The cat lady - Woman devotes life to backyard animal sanctuary

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

WARRENTON, Mo. -- Sandy Smith's life can be a real zoo -- right down to her lions, tigers and a bear.

Oh my? Not for the American Indian woman who considers her rural sanctuary for roughly 80 exotic guests her calling of the wild.

"I call them my babies," Smith said at the 20-year-old nonprofit shelter dubbed Wesa-A-Geh-Ya -- "Cat Lady," in Smith's native Cherokee language.

"The tigers are my spirit, and the lions are my heart," she says at the remote, fenced refuge about 80 miles west of St. Louis. "It's destiny for me to have them."

"If I don't take them...," she adds before her voice trails off as she stops outside a pen to gently stroke a lion's whiskers through the fencing.

This orphanage of sorts along Route A is home to more than 60 big cats, from leopards to tigers and cougars. There are nine or so Arctic wolves, even a 700-pound bear called Huggie. There also are a couple of peacocks and emus, who Smith plans to offer up to the felines once the birds die.

Many of the creatures, Smith says, landed on her doorstep from other states such as Texas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Florida after being mistreated, unwanted or abandoned by previous owners.

"Ninety percent of my animals come from rescue situations," Smith says.

Animals like Samson and Delilah, the aging adult Siberian tigers once owned by a private breeder. Or Zeus, a one-time tavern's mascot. Joey the cougar and Leo the lion arrived here after Missouri conservationists asked Smith and her carpenter husband, Ken, to adopt them. The sanctuary, Smith says, saved Holly, a tiger repeatedly darted, bred and robbed of her cubs by her previous owner.

'Just have a connection'

The animals, Smith says, know her voice, smell and touch.

"I just have a connection with them," she says.

A female lion that once charged the fence when Smith came calling now eats chicken from her hands. Huggie has packed on more than 200 pounds since last September, a slave to an occasional Krispy Kreme doughnut or vanilla wafers he gets when he sits and groans on command.

Morgan, a wolf that has nipped Ken Smith a couple of times, whimpers and bows his head in a show of loving respect for Sandy Smith, who says the animal once even dropped his meat meal at the woman's feet, encouraging her to stay.

The place for big cats had tiny beginnings, dating to the early 1980s when Ken Smith gave Sandy her first Bengal tiger while they were living in Texas. Sandy cared for the cat until it died of leukemia eight months later.

The couple fell in love with exotic cats and acquired more, eventually moving to Missouri in 1986 with a tiger and two cougars.

On a shoestring budget, the free-to-the-public refuge relies on visitors' donations. To help feed the beasts, a handful of area ranchers and dairymen each week contribute about six cow carcasses. A maker of cat food is the sanctuary's corporate sponsor, providing tons of animal food with plans to feature the site's big cats in its 2003 calendar.

The Smiths live next door in a trailer home needing a new kitchen floor and bathroom. They get by with a 1999 pickup truck with more than 150,000 miles. Vacations? Forget it.

"I'm here 365 days a year," Smith says. "We're comfortable, and God gives us food."

In September 2000, the Missouri Senate honored Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, crediting the Smiths and their federally regulated refuge with state permits for "housing these animals in keeping with Sandy Smith's Cherokee beliefs."

The Senate, the resolution continues, extended "our heartiest best wishes for many more years of successful, heartfelt service."

To that, Smith says she won't disappoint.

"You treat them with respect and you love them, and they'll love you back," she said. "It's that simple."

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