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Blood drawn, homes found for lions, tigers

3/10/2009

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

If all goes well, Thomas County soon might be rid of the big cats housed in a makeshift, unlicensed animal compound north of Oakley.

Results from blood tests taken just last week soon should be known, and, if healthy, all five big cats -- three lions and two tigers -- soon will be on the way to two out-of-state facilities.

Problems at the Prairie Cat Animal Refuge owned by Oakley resident Jeffrey Harsh came to a head in late February, when one of the lions bit Bradley Jeff Buchanan, who apparently was under the influence, according to law enforcement authorities.

Although Buchanan suffered severe bites on his arm and was flown to a Denver hospital for surgery, he since has returned to Oakley, where he had been staying at the Free Breakfast Inn.

All of the cats were sedated last week by an Oakley veterinarian, who drew blood for testing. The blood tests are needed to ensure the animals aren't harboring an illness that could be spread to other animals.

The Detroit Zoo has agreed to take all three lions, supplementing its collection of aging lions.

A home for the two remaining tigers also has been found at the Carnivore Preservation Trust east of Raleigh, N.C., according to Lisa Wathne, exotic animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA has been working closely with the Thomas County Sheriff's office in the search for new homes for the animals.

CPT started out as a breeding facility for cats that were disappearing but has since evolved into a refuge for captive cats that are no longer wanted.

At the Detroit Zoo, the Oakley lions essentially will replace its cadre of aging lions.

"Our lions are older," said Scott Carter, the zoo's director of conservation and animal welfare. "Chances are they're not going to be with us very long."

Carter, a Kansas native, said a crew could be heading to Oakley toward the end of the month to collect the animals and begin the transfer process.

"It's not going to be cheap," he said of moving the lions. "It's one of the costs of our responsibility for exotic animals."

While Carter said they were not actively looking for lions, the Oakley animals presented an opportunity. He said the zoo already is flush with tigers.

In the meantime, Harsh said the sheriff's office has been keeping close tabs on the compound.

"They've got a big yellow ribbon around the place," he said, referring to the bright yellow tape that often is used at crime scenes to keep people away. "They were going to post guards around the place 24-7, but after the first night they gave that up."

During the blood tests, Harsh said deputies surrounded the compound.

"They had their shotguns out and had them focused on the animals in case they woke up," he said. "I told them my biggest fear was not getting bit, but getting shot."

Harsh, who has had a contentious relationship with law enforcement about the animals, said deputies, Kansas Highway Patrol troopers and game wardens were on the scene.

"The place looked like an auction house," he said.

Harsh isn't so fond of the lions going to the Detroit Zoo either, concerned they simply will be used as a fundraising effort.

Harsh also is confident he ultimately will be asked to bear the cost of medical care for Buchanan.

"Since the animal refuge doesn't have anything, they'll probably come after me," he said. "And since I don't have anything, that will be interesting."

Ownership of the animal refuge is uncertain, as Harsh said it was set up by a non-profit foundation he directs, and rents the ground from a Wyoming corporation for $1 a year.