Tags: Featured Feature story, Geneva Lake West
October 16, 2012 | 03:17 PMAndy Carlson knows all the animals by name. When walking by the cages, the animals respond to his voice with roars and friendly "huffing" noises, similar to a horse's neigh.
"Hey, Czar, hey, Chelsea, how are you?" he calls out to a pair of tigers. They come rub against the fence in front of him.
Carlson has been a volunteer at Valley of the Kings Sanctuary for 17 years. The animals he works with don't know it, but financial troubles threaten to close the sanctuary.
Jim Tomasi and his wife, Jill Carnegie, are the owners of The Valley of the Kings Sanctuary and Retreat.
They met through their mutual love of animals.
Tomasi said he volunteered for Carnegie's mission to breed cougars for release in the wild. That was nearly 40 years ago.
Since then, Tomasi and Carnegie married and quit breeding animals. They found a passion for giving exotic animals a safe home.
The sanctuary, located west of the Big Foot Airfield, now houses big cats like lions and tigers, but also wolves and wolf hybrids, bears, donkeys, horses and camels. There are ducks and geese Carlson calls visitors.
"I think they start flying south for the winter, and they stop at Hotel VOTK," he said. "It's a great place for them."
Carlson is attached to each animal like a parent to a child. He's watched them recover from their past lives and respond to affection and humane treatment.
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Some come from circuses and zoos, some come from people who believe wild animals can be pets and Carlson said they all have special needs.
Big cats, according to Carlson, don't meow. They huff and grunt, breathing through their noses to show affection and happiness.
One tiger, Obi-Wan, played hide-and-seek with Carlson from the opposite side of the fence.
Obi-Wan would tiptoe behind a shelter in his pen and peek over the top when Carlson called for him. The striped tail gave away his location.
Then, the cat would run out from the other side of the shelter, bouncing on his feet toward the fence. The huge tiger then rubbed against the fence near Carlson, huffing happily.
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Their close relationship was obvious, but Carlson doesn't get into the pens with the animals.
"We may be on friendly terms, and they know me," he said. "There's still that chance that they could hurt me. They're just so powerful."
Carlson compared the strength of a human to a house cat. Often, a pet owner doesn't realize how much force they're using.
It's the same with big cats. They are naturally stronger than humans.
Obi-Wan gets a pen to himself because he was raised around humans. The sanctuary staff don't want to risk putting him with another tiger.
Yet, two camels from completely different backgrounds have become best friends in the same pen.
A horse with no eyes lives by herself now, but according to Carlson, she would lay her head on her old pen mate's hip. He would lead her around.
Big cats have to eat
While the blind horse has recovered since the death of her friend, the sanctuary is struggling.
According to Tomasi, they are behind on many bills.
"We are treading water and struggling each day to take a breath and say afloat," he said. "If we cannot raise enough funds to continue our work of 38 years, the sanctuary will need to close."
Roadkill from Walworth and neighboring counties is brought to the sanctuary to help feed the big cats, and dry pet food is donated periodically.
The organization has a core group of volunteers. Carlson drives from Kenosha every other weekend to help feed the animals and clean out pens.
Yet, the sanctuary still needs help. Their website, VOTK.org, lists their daily needed items like dog food and straw and also bigger items needed like construction equipment and haulers.
Mostly, though, they need to be able to feed the animals.
Carlson said one roadkilled deer will last a big cat one day.
"They need to eat every day," he said. "We need to have meat for them every day. That's really where the money goes, for the food."
According to Carlson, all donations to the sanctuary go to the animals.
"Jim and Jill are just surviving," he said.
They own the house at the entrance to the sanctuary and have made the cats and other animals their life's work.
"We have exhausted our savings to make due," Tomasi said.