'Tiger Queen' Animal Sanctuary Founder Gives Rescue Big Cats the Royal Treatment
Bobbi Brink started the Lions, Tigers and Bears sanctuary in 2002 and is currently caring for 65 animals at the 93-acre property
As one of Netflix’s most popular original series, almost everyone has heard of Tiger King, but now it’s time to meet the “Tiger Queen.”
It is a new title that Bobbi Brink has adopted following the success of the docuseries, which follows several private zoo owners, including the eccentric Joseph Maldonado-Passage — who goes by Joe Exotic — and their feuds with each other and animal sanctuary owner Carole Baskin.
A title that Brink has held for much longer is founder and director of Lions Tiger & Bears, a nonprofit and globally accredited big cat and bear sanctuary in Alpine, California, which is about 30 miles east of San Diego.
“My duties include everything from daily feedings to resource development and fundraising. I’ve been working with and advocating for exotic animals for decades, so caring for these animals and seeing them revel in their habitats and act the way an animal their size should is so fulfilling for me,” Brink told PEOPLE about her passion.
“Aside from taking care of our animals on-site, I also work across the country to coordinate the rescue of big cats, bears, and exotic animals and relocate them to reputable sanctuaries where they will live peacefully,” she added. “To date, we have rescued more than 500 big cats and bears, providing transport and placement at reputable sanctuaries in more than a dozen states.”
Brink started Lions Tiger & Bears with her husband Mark in 2002 “after witnessing firsthand the abuses of the exotic animal trade when I was living in Texas.” She moved back to California and found the future “idyllic countryside home of Lions Tiger & Bears — on the edge of Cleveland National Forest at an elevation of about 4,000 feet — in a hurry.
“In 2002, I got a call about two tigers named Raja and Natasha, who were living in a 6’x12’ chain-link enclosure in a backyard in Texas. The owner bought the tigers as a gift for his wife, but they were getting divorced and he DID NOT want the wife to have those tigers,” Brink explained. “When I got the call, I knew I had to act quickly, and in less than 30 days, I secured the permitting, funding, transportation, and location to bring the cats back to. This is the same site our sanctuary is located on today.”
Today, the 93-acre sanctuary is home to more than 65 animals across 17 species, including lions, tigers, white tigers, black bears, Himalayan black bears, a grizzly bear, mountain lions, leopards, bobcats, servals, and different farm animals like cows, horses, chickens, and goats, who live in expansive, enriching, nature-filled habitats where they are fed a healthy, nurturing diet.
All of the animals currently living at the sanctuary are rescues, but where those rescues occurred vary greatly. One tiger, Maverick, was pulled from the home of a celebrity after it was discovered the star didn’t have the proper license for the animal; others were saved from abusive roadside zoos, and several of the animals were born in the wild but became “too comfortable going near humans, so they lost their chance at freedom.”
“They each have a unique story, but their common bond is that they are victims of the exotic animal trade,” Brink said. “They’ve been born in captivity, used for profit — like cub-petting opportunities, the entertainment industry, or roadside zoos — and then dumped off. Others have been bred and sold as pets, and then their owners abandon or try to sell them because they don’t have the capacity or know-how to care for them.”
It is this commitment to helping animals and providing them with what makes them happy, not what makes money, that Brink believes is one of the main aspects that sets Lions Tiger & Bears apart from the private zoos depicted in Tiger King.
“We are a true and accredited exotic animal sanctuary. We are accredited by both the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association — and are the only sanctuary in Southern California to have this status. In order to be accredited, a sanctuary must meet very stringent guidelines regarding habitat size, animal care, etc.,” Brink shared.
She added: “At Lions Tigers & Bears, we do not buy, sell, breed trade, or exploit our animals. We are a no-contact facility, meaning no visitors or staff will ever have one-on-one contact with these animals. As an accredited sanctuary, our ultimate goal is to not even need to be in existence, because when that day comes, it means our work is done. There would no more animals being recklessly bred and exploited.”
Establishments that claim to be sanctuaries but also allow guests to handle the animal residents are not true sanctuaries, Brink said, and when a facility allows the public to handle exotic animals that should be seen as a “red flag.”
The sanctuary founder wishes Tiger King focused more on the cruel and shocking realities of the exotic pet trade, cub petting industry, and big cat breeding problem, than on the “shock factor and divisive characterization,” but hopes that those that watch the series can see that tigers are suffering in this country and need help.
“My hope is that viewers look past the wild personalities and chaos and see private exotic animal collections for what they really are: cruel, abusive and sad,” she said, adding that “as long as people visit places where baby cubs are held and posed with, these places are going to continue to over-breed, forcing animals to live in deplorable conditions and experience great emotional distress. This is why there’s a surplus of captive tigers living in our country.”
Along with not supporting attractions that allow animal handling with your business, Brink suggests animal lovers can help big cats and other rescue animals by familiarizing themselves “with what a true sanctuary is: A place that will never buy, sell, breed, trade or exploit animals and will never allow anyone to handle the animals for photo opportunities, etc. Look for places that are accredited by Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and the American Sanctuary Association (ASA).”
“If you’re going to support an animal sanctuary, know the animals and why they are there, when they are sick and need care and, most importantly, when they die. The animals should be there for life,” she added.
Animal lovers can help “Tiger Queen” Brink care for the animals at Lions, Tigers & Bears, and rescue more, but donating to the sanctuary through their website.