Big cat sanctuary opens new event space to help fund rescues nationwide

A guest feeds Nola, a white tiger at Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary.
A guest feeds Nola, a white tiger at Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to more than 60 animals who have been neglected and abused in captivity across the country.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Lions Tigers & Bears recently helped relocate animals seized from the park featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King”

San Diego County’s only accredited big cat sanctuary has opened a new event space to raise money for its ongoing rescue work nationwide.

While Lions Tigers & Bears owns more than 90 acres in Alpine, the vast majority of that land remains open and available to house more exotic animals that were once trafficked across borders, raised in circuses or chained in roadside zoos.

The nonprofit recently finished a three-level concrete patio that can host everything from weddings to corporate lunches, and dozens of people gathered there Friday, just up the hill from two tigers lying in the grass.

Alpine, CA - April 01: Lions Tigers and Bears Founder Bobbi Brink speaks at an event.
Alpine, CA - April 01: Lions Tigers and Bears Founder Bobbi Brink speaks at an event unveiling the sanctuary’s new White Oak venue open to the public to rent out or visit at Lions Tigers and Bears Sanctuary on Friday, April 1, 2022 in Alpine, CA. The sanctuary is home to more than 60 animals who have been neglected and abused in captivity across the country.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We work hard, hard, hard to help stop the exotic animal trade,” Bobbi Brink, the organization’s founder and director, told the crowd.

Brink’s nonprofit was established almost two decades ago and currently houses more than 60 animals, including a tiger caught near the U.S.-Mexico border, a bear at risk of being auctioned off and an abandoned leopard.

Organizers said many of the people present Friday were event planners and corporate leaders who will hopefully drive more business their way.

Grace Tayama, who works for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, left impressed.

“Especially now with COVID, it’s outside,” Tayama said about the new space. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Her husband, Charlie Silveria, won a raffle to feed a 4-year-old white Bengal tiger through a fence. He said he’d once seen cubs at a Las Vegas mall, but eyeing adult jaws was an entirely new experience.

“I think the work they do here is just incredible,” said Silveria, the CEO of a printing and mailing company.

The sanctuary is run by about 20 full-time employees and more than 100 volunteers, several of whom gave tours to guests.

Baloo, a Himalayan black bear, is one of 60 animals at Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary.
Baloo, a Himalayan black bear, is one of 60 animals at Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The animals looked well-fed and healthy inside pens filled with toys, hammocks and small pools. Baloo, a 19-year-old Himalayan black bear cupped orange slices in his paws while he licked up the juice. Louie, a 17-year-old African lion, huffed and roared, the sound reverberating across the Cuyamaca Mountains.

Two layers of chain link separated animals from people. While some fences stretch across several acres, other older enclosures are about the size of an apartment.

The cats are rotated between areas every few months, said Heather Heffernan, a kindergarten teacher who volunteers at the nonprofit. But she said newly rescued animals must sometimes begin in smaller spaces because a lifetime in captivity can make them fearful of open areas.

Just around the corner from the patio was a large black trailer hitched to a truck. Inside was everything needed to move an animal across the country without tranquilizing it, said Brink, the founder. She said the trailer was recently used to relocate dozens of tigers seized from the animal park featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King.”

Brink advocates for stricter limits on who can buy and sell exotic animals. Law enforcement agencies have seized an increasing number of species worldwide in recent decades, according to a United Nations report.

The new event space will charge $6,500 for weddings and $2,500 for luncheons, while a night at a nearby guest house costs $1,250.

Guided tours begin at $43 for adults and $26 for kids. The sanctuary hosted more than 10,000 paid visits in both 2018 and 2019, according to Guidestar, which tracks nonprofits around the country.

Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary unveiled its White Oak event venue open to the public to rent out or visit.
Alpine, CA - April 01: Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary unveiled its White Oak event venue open to the public to rent out or visit at Lions Tigers and Bears Sanctuary on Friday, April 1, 2022 in Alpine, CA. The sanctuary is home to more than 60 animals who have been neglected and abused in captivity across the country.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lions Tigers & Bears brought in nearly $2.4 million in 2019, the most recent year available, according to tax records. Contributions and grants made up the majority of its revenue, and most of that went toward expenses, although the organization reported more than $3 million available in other assets.

The sanctuary doesn’t kill or breed its animals or allow guests to touch them, and its level of care has led to accreditation from both the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, based in Phoenix, and the American Sanctuary Association, based in Las Vegas.