Lions and tigers and leopards, oh my!

Big cat sanctuary expands land, renovates assets

Kaitlin Yu, Co-editor in chief

Envision this — exotic and wild animals like tigers and jaguars thriving in a space similar to their natural habitat, but in Kansas.

Or envision this — walking through a near-realistic rainforest and hiking along winding trails to a giant glass dome housing a self-sufficient aquarium.

And envision, at the end of the day, visiting a planetarium and learning about the stars.

These are only some of the crazy ideas that Steve Klein, the Cedar Cove Feline Sanctuary facilities director, has thought up for the land expansion the conservatory is receiving.

Cedar Cove Feline Sanctuary is a 22-minute drive from Blue Valley. The sanctuary rescues a variety of animals from private ownership and exotic trade. On Saturdays and Sundays, people can tour the property or see volunteers feed the animals.

Previously, Cedar Cove had only 11 acres of land, but through fundraising at the site and on GoFundMe, they were able to gather $150,000 to purchase an additional 129 acres of land. They signed the papers on Oct. 1.

“[Conservationist] George Criswell, our neighbor, [owned] the property,” Klein said. “Because of the layout, you would have to part it up and sell it to four or five different parties that would all have to be willing. The land is not suitable for conventional agriculture. But for our purposes, it would be perfect. We also wanted to give George a long-overdue thank you for donating to us.”

Criswell gave the original 11 acres to Cedar Cove. With the new land, Klein hopes to create extended habitats and emphasize the educational aspect of the organization.

“[Right now, the tigers are] stuck in a 10-by-20 foot space and get out once a week for a couple of days,” he said. “This isn’t even one-tenth of the space they need, and that’s why we’re expanding.”

However, the cats often don’t think of themselves in captivity, Klein said. He even pointed out one tiger that had access to the one-acre area came back into the 10-by-20 foot space to greet Klein. When the tigers were cubs, Klein established a close relationship with them that has lasted into adulthood.

“I’ve got marks and scars from their sharp baby teeth — that’s how they play,” he said. “I just let them rough me up a little bit, give me the business, play around, wrestle and do that without me getting angry or saying, ‘No’ and swatting them on the nose like a lot of people will. I build their trust. I become the weaker sibling.”

Most other people would be fearful of putting himself in such a dangerous position, and Klein recognizes that his close contact with the animals isn’t safe.

“I’m [obviously] putting myself in a perilous position — [but] in a controlled environment,” he said. “I have a taser with me just in case for an emergency. I’ve never had to use it, and I hope I don’t ever have to.”

Klein didn’t always imagine a career working with animals when he was a child — he was more interested in a technological or scientific job up until college, where he went through aerospace engineering, accounting and web design as majors.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a mad scientist,” he said. “I wanted to invent things, I wanted a laboratory with all kinds of tools so that I could sit there and create things. That inquisitive nature has always been there. This [sanctuary] has become a giant laboratory to work with nature.”

Klein said their main goal as a non-profit conservatory is to reach the people who come out and educate them about the environment.

“It’s a lot of people, and we have a chance to impact them,” Klein said. “They’re captive, [and] they’ve paid to come out. We try to keep [the admission] very reasonable because we’re not trying to nickel and dime people — we want brains here that we can infect with ideas and send out into the world, so these ideas can spread and catch hold.”

Be sure to visit Cedar Cove for “Prow-o-leen” before Halloween!