Facebook Twitter

RAGE, SADNESS, DEAD LIONS LITTER IDAHO TOWN

SHARE RAGE, SADNESS, DEAD LIONS LITTER IDAHO TOWN

The dirty cubs shivered in the crisp night air and hissed at anyone who came near them. They huddled together in one corner of the truck that was taking them away from the only home they'd ever known.

That home is Ligertown Inc., where at least 16 adult African lions who escaped from their cages Wednesday have been shot and killed. Animal experts describe the cubs' former home as "horrendous, filthy and sad.""I've never seen any animals kept in these kinds of conditions," said Dr. Bill Torgerson, a veterinarian from Billings, Mont. "It's sad. I'm not here to pass judgment on the owners. I'm here to help the animals. But I don't like what I see."

His colleague, Dave Pauli, the regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, called the conditions "horrendous."

"It's just an accident waiting to happen," he said, shaking his head. "The facility is not up to any standards. Nothing looks like it's been cleaned up for a long time, if ever."

The world got a look at what some people are calling the "shame of Lava," a quiet resort town where most of the hotels don't even have phones in the rooms.

A rancher who lives next to Ligertown saw one of the animals on his property about 9:30 p.m. and shot it. Then he called police.

Authorities from the Bannock County Sheriff's Department called the owners, Robert Fieber and Dottie Martin, and several officers went with them into Ligertown to see if any other animals had escaped.

"One of the lions attacked the owner and his wife," said Undersheriff Lorin Nielsen. "We then jumped up on top of the cages. He gave us permission to terminate the animal and we shot it."

Martin and Fieber were treated at a local hospital and released a few hours later. Fieber had 26 stitches in his arm. They refused to cooperate with authorities and were banned from their home, which is next to Ligertown.

Authorities faced an unknown number of lions and lots of rumors about the property. What's known about Ligertown is told by the few people who've been invited inside by its owners.

Armed and with a helicopter in the air, deputies and Search and Rescue team members searched throughout the night for stray lions, which weigh an average of 450 pounds. Other officers spent the night calling the town's 480 residents and warning them about the danger.

"We were going through the phone book from A to Z," Nielsen said. School was canceled and residents, most of whom farm, guarded their children and pets.

The reaction among neighbors was mixed. Many didn't understand why the story warranted national media attention.

"Isn't there anything important going on?" said one man at a local restaurant. But others were outraged that authorities hadn't shut down the facility earlier.

"I believe it should have been taken care of last year when a wolf got loose and killed some animals," said a gas station attendant, referring to a pen of wolves kept by the couple about 20 feet from Ligertown.

At 1:30 p.m. Thursday the 15th lion was shot. The corpses of the majestic cats lay where they were killed Thursday. But Friday, they began to smell so bad that officials plan to haul them away. Authorities also plan to run tests on the animals and any fecal matter they could get to see if they had any diseases.

"I just can't believe they had to kill them," said one woman camping in a trailer park about a mile away from Ligertown.

Authorities got a daytime search warrant that enabled them to go inside Ligertown. What they saw sickened and angered both officers and the animal experts who accompanied them.

They rescued five cubs because they would have died without food and water. Pauli said none of the cages that housed lions had water in them. There was no place to store food and cages were littered with feces and debris.

Three cats, at least two of which are males, remained out of their cages but inside the makeshift cages Thursday night.

"It's quite a chess game," Pauli said of removing the animals. "We're going to try to do it as safely as possible. The conditions of the cages is atrocious."

Torgerson added that while everyone is concerned about the welfare of the lions, human safety is their No. 1 concern.

"We put ourselves at risk going inside - serious risk," he said.

Early Friday, the total of dead lions rose to 16 when a male was shot by a police officer. The animal had lunged at Pauli and Torgerson while they were working inside Ligertown.

By midmorning Friday, Pauli and Torgerson began tranquilizing the 20 or so adult lions remaining at Ligertown so they can be moved, possibly to private property outside of Idaho Falls.

"We've had offers from all over the country," Nielsen said of where the animals may end up.

If the animal experts and authorities find evidence that the lions' treatment has been in any way inhumane, Martin and Fieber could face criminal charges.