She is their caregiver and friend. She is their protector. She understands them.
Steffens is the president of Tigers for Tomorrow Exotic Animal Preserve in Attalla, Ala. The sanctuary is home to dozens of exotic animals that have been rescued from unsafe or inhumane conditions. Theyve found a home in Attalla, about an hour and halfs drive from Rome, where visitors can get a firsthand view of some of the most fascinating and elusive creatures in the world. And hopefully they come away with a little education and a lot of adventure.
Lions and tigers and Bear
Visitors to the preserve can hear some of its residents from the parking lot, but what greets them at first isnt exactly the most exotic of creatures.
Tigers for Tomorrow does not discriminate. The sanctuarys welcome committee is made up of goats, a red fox, a wallaby and even an inseparable pair of friends a camel and a zebra who greet visitors from their outdoor pen.
We have become their guardians, Steffens said of Zack and Tootles, the unlikely pair. Theyve been with us since they were four weeks old and theyve always been together. Theyre best friends and were not going to separate them.
And as visitors walk past the more domesticated beasts, including three rescued tortoises and a miniature horse, the sounds of their wilder neighbors can be heard.
Footpaths lead through the preserve, passing large enclosures where the animals are only a few feet away from excited visitors.
Far from their natural habitat on the tundra, two sleek gray and white timber wolves are the first of the carnivores visitors see in the preserves eight-acre carnivore compound.
Lakota and Bear came to Tigers for Tomorrow from an educational facility in Florida that could no longer care for them.
Bear, the impressive male, has a special bond with Steffens, as do most of the animals at Tigers for Tomorrow. She is one of a very select group that interacts directly with the animals for feeding, bonding and medical care.
Ive never had any scares personally, but weve always said that if anything happens to us it would be our fault, she said of her staff. Were trained to read the psychology of the animal and hopefully we avoid triggering any dangerous instincts. But we put ourselves in this situation. It would never be the animals fault if they reacted in a way that was harmful to us. They are wild animals and we respect that.
The preserve is home to two imposing African lions as well as a host of the magnificent beasts that give the park its name.
Tigers dominate the preserve. From 600-pound Sugar Ray, a massive Siberian tiger, to the sleeker Luna, a beautiful Bengal tiger, their growls, roars and affectionate chuffing can be heard throughout the park.
Tigers for Tomorrow is home to 16 tigers. With names ranging from Tinkerbell to Calamity Jane, they are housed sometimes in pairs and threesomes and sometimes alone.
These animals come with different levels of handling and from different backgrounds, Steffens said. Some have been rescued from roadside circuses and some have been pets that people simply didnt realize would some day be too much to handle.
But they all end up at Tigers for Tomorrow, which Steffens promised is their last stop. They will live out their days in peace and safety, educating the public.
Towser the magnificent
While each cat has its unique personality, from shy to playful to reclusive, theres one that stands out. Its clear that a two-year old Bengal tiger, Towser, has a special place in Steffens heart.
Towser was with a traveling circus and people would have their pictures taken with him, Steffens said. When he got too big and strong his owner put him in a little trailer. We heard about him and rescued him.
As Steffens stepped up to Towsers enclosure, the big cat seemed intrigued as he lounged in his pool. Steffens called to him and he bolted for the fence where he nuzzled her hands affectionately. And as she coaxed him to stand up, he slammed his massive frame against the fence demonstrating just how big and strong he is.
We call him Towser the Magnificent, Steffens said as she scratched his head through wire fence of the cats enclosure. Hes very playful and the kids love him. I try not to have favorites out here but hes definitely very special to me.
And as she walked from animal to animal, Steffens introduced each by name and described their history and personalities.
Some were abused or neglected while others were simply excess cubs from zoos or other facilities.
But many of the animals are there because of ignorance. Steffens said some private owners like the novelty of having an exotic animal as a pet but dont realize the responsibility that comes with housing a wild animal. Not to mention the dangers:
In many cases, some of these animals can be bought as pets off the Internet, Steffens said. All you need is a permit. And some people dont even bother to get that. But I will say that there are some responsible private owners out there. Unfortunately for some of the animals here, they arent all that way.
When the animals grow up and become too much to handle or they hurt someone many are put down, some are simply discarded and a few lucky ones are rescued and come to places such as Tigers for Tomorrow.
While the creatures serve as ambassadors for the preserve and instruments of education, they are still remarkably beautiful, quirky and amazing animals. Visitors including school children are entertained every day as they walk the trails.
The preserve was founded in July 1999, for the sole purpose of creating a safe haven for exotic animals in need of a permanent home. It is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors entering at 4 p.m. can stay until 5 p.m. The park and its office are closed Monday and Tuesday.
Three coatimundis are the resident clowns at Tigers for Tomorrow. Coati, K.T. and K.D. are members of the raccoon family but are native to South and Central America. With long noses and long tails, they are curious by nature and their antics, Steffens said, are always a hit with visitors.
There are shy cougars resting under trees and even a black panther, Benny, perched high above the ground of his enclosure. They all have their stories to tell and Steffens helps them do just that.
The park goes through 1,200 to 1,300 pounds of meat each week with so many carnivores in residence, but fruits and vegetables are also consumed by the other animals.
Tigers for Tomorrow is a not-for-profit organization and depends on donations for much of its funding. Keeping so many large animals housed, fed and healthy takes a lot of money.
Donations are always welcome and the preserve also has a Guardian Angels program that allows the public to go online, select an animal at the preserve and adopt that animal for a year. With adoption packages starting at $50, members of the public are guaranteed that all their donations go toward housing and feeding the animals.
If there is one animal that embodies what Tigers For Tomorrow stands for, it is little Kal-El. The African lion cub came to the preserve as an excess cub from another facility and will live the rest of his life at the sanctuary.
Because of his young age and his need for constant attention, as well as his love of air conditioning, Kal-El lives with Steffens in her on-site home, but is slowly being weaned to one day live in an outdoor enclosure.
If guests are lucky, they may catch a glimpse of Kal-El on one of his walks.
He lives inside for now, Steffens said. But were slowly getting him adjusted to the outdoor temperatures and the sights and sounds of the outdoors. Until then we walk him everyday, although he hates being on a leash.
As playful as a puppy, Kal-El is already exhibiting some of the behavior that will one day make him king of beasts. He stalks and pounces and he tries to roar.
But he is also the poster child of Tigers For Tomorrow. Although he does not know it, he is an ambassador for all rescued, neglected, abused and discarded exotic animals who have come to facilities, such as Tigers For Tomorrow, as a refuge. It is their last hope and their last home.
Tigers for Tomorrow is on Untamed Mountain at 708 County Road 345, Attalla, Ala. The park is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Private tours are available by appointment.
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 65 years and older, and $5 for children three and under.
Private tours are $25 per person.
For additional information about Tigers for Tomorrow, their animals and for directions to the park visit online at www.tigersfortomorrow.org.