Posted on 25 February 2015.
Peeking through a sliding door, lion cub Zuberi enters CARE’s indoor rehabilitation unit with sibling Araali following closely behind. The pair climb on a mattress surrounded by colorful toys, a scene far different than a few months ago when they were near death.
The Center for Animal Research and Education (CARE) recently built the new addition to its facility to save the lives of two of its lion cubs. Because of people’s love for animals and willingness to give, CARE has built and sustained a facility that not only rescues animals, but also saves their lives.
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME – Andrew Rottner of Decatur visits Zuberi (left) and Araali at the Center for Animal Research and Education (CARE) in Bridgeport. Rottner recently spearheaded a fundraising effort to build the lions a space to heal and rehabilitate after being diagnosed with wobbler syndrome. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford
First State Bank Decatur Branch President Andrew Rottner said his family has frequented CARE’s annual fall festival the last couple of years.
Last October Rottner met Zuberi and Araali for the first time.
HOME SWEET HOME – Zuberi plays with a toy at the Center for Animal Research and Education (CARE) in Bridgeport. Messenger Photo by Jimmy Alford
“The boys were about four months old,” Rottner said. “They are such beautiful animals and through that initial visit we’ve been coming back out and visiting with CARE directors Heidi and Derek and the boys and established a bond with the cats. What they do here – taking care of the cats – is just amazing.”
Rottner said the sheer amount of work that goes into maintaining the facility, plus the love everyone at CARE puts into their work, is tremendous.
“They take these cats in like they are family, and it’s very obvious over the last several months that is what they are – absolutely family, every one of them,” Rottner said. “If you come out and Heidi or Derek are here, every one of the cats run up and rub on the fence, they know them and obviously they’ve been treated very well.”
All the more traumatic and heartbreaking was the life-threatening setback that afflicted the cubs a few months ago. Seemingly out of nowhere, the lions’ health began to deteriorate, according to CARE Executive Director Heidi Krahn.
“They had brittle bones. They both had broken ribs, and the situation was pretty bad,” Heidi Krahn said. “Some of the video I could show you would break your heart. They were struggling to stand. It was awful. We are guessing that it is genetic.”
BOND WITH BIG CATS – Andrew Rottner scratches one of the lion cubs on a recent visit to CARE. He has developed a bond with the big cats after first visiting them in October. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford
A trip to Texas A&M and several MRIs later put a name to the disorder – wobbler syndrome.
Wobbler syndrome is a disorder that normally affects spines in horses and large breed dogs, like Great Danes, both of which see extensive and quick bone growth during early development.
Heidi Krahn said animals affected by wobbler syndrome are not able to metabolize calcium properly. The symptoms are worse when the animals are still young and growing – when the need for calcium is the greatest. Aside from brittle bones, symptoms also include hypersensitivity and shaky walking, hence the disorder being called wobbler syndrome.
“They had a lot of calcium in their diet,” she said. “This totally snuck up on us and there is no reason for it. It’s got to be genetic. Now that we know about, it we can give them more calcium – loads of calcium.
“That is something we are going to have to maintain throughout their lives because they won’t be able to metabolize calcium like normal lions,” she explained. “I’ve never seen this before. I’ve seen hundreds of cats and never seen this before.”
For Zuberi and Araali, the situation was dire and talk turned to euthanasia as an option. Surgery to ease the symptoms is possible but not until the cats are adults. An intermediate solution was needed and fast.
Prior to their health problems, Rottner was already formulating plans to raise money for an outdoor enclosure. But that went by the wayside when it became apparent the cubs might not live long enough to need it.
“I did some research on it, and Heidi gave me some information on what it is and what the prognosis is and what the options are,” he said. “The condition that they were in was heartbreaking. They couldn’t even walk.
“I mean he’s trying to crawl across the floor over to you, and everyone is in tears,” he said. “It’s like, we need to at least give them a shot.”
Rottner knew giving the cubs a shot meant 24/7 care as they continue to grow. He said being in the living room would likely not be the best place for them and their keepers.
“We came up with this idea of enclosing the outdoor porch. That way they are accessible and they have safety, and they have access to their outdoor yard until they would hopefully rehabilitate or had to have surgery,” Rottner said. “This seemed like a great solution, but unfortunately, we were coming up on the holidays and the wintertime, so it made it critical for something to happen immediately.”
Rottner called a contractor and plans and estimates began the next day, under the close eye of CARE’s three-legged llama. The idea was to enclose and climate-control a porch that was already in place. It would also have a tunnel leading to the outdoors. The project would cost about $20,000.
“I had brought the bank group out here prior to that and just like I was enraptured with the love of animals, they were, too,” Rottner said. “Several members felt strongly and really appreciated the tour. I said to them ‘Here’s the problem: they need some help, and this is what we’re trying to accomplish.’ Several people at the bank and myself made a contribution toward that effort.”
SUPPORT: LOCAL AND ONLINE
Rottner’s efforts raised nearly half the cost. The rest came through overwhelming online support. Derek Krahn’s Vine account brought in another $15,000, covering the rest of the rehab unit’s costs, as well as the cubs’ expensive medical bills. Framing began on Christmas Eve and was completed three days later.
The cubs’ response has been impressive.
“People really rallied and donated a lot with 21st century tools,” Derek Krahn said. “You look at them now, you’d never know there was anything wrong with them.”
Rottner attributes the great online response to human nature. He said people love animals and love children.
“They look at these babies and see them hurting and want to help,” Rottner said. “People responded to that.”
Heidi said the cubs had been noticeably smaller, but after a couple months of rehab, plus a couple special medical collars donated by Assisi Loop, their growth has completely caught up.
Rottner has continued to visit and become a common face in the lions’ lives and recovery. He said he has enjoyed his time with the lions and knows it won’t last forever. Beyond rehabilitation, CARE’s goal is to let the lions be lions, not pets.
“They’ll know who we are and we’ll have a relationship, but they are not pets,” Heidi Krahn said.
She said eventually the lions would have their own enclosure, which will be the next step. The indoor rehab facility won’t go to waste at that point, though. Heidi said the organization would have plenty of other uses for it and would continue to utilize it to enhance the lives and rehabilitation of animals in their care.
CARE has more needs than just Zuberi and Alaari. Home to more than 50 animals, CARE is in constant need of funds to continue to operate. One of CARE’s largest contributors is the nonprofit Texas Furry Fiesta, an annual furry fandom convention held in Dallas. The convention, one of the top 10 largest in the world, played host to thousands of furry fans from across the nation and around the globe last weekend. Since 2009, each of those fans has helped feed, house and provide medical care for CARE’s many animals.
ALL SMILES – Dressed as hyenas, furries Jordan McCloud and Kaitlyn Smith attend the Texas Furry Fiesta in Dallas. The convention is a charity event that supports CARE. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford
“This is like the seventh year, and we’ve been with them since the very beginning,” Derek Krahn said. “They had us as their featured charity. I thought it was just going to be a one and done kind of thing, but they invited us back year after year and it became this great thing between our respective organizations.”
Convention attendance has grown from 400 to 500 people in 2009 to more than 2,400 this year. Preliminary counts have this year’s donation total at $16,450, bringing the grand total to more than $68,000 donated to date by the Furry Fiesta.
“The amount of support has grown tremendously, and it’s become this big staggering thing,” Derek Krahn said. “It happens at a crucial time of year, too. For nonprofits in general, this time of year is a difficult time to get donations.
“It’s right after the holidays,” he said. “People have just spent all their money on gifts, and it’s difficult for people to find the means to give within their budgets. To have this at that crucial time of year means we can sustain ourselves and our operation without wondering where the money is coming from.”