Steve Higgs, director of the nonprofit Sierra Safari Zoo based in Reno, Nevada, has been passionate about animals since childhood.
“I collected just about every animal I could,” he notes. “When I was about 18, we got our first big cat – a cougar. As I got older it became more natural and I think I got a little crazier,” he laughs.
Today, the zoo allows some of its animals to travel, and this weekend a collection of their exotic animals can be found at Carl Purdy Hall at the Redwood Empire Fair in Ukiah.
Malia, the Siberian tiger, is definitely the showstopper. Malia is only 6 years old and huge. “She was an orphan and the owner of her bought her through the black market in Mexico. They were not trained to care for her and gave her ‘human milk’. Fortunately, a caring friend reported this person and we were contacted. We jumped on the plane to Utah and picked her up as a kitten. She even slept in our bed when she was little.” Because Malia was illegally imported from another country, the US Marshals got involved and the former owner was imprisoned for importing an endangered species.
The zoo is home to more than 100 animals, and most of them are rescues, Higgs explains.
“I can’t tell you how many times a mother calls us with a large snake that has been put in her care by a son who is going to college,” he says. Two large pythons – a Burmese and an albino – can be seen at the fair.
Other people buy parrots or turtles, not realizing that there is a good chance the animals will outlive their human owners.
“People need to have a plan to care for these animals, and most people are not equipped to house and feed exotics.”
Along with Malia, visitors will encounter a Geoffrey’s Cat, native to South America, a Patagonian Cavy – a rodent-like animal that can run at a clip of about 30 miles per hour, and an African Crested Porcupine – that can grow to about 60 pounds and will again become predators, which will receive an unpleasant reception of sharp spines if it does not tail. A coatimundi, which has its own blanket to snuggle in, has been known to inhale guests’ perfume and transfer the scent to its tail for future enjoyment, Higgs says.
For Higgs, one of the most poignant moments of his day is when children often ask him if the animals are real. “One day a 12-year-old girl came to the exhibition. She told me she was so happy to see these animals, but she was also sad because she didn’t think her kids would get a chance to see them. That keeps us going,” he says. “So many visitors tell us that this is the first time they’ve had the chance to see these animals, and we’re very grateful to be a part of that opportunity.”
Children under 5 always have free access to the fair. The Wild Animal Exhibit and Tribune shows are always included with fair entry. The fair opens on Friday at 3 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 12 noon. For more information, call (707) 462-3884, visit the Redwood Empire Fair’s Facebook page of Fairs | Redwood Empire Scholarship.