A Place To Be Wild

A dedicated couple finds sanctuary for exotic animals in North Alabama.
Patricia Wilens

Animal lover that I am, my instinct is to reach out to pet the tawny head and scratch the little chin. But Kal-El is not a household kitty; he’s a 125-pound lion cub. He may be small, but he’s still a lion. Better to leave him to the pros.

I’ve come to DeKalb County, near Collinsville, to meet Susan Steffens-McCauley and Wilbur McCauley. The couple moved here two years ago, seeking a safe haven from Florida’s hurricanes for their animals. With volunteers and a tiny staff, they run Tigers for Tomorrow at Untamed Mountain, caring for more than 100 critters.

Lions and Tigers and Bears
During a tour, Susan and Wilbur explain the preserve’s mission.

Susan: We moved to Alabama because we found a beautiful spot where we can grow. Also, there’s little environmental education in this area, so we fill a need. We teach visitors about animals and nature, to respect all living things.

Are the enclosures big enough for such large animals?
Susan: The enclosures are larger than is the standard in the industry. However, we’re working on clearing more acreage so we can give all the animals more room, more trees. We have 140 acres and only 25 are cleared, so with more funding, we can do more.

Saving the Unwanted
Where do the animals come from?
Susan: Some were pets that people gave up or were confiscated by authorities from some inappropriate situation. Backyard breeders have created a surplus of animals. There are probably 10,000 big cats in the U.S., outside of zoos. We spay and neuter because we believe that breeding should be done only by professionals who will be responsible for the offspring.

Are there laws regulating ownership of exotic animals?
Susan: It varies from state to state. Current Alabama law pertains only to native wildlife at this time.

Will Kal-El grow up to be as large as your adult lions?
Susan: Yes, he’ll be as big and strong as Furry and Mr. Lion, our full-grown African lions. Mr. Lion came from a family in Kentucky who raised him on macaroni and cheese and dog food.

What do you tell visitors about the animals you care for?
Wilbur: I try to make them see that animals aren’t too different from us. They care about food, shelter, comfort, and safety. They’re individuals with distinct personalities.

Will you take any exotic animal that needs a home?
Susan: We’ll take any animal in need, if we have the room and the funding.
Wilbur: If we take an animal, we take it for the rest of its life. We have to turn down a lot of requests because of funds.

How do you raise money?
Susan: Besides admission and private tours, mostly grants and donations. It’s a matter of finding that angel who believes as we do in educating children, immersing them in nature, and teaching them respect for living things. We also hope to increase our visitors to 100,000 this year, which will help make us self-sustaining.

Where do your visitors come from?
Susan: We’re about an hour from Birmingham, Huntsville, and Chattanooga. We get school groups and other visitors from those areas and all over Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

All Things Bright and Beautiful
As we walk, I meet lions, tigers, bears, snowy timber wolves, and other interesting creatures. I end my visit at the barnyard (where I can finally pet something) with a sloppy kiss from an overly friendly camel named Tootles.

Driving away, I wonder what the fate of these animals would be if not for people such as Susan and Wilbur. What would have become of Benny, a black leopard abandoned by his owner, who came to Susan suffering from malnutrition, mange, and bone disease? To see him now, I’m sure the world would be a poorer place without such a gorgeous animal. I’m glad he has a home at Untamed Mountain so that other Alabamians can know that too.

Tigers for Tomorrow at Untamed Mountain: 708 County Road 345, Attalla, AL 35954; www.tigersfortomorrow.org or (256) 524-4150. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday seasonally. Reservations are required for large groups and private tours. Call ahead to inquire about handicapped accessibility.

Adopt a Lion or Tiger
No, you can’t take one home. But a donation can make you an animal’s “Guardian Angel.” Susan and Wilbur also welcome volunteers willing to get their hands dirty. Inexperienced people can’t work directly with the animals, but there’s plenty they can do to help feed and clean. College students with coursework in biology or animal science can inquire about internships. Contact Tigers for Tomorrow for information.

"A Place To Be Wild" is from the April 2008 issue of Alabama Living: People & Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in Alabama.