For animal sanctuary, fences make good savers (with video)

The S.C. Coastal Animal Rescue and Educational Sanctuary in Georgetown County has been forced to suspend its public tours, probably until June, and it will be longer before big cats can be added at the animal haven.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring the animal sanctuary to install a perimeter fence to meet regulations for an exhibitor's license before tours can be resumed, said Cindy Hedrick, co-owner of SC-CARES.

Plans for the organization to build a big-cat compound so it could adopt a tiger also have been pushed back.

Hedrick said the USDA was notified anonymously after it was reported in February that SC-CARES planned to build a compound to rescue Rajah, a 14-year-old Siberian/Bengal tiger. She said SC-CARES was unaware it needed the permit for visitors who take guided tours at the location, but was told that one is needed if the public is allowed on the property.

Located in the Choppee community outside Georgetown, the haven usually gives tours by appointment and conducts various off-site programs.

Hedrick said the sanctuary received a surprise visit a few weeks ago from a USDA animal care veterinarian and learned that a 10-foot-high perimeter fence is needed there to enclose the wolves, fox and deer. She said the organization is going further and installing fencing around all the animals "so it secures everyone," except for the tortoises and goats at the front of the sanctuary.

"[The veterinarian] was really nice, and she was fairly happy with things," Hedrick said. "We don't want to do anything to hurt anybody."

More than 100 animals are housed at the three-year-old SC-CARES, a no-kill, no-breed sanctuary for abused, neglected and unwanted animals, whether domesticated or exotic.

David Sacks, a public affairs official with the USDA Animal Care Program, said one size does not fit all when it comes to applying for a USDA license. The agency enforces the Animal Welfare Act and ensures that minimum care standards are set for exhibitors, sanctuaries, circuses, zoos, large-scale dog and cat breeders and animals in medical research, he said.

"When they apply, we'll come out and get a good handle on what kind of business they want to run, what kind of animals they have," Sacks said. "It's geared toward their particular type of business and the type of animals they have on the premises. ... Our focus is always on the welfare of the animal, so there's some leeway there, but we want to make sure they're getting proper nutrition, veterinary care, protection from the elements, those sort of general categories."

Sacks said once a license is granted, licensees are subject to unannounced, routine inspections throughout the year.

"That's our way of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act regulations," Sacks said, "and gives us a good idea of how they're living up to the standards."

Hedrick said funds are available for the fence build, as they raised $7,000 in March 2009 that was earmarked for a perimeter fence. The biggest problem is finding volunteers to build it.

"I'm hoping [the fence will be finished] by June," Hedrick said, basing her estimate on the volunteers currently available. "We've got the materials. We need the help."

Hedrick said the organization still hopes to rescue big cats, but will miss the window of opportunity to specifically rescue Rajah. She said although she and co-owner Skip Yeager have had training with big cats, the veterinarian wants them to receive additional training before adding big cats to the sanctuary.

"I said, 'Please help us be a place where they can come, and people can come visit these animals,'" Hedrick said. "They deserve a good life, too."

A donor had come forward with funding for the big-cat compound and, in the meantime, is helping fund a new barn for the horses, including one recently acquired. She said SC-CARES needs help with the physical labor for the project.

Hedrick said she has sent letters to donors who specifically gave money for the big-cat project that said, "we wanted to let our donors know that we would be happy to return funds donated since this project may not fully develop until months in the future. ... If not, we will apply it toward the big-cat compound."

"I never want to mislead anybody on what we're doing here," said Hedrick, adding that so far, they have only received supportive messages. "Because we are a sanctuary, they crack down on us, but that's fine. It keeps everybody legit."