The unpaved highway rises and dips like a lazy rollercoaster as we roll along on the plains east of Colorado Springs toward Calhan. At the last crest, the animal refuge appears at the bottom of the hill, a glinting compound of chain-link fences where the big cats of Serenity Springs live — more than 120 of them.
A wild kingdom in a rural oasis, Serenity Springs is so named to reflect the peacefulness of the retreat where the magnificent cats will spend the rest of their lives.
It’s said that a lion’s roar can be heard for five miles, but today there is no sound as we approach the entrance. Julie Walker, significant companion and all-around assistant to owner and director Nick Sculac, waits at the gate to take us on a private tour of the facility. We will visit 40 cats, representative of the lions, tigers, leopards, servals, lynx and caracals who inhabit the facility. They are the most socialized of the feline residents.
Sculac emphasizes that Big Cats at Serenity Springs is not a breeding facility. The cats that come here will stay forever but not reproduce.
Founded in 1993 by Sculac and his wife, Karen, who died in March of 2006, the refuge is the state’s only big cat facility to be granted a zoological park license from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. It covers 17 acres with an adjoining 40 acres available for expansion. Will they ever run out of space? “No, I will run out of time before space,” Sculac says. “We really don’t want to have more than 200 cats, and we have plenty of room for that.”
Sculac originally planned to raise and train big cats for the movies. But soon he began getting calls to take in cats in need of care. As he discovered the terrible treatment and appalling conditions that so many suffered, he changed his plans. Most of the cats at BCSS were rescued from illegal breeding operations, private facilities, individual owners who thought they would make nice pets, roadside zoos and show biz. Many arrived sick, undernourished or mistreated. Sculac rescued 13 cats from a facility in the Mount Rushmore area of South Dakota after receiving a call from animal control officers that the owner had abandoned them.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 big cats are privately owned. Nationally, more than 25 states have banned them as pets, including Colorado. In 2003, the state also banned the opening of new nonprofit wildlife facilities.
Sculak loves all his cats, but admits to a close and special bond with Aramis, the first cat we visit after entering the compound. The spotted black leopard is lying on his back on a perch at the top of his enclosure, schuffing, purring and pawing the caretaker at work on the fence, wanting to play. Sculak rescued Aramis from an illegal breeder in Kansas when he was only 10 days old. “He had feline panleukopenia, a highly contagious viral disease caused by feline parvovirus,” Walker explains, “and wasn’t expected to survive.” He was raised in the Sculacs’ home. That is, until he began terrorizing the house and was moved to his deluxe outdoor residence, where he basks in attention. What a pussycat.
We move on to George, a very big African lion with a bad hair day lying contentedly in the sun. The atmosphere is quiet and serene. Walker calls to him, but he doesn’t move. He grumbles and clearly doesn’t want to socialize. “Oh, he’s just been fed and doesn’t want to be bothered,” she says. That’s OK. I don’t need to pet him.
Hard to believe, but George was raised from cubhood by an 85-year-old woman in Little Rock, Ark., who also rescued monkeys. When her home was hit by a tornado, the animals ran amok all over the neighborhood before they were finally rounded up. After the woman died in 2002, the family called BCSS because they were terrified of the lion.
Often, people think owning an exotic cat is cool. “Cubs are cute,” says Walker. “Then they grow up into cats weighing 300 pounds. People can’t handle them and don’t know what to do with them, so they dump them.”
Mike Tyson, of boxing and ear-biting fame, sent his three white Bengal tigers to BCSS after the USDA gave him 72 hours to find another home for them. It seems he bought the tigers so he could spar with them. One day the female, Kenya, pinned Tyson to the floor for four hours with his head in her mouth. He survived unscathed but Kenya had the last word.
She peers at us from her cinderblock den and emerges slowly. Walker talks to her in soft tones and Kenya responds with gentle chuffs, a happy and absolutely sublime sound. She rubs her head against the fence, delighting in Walker’s presence. “Kenya is 15 years old and has kidney disease, but she’s happy,” Walker says.
We stop to commune with Sammy, who was set to star as one of the lions in the 1996 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness, with Michael Douglas. His short but promising career ended when he broke training on the first day of shooting and was retired at the age of 3. But Sammy has a tender side. As we watch him, Sylvester, a black and white cat, wanders by. It seems that he and Sammy have an unusual bond. Sylvester sleeps with him in his den and Sammy even shares his food.
Next, we come to Savannah, an African lioness who looks at us with quiet interest as we observe her calm demeanor. She also comes with Hollywood credentials, having starred in the charming film, Second Hand Lions, with Michael Caine and Robert Duval.
Running a rescue operation is not easy or cheap. As a nonprofit organization, money is always an issue. With 120-plus mouths to feed, tour admission fees, gift-shop sales, donors and fundraisers help pay upwards of $15,000 a month for more than 40,000 pounds of frozen meat blocks and chicken parts.
There are the unexpected crises, too, such as snow removal in the winter of 2006-2007 that took a huge financial toll and from which the animal refuge is slowly recovering. Then in early 2007, Sculac attempted to bring in partners to help him run the sanctuary. “Unfortunately, they had a personal agenda, and it was not for the good of the cats,” he says.
Things deteriorated badly without his constant supervision. Now, with Sculac back full time, the refuge runs smoothly with a group of dedicated volunteers and several full-time employees.
Keeping the felines healthy is always an ongoing concern, and that means excellent veterinary care. Since 1997, Dr. Melanie A. Marsden of Pikes Peak Veterinary Clinic has been the full-time, on-call veterinarian. Now, the sanctuary’s on-site, full-care veterinary and surgical center with an indoor-outdoor recovery room is almost complete, bringing a long-time dream to fruition.
The work never ends, though. New enclosures need to be built for cats who have outgrown them and those still to come. Each enclosure with a cinder block den will cost approximately $2,500.
The “grand plan” includes an enrichment area for the cats where they can roam in a natural environment, with such amenities as pools for the tigers and rocky outcroppings for the lions. Land has been set aside for this. “One of our biggest needs is to acquire our own snow removal equipment,” Sculac says. For ways to support the refuge, visit its Web site. Or better yet, visit the sanctuary for a stunning experience.
The future? “We’ve made it through the hard times,” Sculac reflects. “I’m ready to move on and make a difference.”
He already has.
If You Go
Big Cats of Serenity Springs, about 30 miles east of Colorado Springs near Calhan; www.bigcatsofserenitysprings.org
Tours by appointment only. For reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Toni Knapp is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.