Seven-year old Paul is one of five sibling tigers that Keith Kinkade and his wife, Judy, have raised since they were 3 weeks old.
Seven years ago five Bengal-Siberian tiger cubs were saved because Keith Kinkade and his wife, Judy McGee, vowed to nurse them back to health and take care of them for life. Those tigers now comprise the National Tiger Sanctuary in Bloomsdale.
“At the time, we were successful self-employed business owners who just happened to love animals. We were volunteering at a tiger sanctuary in Arkansas that had 50 tigers to care for,” says Keith. “The sanctuary had the chance to rescue a male and female tiger from a man in Chicago — the only thing was they didn’t know the female was expecting.”
Soon after the Arkansas sanctuary acquired the adult tigers, the female had five cubs — which is a problem, because a female tiger is only equipped to nurse four babies. The mother started to immediately show signs of stress that, according to Keith, usually means they’ll kill their babies.
Keith and Judy offered to take the role as tiger surrogate parents, bottle-feeding and caring for them 24/7 so they’d have a chance to survive.
Today, the dedicated duo runs the National Tiger Sanctuary where anyone can come see the tigers on their educational tours. The sanctuary relies solely on revenue from tours, gift shop sales and tax-deductible donations for its financial support. The couple live on the premises and run the sanctuary with the help of a staff of dedicated volunteers who love the tigers as much as Keith and Judy.
The tiger siblings have been part of these Citizens Electric members family since the cubs were 3 weeks old and weighed a mere 8 pounds each.
When Keith and Judy first got the tiger cubs, two were fairly healthy. But Vincent, Max and Paul had such severe calcium deficiencies that their legs were like rubber bands and they couldn’t walk. The runt, Paul, also had juvenile cataracts. The veterinarian told them not to get attached to the cubs because they would most likely die.
Undaunted by the report, the couple started the rigorous round-the-clock task of feeding, medicating and exercising the cubs.
“You couldn’t just let the cats go outside to play, you had to go play with them so they’d get enough exercise,” says Judy. “When it was bed time, they would sleep like babies all night. But heaven forbid you get up late if they had to go out; it’s not like they wore diapers, you know.”
By their first June birthday, the cats were healthy, happy and weighed 200 pounds each. But what do you do with 1,000 pounds of tigers? You make them ambassadors of animal education.
Keith and Judy decided to found Global Resources for Environmental Education and Nature and the National Tiger Sanctuary.
“Our main goal is environmental awareness and public education,” says Keith of the non-profits. “We feel that helping save these tigers goes well with those goals. These tigers don’t have any natural predators. Man’s greediness is the worst enemy they have.”
At the National Tiger Sanctuary, anyone on a tour is taught that exotic animals are not pets. While they care for and talk to the tigers every day, Keith, Judy and the staff keep contact with the tigers to a minimum.
“As much as we love them, these are wild animals,” adds Keith. “They’re not pets. They need us to care for them, but they don’t need us to touch them like house cats.”
As the tigers grew, the couple eventually sold their businesses and partnered with DePaul University in Illinois to create an environmental learning campus near Ste. Genevieve. But after a couple of years, budget cuts forced the college to end the program and sell the property — and the tigers’ future was in jeopardy.
These cats used to be on display at the Crown Ridge Estates near Ste. Genevieve, but Keith and Judy have since moved the National Tiger Sanctuary to a new location in Bloomsdale on 10 acres of a 400-acre piece of land. There, Keith says, the tigers can relax and live their lives as contented tigers.
This cat family is comprised of four boys and a girl: Vincent, Max, Paul, TJ (Tiger Jack) and Dee. And they act like the 7-year-old children that they are.
“TJ is a rare white tiger and demands attention because he knows he’s different than his orange siblings. He pouts if you don’t pay attention to him first every day,” says Becky Millinger, one of the volunteers at the tiger sanctuary. “Paul is the baby and throws fits so people will pay attention to him. Dee’s the family princess and hates to get dirty and Max is a gentle giant who loves women. And Vincent — well, he’s our biggest, handsome boy.”
“We don’t ever lock them up,” says Keith. “We’ve got USDA approved fencing and large areas for them to roam. They can come and go as they please, inside the feeding barn or out. If they want to be in the snow or rain, they can. If they want to sleep outside,
“You can go a lot of places and see tigers, but there aren’t many places you can go and feel like you’ve got a personal connection to them,” says Keith. “We strive to make this an experience people remember — and one they’ll want to come back for.”
Even at 3 feet away, looking a grown tiger in the eye can be an awesome, but intimidating moment. Sometimes during tours, the cats will saunter up into a special viewing area on the deck and stare back at the groups. Keith says the cats are as curious about us as we are about them.
“It’s a big surprise for some folks when a 750-pound tiger comes up to watch them eat lunch,” says Keith.
The National Tiger Sanctuary has quickly gained a reputation as the place to study tigers, too.
“We’ve got interns and students from all across the United States, Europe and Africa coming here to study tigers now,” says Keith.
To learn more about the tigers, an intern is now helping the sanctuary record and study the 50 different vocalizations tigers make.
For big cats, these tigers only eat six to 10 pounds of raw meat daily. They aren’t fed road kill because it could affect their health. While the sanctuary doesn’t have veterinarians on staff, several are on-call and donate their time to the tigers’ care.
The sanctuary welcomes individuals and groups of all sizes to book tours during the week or on the weekend. Tours start at $5 for kids and $10 for adults for the basic educational tour. For $15 and $25, kids and adults can also watch the staff feed the tigers, and for $75 per person, they can do all of the above plus feed the tigers.
Letters Keith and Judy receive from those who come visit the tigers line the walls of the classroom at the sanctuary.
“Kids who’ve come on the tour send us posters they’ve drawn. Many of them are about the tigers, but many of them have to do with water conservation and recycling and other topics they’ve heard us discuss while they’re here learning about the tigers,” says Keith. “It’s great to know we’ve made a positive impression on them. They’re realizing that we’re all living on this planet together and that if we all do our part, we can make it a better environment for both man and animal.”
For more information, including the hours, call 573-483-3100, 877-317-3100 or go to www.nationaltigersanctuary.org. The sanctuary is located 30 minutes south of St. Louis off Interstate 55 in Bloomsdale, 2 miles west on Highway Y.