Sandra Smith falls asleep in a trailer in Warrenton, Missouri, surrounded by roaring lions. Bengal tigers pace their cages; cougars pounce on moonlight. A small leopard crosses her paws daintily, waiting to kill.
In the morning, Smith moves among the cages, murmuring baby talk. Tigers sidle up against the chain link, and she strokes their burnt-orange coats, blowing through her lips in a sputtery, vibrating purr.
The tenderness startles visitors: These animals blaze with wildness. Set against Missouri's green farmland, they glow like a malarial dream.
But they're not quite what they seem.
Neither is their sanctuary.
Sandra and her husband, Kenneth Smith, started collecting exotic animals 25 years ago. They named their compound Wesa-A-Geh-Ya ("cat lady" in Sandra's native Cherokee) and, in 1998, registered it as a not-for-profit sanctuary, telling donors their mission was to rescue wild animals from roadside zoos and abusive owners. In 2000, the Missouri Senate formally thanked them for housing these animals in keeping with Sandra's Cherokee beliefs. In May, the Associated Press ran an article titled, "Woman devotes life to backyard animal sanctuary," quoting Smith's assertion that "90 percent of my animals come from rescue situations."
That's not the picture painted by Beth Norman and several other recent volunteers. They can draw whole family trees for these lions, tigers and cougars -- and they say 34 of the 60 cats now at the sanctuary were born there.
Smith flat-out denies it. She says, again and again, "I'm not a breeder. I don't want babies born here." She says a few females came in pregnant and a few accidents occurred because she had to cage males and females together:
"In 25 years, we've had about ten babies."
The volunteers tell a different story. Six people say they've fostered a total of 30 baby lions and tigers just in the past two years, bottle-feeding them in suburban homes after Smith removed them from their mothers.
There's no law against breeding, but it's a powerful contradiction of Smith's avowed mission: Rescue sanctuaries are needed because there are 15,000 amateur-bred big cats in this country already and no good place for them to go. Dulled by captivity, they'd never survive in the wilderness. Zoos won't take them because they're not purebred and therefore have no conservation value. Either they become pets and wreak havoc in the suburbs or they're killed and pelted out, fueling a lucrative underground trade that's nearly impossible to regulate under the current loopholed laws.
All five of Wesa-A-Geh-Ya's board members resigned on August 10, concerned about the sanctuary's management and the continued breeding.
"They were moving in a different direction than we thought," says former board president Mark Charpentier.
Smith, her hair skinned back in a ponytail that makes her look younger than her 52 years, notes that she's hosing down hot tigers while Charpentier "sits pretty" in an air-conditioned office. She blames the board's prissy corporate outlook for the clash:
"They wanted to run me as a business. I don't even want to charge admission."
Board members helped raise $27,200 with a series of events last spring, and they were poised to seek corporate sponsorship.
Then they started hearing that animals were being bought and sold and bred -- and Smith refused to spay and neuter those that stayed.
She says the anesthesia would endanger her cats' lives and birth-control implants cost too much. She promises she'll have all the breeding pairs separated next month; until now, there just haven't been enough cages.
There are never enough cages.
Since 1998, the Smiths have added Arctic wolves, peacocks, emus, tropical birds, marble foxes and Russian bears, and, since 2000, they've gone from 33 big cats to 60. That's not counting the animals Smith has temporarily placed off-site, the animals that have died and the animals she has sold.
It is now legal to sell any big cat that's not purebred -- Bengal and Siberian tigers are both federally protected as endangered, but a Bengal-Siberian mix is not. U.S. Fish & Wildlife agents only investigate when money changes hands across state lines or animals are sold dead for their parts. A hide can bring as much as $20,000; meat is sold anonymously to fancy restaurants; bones and organs go to Asian healers. Even a tiger's penis brings profit; it's believed to kindle sexual prowess.
Smith says she isn't part of this underground trade, but she seems to know some of the players -- men with names like "Squirrelly" and "Stoney" who run roadside zoos as cover; men such as Steven Galecki, who ran the now-defunct Funky Monkey Animal Park in Crete, Illinois, and just pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy after buying tigers and leopards and allowing them to be shot in cages outside his home.
Smith admits she sold Galecki two lions -- later, she adds a cougar to the list -- but swears she never would have sold them for such a fate.
"At that time, he was a good man," she insists. "I've cut my ties."
Carolyn Atchison, who runs the Animal House Zoological Park in Alabama, says she's taken ten of Smith's cubs herself -- most through intermediaries but two directly from Smith, with the paperwork to prove it -- because she didn't want them to become fodder in the commodity trade.
"There's no honor in the animal business," she says. "These people would pelt out their grandmother if she wasn't too old."
The USDA licenses Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, but only two USDA inspectors oversee every animal operation in the state, and they admit their standards are minimal. Animals need only have enough room to turn around and stand normally -- not enough to run and climb so their muscles don't atrophy and they're not bored into neurosis.
Volunteers say Smith has continually refused offers of logs and driftwood and play equipment, preferring to fill the cages with nothing but gravel so they are easier to clean.
Smith says, "That's malarkey. They never brought the equipment." She admits she got rid of a donated tire swing because it held water and could breed mosquitoes. She refuses climbing equipment:
"With my cougars, I have to watch what I put in there, because if they have height on me, they're gonna get me."
Zoologists groan at such logic and the indifferent regulation that allows it. They shy away from commenting on the record, but privately they say government agencies have a vested interest in perpetuating borderline facilities because if they're shut down, there'll be nowhere to dump unwanted exotic animals. The best solution might be to euthanize them, but nobody wants that blood on their hands.
Besides, these animals fascinate. Volunteers shovel manure in 110-degree heat just to be close to them. Area farmers donate dead cows, which Smith supplements with vitamins and Eukanuba chow. It's an excellent diet, but volunteers worry about inconsistency and maggots, the smell of dead flesh that clots the air, the cow parts in the Dumpster.
"We will have to deal with that if someone complains," says Major Kevin Harrison of the Warren County Sheriff's Department. "Whether or not our prosecutor will take the case, I don't know.
"The real concern for us," he adds, "is what's going to happen the day one of those tigers wants out."
Smith doesn't have perimeter fencing tall enough to stop a tiger, and Harrison doesn't have the authority to make her install it.
She does intend to put up at least a ten-foot chain-link fence as soon as she can afford it.
"I need it to protect my cats against humans," she says.
Tigers walk with her in her spirit, she says:
"I didn't have a really good childhood, but tigers walked me through it."
She says she's only lost three cats in ten years.
Norman lists seven that have died since January 2001.
The one that pulled the volunteers' hearts past breaking was Jeffrey, a ten-month-old fostered lion cub whose death Smith doesn't want mentioned. Last spring, she summoned him back from his foster mother, and this summer she placed him with an omnivorous baby bear named Hazel. Both social, they bonded fast, but volunteers worried that Jeffrey wasn't getting enough to eat and urged Smith to call a vet.
Smith hasn't had a regular vet in more than a year, though. Dr. Doug Pernikoff is listed as her attending vet on USDA forms, but he says he hasn't been out to Wesa-A-Geh-Ya in a long time and refuses further comment. Smith refers inquiries to her new vet, Dr. William Wright -- but he has yet to make his first inspection.
In early August, a volunteer finally drove Jeffrey to a vet in Kirkwood. The surgery was too late: The cub was packed with straw and gravel from his esophagus to his intestines, and he died that night.
Hazel, the five-month-old bear, died a few weeks later.
Smith says that when an animal dies, she informs the USDA, then cremates the body:
"I put it back in the earth where it belongs."
What about the tigers in the freezer?
"Who told you about that?" she asks. "Only a few people know these things."
Her voice softens:
"Delilah and Raja are in the freezer. I'm waiting to cremate them. I have my Pomeranian in there, too, because my heart is still with her." Her voice catches on a sob.
Then the anger returns.
She blames petty, mean-spirited volunteers for causing needless trouble.
"I'm just about ready to give up being nonprofit and go back to being a private zoo so I can take care of my animals as I please," she says. "White people speak with forked tongue."