SPEARFISH | It has been a tough week at the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary.
When inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed up at the wildlife preserve and animal rescue facility on Tinton Road west of Spearfish last week for a routine surprise inspection, they reportedly discovered issues serious enough to warrant removal of more than a dozen large mammals.
According to USDA spokesperson Tanya Espinosa, managers at the wildlife sanctuary on Monday voluntarily surrendered 14 animals, which were slated to stay overnight at the facility before being transferred to an out-of-state sanctuary Tuesday morning.
Then tragedy struck. Shortly before midnight Monday, Lawrence County Sheriff’s deputies were called to the Spirit of the Hills for a report that a tiger was on the loose. Upon arrival, deputies discovered that Michael Welchynski, the sanctuary’s director, had been mauled by the large tiger, which remained at large.
Deputies located Welchynski and placed him in a vehicle for safety, Chief Deputy Paul Hansen said Wednesday. Deputies then located the Bengal tiger and determined that it was not secured in its enclosure. When the tiger, later identified as Boomer, attempted to flee through an open gate, a deputy used a .45-caliber rifle to kill the animal and prevent its escape.
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“It did not leave the sanctuary grounds, but it had the opportunity because it was in an unsecured area,” Hansen said.
Welchynski, who reportedly was bitten by the tiger several times, was transferred to Spearfish Regional Hospital, where he remained in fair condition with non-life threatening injuries Tuesday afternoon, Hansen said.
According to the Spirit of the Hills’ website, the sanctuary is an animal rescue organization that since 1999 has provided "a peaceful lifelong home for rescued, surrendered, retired, and orphaned animals from private owners, breeding facilities, and the entertainment industry."
The sanctuary is home to more than 320 animals and 40 different species, including big cats, bears, wild canines, farm animals and many species of birds. Its cats include African lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, lynxes and a serval, the website states.
Representatives of the Spirit of the Hills did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday. But in a prepared release issued Wednesday afternoon, the sanctuary stated it would "be closed for a period of restructuring, but will continue to receive donations to sustain the remaining animals during the winter.”
“Further removals of exotic animals by the USDA may be forthcoming,” the release stated. “It was felt that there were too many animals in the care of the sanctuary, given their resources of staff and funding. At this time the Western Hills Humane Society and trained volunteers are assisting with care and feeding of the remaining animals, and all of their needs are being met. Dr. David Elsom will continue as acting veterinarian for the sanctuary.”
In the wake of the attack, USDA and Ohio Department of Agriculture officials Tuesday morning transferred 18 large animals — including 10 big cats, seven bears and one wolf-hybrid — from the Spearfish preserve to the USDA-licensed Wild Animal Sanctuary at Keenesburg, Colo.
“They all arrived in Colorado Tuesday night, have been monitored, and all are adjusting just fine to their new environment,” Espinosa said Wednesday morning from her USDA office in Maryland.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which had contracted with the Spirit of the Hills to house large animals on its behalf, took measures to remove all of its animals from the Black Hills facility.
“Over the weekend, ODA was notified of an animal care concern at one of our contracted facilities, Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in South Dakota,” Mark Bruce, the department’s communications director, stated in an email to the Journal. “ODA took immediate steps to safely relocate three tigers and one bear under ODA’s custody that were housed at the facility. Those animals have been moved to another wildlife sanctuary under contract with the department.”
Bruce stated that the four animals were the only ODA mammals in the custody of Spirit of the Hills.
“The care concern involved possible feeding and veterinary care issues,” he stated. “We have no animals currently at Spirit of the Hills and do not plan to place any more there.”
USDA spokesperson Espinosa said Wednesday morning that her agency was aware of the tiger attack that occurred Monday night, and that USDA officials were examining the incident.
“I want to be clear that there is no open investigation at this time, but we are looking into it,” she said. “We are looking into it to determine if there were any animal non-compliance issues related to the Animal Welfare Act.”
According to the USDA online database, the Spirit of the Hills certificate was canceled following an inspection May 8, 2001. It was again canceled Aug. 24, 2004, then was restored Dec. 13, 2004.
An inspection conducted April 8, 2014, found two minor issues related to a wool spool in an enclosure housing three mountain lions and fence paneling on an enclosure containing two bison and a steer, according to USDA reports. Subsequent inspections conducted Oct. 7, 2014, Aug. 18, 2015, and May 18, 2016, found no non-compliant issues.
Espinosa said a USDA report on last week’s inspection of the sanctuary would not be available for 21 days following the assessment, allowing the sanctuary time to appeal any findings and correct any deficiencies, she explained.
But, Espinosa also said the recent inspection, removal of animals and tiger attack likely would trigger closer examination of the manner in which Spirit of the Hills operates.
“There are generally increased inspections any time we have a facility that voluntarily relinquishes animals or has any issues,” she said. “We are going to keep a closer eye on that facility, because we want to make sure they have the resources to care for the animals they have, and let them know that we are here to help them, whether it’s helping find homes for animals or finding additional educational resources or, frankly, going the enforcement route, which is generally the last step."
She added: “The health and wellness of these animals is our main concern.”