A tiger at Lion’s Gate Sanctuary, the owners of which euthanized their animals after the facility was threatened by floods. (LoveAnimals.org)

The owners of Lion’s Gate Sanctuary said they faced a dire situation.

Heavy rains had flooded their 42-acre wildlife sanctuary, about 90 miles west of Denver, on several occasions in recent years, endangering the three lions, three tigers and five bears that lived at the facility.

Joan Laub and her partner, Peter Winney, told the Coloradoan that they wanted to relocate the sanctuary outside the flood plain, to a 45-acre property near Elizabeth, Colo. Unfortunately, they said, that was no longer an option after the Elbert County Board of Commissioners denied a permit request that was needed to move the facility to the new location.

Locals had raised numerous concerns about the proposal, among them the noise the large predators might make and the threat they might pose to farm animals, pets and children.

An effort on LoveAnimals.org to acquire money to move the animals had fallen flat, raising a mere $45 of its $50,000 goal, the owners said.

So, faced with the possibility of more flooding, and unable to protect their animals’ safety, Laub and Winney said they had no choice but to euthanize each one.

It was a terrible choice, they said, but one they had to make.

“The [county] commissioners made a decision based upon emotion, and not the law,” Laub and Winney wrote in a statement published by Fox affiliate KDVR. “The ‘not in my backyard’ crowd controlled the meeting and the outcome.

“As a result, 11 innocent animals paid the price,” the statement said.

The animals were buried on the sanctuary grounds, according to ABC affiliate KMGH.

“I’m devastated; it’s terrible,” Rick Blotter, who lives a short distance from Lion’s Gate, told the station. “They have to do what they can to make things meet, and if they can’t make it work, God I hope they tried to find a place for them.”

The Denver Post reported last year that Lion’s Gate was one of seven licensed sanctuaries in the state housing big cats. The sanctuary had been approved for relocation at the time, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman told the paper.

Despite Laub’s insistence that she had no choice but to kill the sanctuary’s animals, local officials and animal experts said they were horrified by her decision, which came as a surprise.

County Commissioner Danny Willcox told The Washington Post that he and his colleagues were “truly shocked” to find out that the animals had been euthanized.

“There was no indication that that would ever occur,” he said, noting that the sanctuary’s owners had assured the commissioners that their animals would not be killed if their relocation proposal was denied.

The county commissioners released a lengthy statement saying they were “saddened” by the deaths of the animals. The commissioners said the county denied the sanctuary’s special-use application to relocate their animals after an April 12 hearing. That decision, the statement said, was based on the fact that the relocation area was not “adequately resourced, nor were exigency plans clearly defined which would ensure the safety of the animals and the surrounding residents.”

“The decision by the operators of Lion’s Gate to euthanize all their animals comes as a total surprise to the County for two reasons,” the statement continued. “Only two weeks earlier, the operators of the facility assured the County in a public forum that if the application was denied, they would continue to operate at their current location as they had for the previous 10 years.”

The statement added that the killings were even more shocking because another facility had publicly offered to care of the animals if Lion’s Gate was unable to.

“We would have loved to have seen these animals be allowed to live out their lives at the Elbert County location that had been their home for more than a decade,” Commissioner Chris Richardson said.

The Dodo reported that Laub and Winney bought the refuge in 2007 and have since cared for more than 40 animals who have lived out their lives naturally.

A total of 11 animals remained at the facility, until April 20, when they were euthanized.

“People have criticized us for not trying to place our animals,” Laub said in a statement to the Dodo. “Our animals could not be placed in another sanctuary. There are many reasons why. We were a small facility and all our animals had one-on-one attention. We were not open to the public. Our animals were used to solitude and only having two people around for a period of 10 years.”

Tammy Thies, the founder and director of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota, told the Dodo that the decision by the Lion’s Gate owners to kill their animals was even more troubling because it appears more could have been done to save them. Some of the animals could have even come to her own sanctuary, she said. But Thies said she was never contacted by Laub or Winney.

statement on the Wildcat Sanctuary’s website noted that the facility has been “very vocal” about its search for an elderly lion to provide company for a lioness at the facility, making the recent killings “even more shocking.”

Pat Craig, director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., echoed those sentiments, telling the Dodo that his facility would also have been happy to take some of the animals. And given the small number of animals who were housed at Lion’s Gate, Craig said, it would have been easy to find a new home for all of them.

Both directors told the Dodo it was deeply troubling that they hadn’t been contacted.

“Being in the industry, usually when you’re in an emergency situation with cats, you’re going to reach out to the sanctuary community to get their animals help,” Thies told the Dodo. “And everybody we spoke to in the sanctuary community never received a phone call for help — to come help with these animals, move them, whatever they need.”

Last summer, Laub told the Denver Post that she was optimistic that the sanctuary’s “successful 10-year track record” would ensure that Elbert County would assist her facility in their effort to move, doing right by their “innocent and defenseless animals.”

Her goal, she said, was to continue to “protect and care” for them.

But, she cryptically cautioned, if the sanctuary was prevented from relocating, the animals in their care would “meet a terrible fate.”

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