting for them to be on display."

Among the sanctuary's cats are a handful rescued from the park formerly operated by Joe Exotic, the incarcerated impresario whose story was at the center of the Netflix documentary series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness."

Thies said that while she was initially frustrated by that widely-seen show's focus on the colorful and problematic proprietors of private big cat collections, the series ultimately helped to raise awareness about the consequences of raising wild animals for entertainment purposes.

The Ukrainian cubs' move to Minnesota certainly seems to have been salutary for the four young lions, three of whom were surrendered by smugglers on a train, in a duffel bag. The oldest cub, Prada, was cast off from a roadside zoo.

A pair of Ukrainian lion cubs wrestle in the snow as another looks on
A pair of Ukrainian lion cubs wrestle in the snow as another looks on in their habitat at the Wildcat Sanctuary.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"I got a call the night before Thanksgiving," said Thies. "They asked, could I be in Poland the very next morning? So I dropped my plans, got into Poland ... it was nail-biting up until (the following) Tuesday morning, when we actually got on the charter flight and arrived here in Chicago Tuesday evening, and then here about 12:30 a.m. in Sandstone."

Sanctuaries like the one in Minnesota work with the International Fund for Animal Welfare to rescue big cats from around the world.

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"First and foremost, we really are a resource for the Midwest and the United States," said Thies, "but oftentimes, we have open habitat space and we don't want it to go unused if there are animals in need."

Sharing stories

Timber Hunt, a media intern at The Wildcat Sanctuary, talks about some of her experiences as Polina the tiger stays nearby
Timber Hunt, a media intern at the Wildcat Sanctuary, talks about some of her experiences as Polina the tiger stays nearby Jan. 10 near Sandstone.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In addition to 20 full-time staff, the sanctuary hosts a number of interns. Many work in animal care, while some, like Timber Hunt, focus on media. "She's managing all of our social media pages, helping with video editing (and) photography," said Thies.

"I just graduated from Washington State University," said Hunt. "I was actually pre-vet before I switched to communications (as a field of study), so I've always loved animals. I saw this (internship) and I was like, this is the perfect mix of what I love."

Polina the tiger keeps a watchful eye as folks walk by her habitat
Polina the tiger keeps a watchful eye as folks walk by her habitat.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Since few of the sanctuary's supporters will ever be able to visit in person, it's incumbent on Hunt and her colleagues to share the animals' stories online.

"Everyone has their favorite cat," Hunt said. "If we post a picture of Jeremy (a white Bengal tiger), then all of Jeremy's followers and supporters are like, 'Jeremy!' Versus Pandora (another tiger), and then all of Pandora's sponsors are like, 'Pandora! Pandora!'"

The upside of being a Wildcat Sanctuary intern? "I'm always so thankful that I get to be here and see all of these cats," said Hunt.

The downside? "There's not a lot to do in Sandstone. We go to, like, McDonald's and Pine City."

The isolated sanctuary was utterly silent Jan. 10 as Thies and Hunt led News Tribune journalists through the facility. The only sounds that could be heard came from the cats, whose utterances ranged from low chuffs and murmurs to full-out roars.

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"That's our lion Gino caroling," said Hunt, indicating a roar from a nearby enclosure. The four cubs stopped in their tracks and turned to face the sound. "Soon they'll be caroling too, and they'll join in on that chorus."

A sign honoring former Price is Right host Bob Barker hangs on a building at The Wildcat Sanctuary
A sign honoring former "The Price is Right" host and donor Bob Barker hangs on a building at the Wildcat Sanctuary near Sandstone. The building houses four Ukrainian lion cubs as well as a much older one-eyed lion.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The cubs live with other lions in the Bob Barker Big Cat Building. Yes, the retired "The Price is Right" host is a donor — but it's not celebrities who keep the sanctuary in business.

"Our bread and butter are the people who give $25 a month," said Thies. "We don't have big, huge check writers. We have very committed people that believe animals deserve some dignity and compassion."

A 'forever home'

Leo the African lion looks around from his perch
Leo the African lion looks around from his perch at the Wildcat Sanctuary.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

While some of the sanctuary's cats are young and some are old (there's a "comfort care program" akin to hospice), the facility was built to be a permanent home for all its residents. Bred in captivity, most could not live successfully in the wild. Nor do accredited zoos have capacity for so many animals, even those who could tolerate being on display.

"We're kind of a last-hope rescue for big cats," said Thies. "Think of us as a Humane Society, but for wild cats ... what we are here is a safety net for those who exploit (the animals) in captivity."

The sanctuary's white tigers, including the aforementioned Jeremy, moved to the sanctuary when accredited zoos resolved to stop breeding and exhibiting such animals.

A white tiger rests on a perch in its habitat
A white tiger rests on a perch in its habitat Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, at the Wildcat Sanctuary near Sandstone.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"White tigers are pretty much man-made. The last one documented in the wild was in the '50s. They're bred by inbreeding to keep the white recessive trait," Thies explained. "They have health issues, and the only purpose of breeding them is for entertainment."

Thies grew up in Rosemount, Minnesota, and first became interested in big cat welfare when she was working in Atlanta. "I was on a photo shoot that had big cats," she said, "and I just couldn't understand how you could have a tiger on a leash in a photo studio ... and soon realized it was very problematic."

Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of The Wildcat Sanctuary, talks about the sanctuary as Polina the tiger walks her fenceline
Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary, talks about the sanctuary as Polina the tiger walks her fenceline Jan. 10 near Sandstone.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The road to the sanctuary's current success hasn't been without bumps.

Thies incorporated in 1999, starting out in Georgia and subsequently moving to Isanti County. After tussling with local authorities over how long a particular tiger could stay at the sanctuary, Thies moved her operation to Sandstone in 2006. Just under a decade ago, the organization restructured in the wake of a state attorney general's investigation into its finances.

"Succession planning is a big part of what I'm doing now," Thies said. "This should not be about me. It should be long-lasting."

A pair of tigers wrestle in the snow in their habitat at The Wildcat Sanctuary
A pair of tigers wrestle in the snow at the Wildcat Sanctuary near Sandstone, Minn., on Jan. 10.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Three of the four Ukrainian lion cubs come out from the shelter in their outside habitat at The Wildcat Sanctuary
Three Ukrainian lion cubs come out from the shelter in their outside habitat at the Wildcat Sanctuary on Jan. 10.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
A pair of the Ukrainian lion cubs stop playing in the snow to get a drink of water
A pair of the Ukrainian lion cubs stop playing in the snow to get a drink of water.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Pandora the tiger licks her chops as she looks over at the four Ukrainian lion cubs in another habitat
Pandora the tiger licks her chops as she looks over at the four Ukrainian lion cubs in another habitat.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
More on Ukraine
A small, newly formed Twin Cities prosthetic manufacturer works closely with a nonprofit organization to fit Ukrainians with free devices.

Related Topics: PINE COUNTYUKRAINEWILDLIFE
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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