Valley of the Kings: exotic animals’ last stop

I have not met Jill Carnegie, but I know what’s on her wish list: blankets, office supplies, wheelbarrows, lumber, fly traps, chest freezers, straw and many other items.

She needs food, too, about 1,500 pounds every day. Send money, and you’re officially part of a family with Chelsea, Jasmine, Shera, Nadia, Bruno and dozens of others.

All live on 10 acres in southern Walworth County, near the Illinois border, at the nonprofit Valley of the Kings Sanctuary and Retreat Center. Exotic animals – lions, tigers, bears and much more – have lived here 36 years. It is not a tourist attraction but worth your attention, especially during this month of thanks and gluttony.

Gates and fences entwine footpaths, farm buildings and a curious cemetery of cremains, figurines and tombstones (including one for Jill and husband Jim Tomasi). “We do not find homes for the animals here,” the elusive Jill explains, online. “This is their home, their last stop and their last chance.”

The lean operation totally relies on volunteers and donations. It doesn’t take long to figure out whose needs come first.

No one visits until purchasing a Valley of the Kings membership, and that includes me. Members are only welcome on weekends, after showing a membership card to gain entry, and, as Jill’s phone machine greeting states, “you cannot join at the gate.”

No one meanders without a trained volunteer guide. No one camouflages the odor of carcasses (from farms and road kill) parceled out to nourish the brood of around 50 small to enormous creatures.

Some visitors bring packs of raw chicken, skewering one drumstick at a time onto long sticks that are poked past wire fencing. What sounds like an amplification of potato chip munching is the crunch of bones by the snacking menagerie. That’s how close you get to these wondrous creatures.

Feeding rules are specific. The bear only eats fruits and PB&J sandwiches. No one is given candy, pork, lamb, fish or spoiled meats. Visitors who try to break the rules risk expulsion from the grounds and membership termination.

No one mistakes the environment for a zoo. Grounds are orderly but not manicured, and you need to watch your step. The residents don’t do tricks, but some roar – as if on cue – whenever they hear motorcycles on the rural road near them. A tall and long wooden fence visually buffers animals from the outside world.

They are here because of abuse, abandonment, neglect or an owner’s change of living situation. In the mix are aging movie and commercial advertising models. Siblings Jappa and Shera began life as cute cubs that posed for photos with people, until the lions’ Florida owner decided he couldn’t handle them anymore.

A Bengal/Siberian mix came from a shuttered roadside zoo in Illinois. Four other cats were rescued from a private zoo shut down by the feds.

Also on the property are seven surviving “Mississippi 10” cats, brought in the 1980s after an exotic animal breeder’s roadside zoo was forced closed because of neglect. One of the lions gave birth to cubs shortly after her Wisconsin arrival.

Animal protection agencies contact Valley of the Kings. Animal owners issue harsh ultimatums. “Here’s a father and son from northern Wisconsin,” notes our guide, Karen Smith of Grayslake, Ill., nodding toward an animal cage. “The owner showed up and said ‘take them or I’ll have them killed.’ ”

Karen’s volunteer work began 18 years ago, after her son’s high school class was introduced to Valley of the Kings. “We’re not here for the looks of the place but for their peace,” she explains, of her charges.

No animals are bred or sold. Pelts are not removed, nor meat sold, upon death. Snow foxes, wolf hybrids, a camel, horses, ducks and other species live among the big cats. That includes a wily domestic feline that calmly – and amazingly – brushes up to the fencing of a much bigger and wilder cousin.

A 15-page guide for new members suggests sponsoring a resident – $25 per month for a small mammal to $200 per month for a tiger. Founder Jill explains the frustrations and satisfactions of her business, in a recent Valley of the Kings newsletter:

“If we had a hundred acres and enough funds for enclosures we could save many more. We can only do what we can with the room we have and make a big difference in a handful of precious lives that will never end up on someone’s dinner plate or be exploited in another way.”

Membership in Valley of the Kings Sanctuary and Retreat Center, W7593 Townhall Rd., Sharon, is a minimum of $60 for six months, which allows two people access to the property during weekend visiting hours. Learn more at: www.votk.org, 262-736-9386.

This sanctuary is not associated with Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue and Educational Center, about 115 miles farther northwest, at 305 Pine St., Rock Springs. Big Cat Rescue was in the news this autumn because a Baraboo man was bit on the arm while giving water to a 600-pound Siberian tiger. The volunteer required more than 50 stitches.

This nonprofit enterprise opened in 2002 and cares for more than two dozen tigers, lions and leopards on 27 acres. It is open to visitors seasonally and admission is charged. For more: www.wisconsinbigcats.org, 608-524-5466.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

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