COLUMBIA — Dale Tolentino spends time every day with a Canadian lynx named Kenya.
Kenya is completely blind, spends most of her time crying, and recoils whenever she is touched, even if it is only a finger on her paw.
Dale and his wife, Debbie, don’t know what happened to Kenya before her arrival at D-D Farm Animal Sanctuary and Rescue, which they operate on their property north of Columbia. But Dale said he thinks abuse and poor nutrition contributed to Kenya’s condition. Even with all the attention he gives her, Dale is unsure how much she will eventually improve.
Kenya is only one of many.
D-D Farm provides shelter for both native and exotic animals, including Savannah, a 500- to 600-pound African lioness; orphaned raccoons; and a cow named Rufus. The Tolentinos spend all of their time and money to work with each animal to ensure it has what it needs. Animals native to Missouri do not receive human interaction because they are eventually re-released back into the wild. Exotic animals, however, are permanent residents.
While the native animals like the raccoons will eventually make a home in the wild, the exotic animals have nowhere else. They can’t go to a zoo because zoos usually want a full genealogy and medical records, which many breeders don’t keep or care about. The animals can’t continue to be pets, and they certainly can’t be released into the wild. The alternative is often being euthanized. These animals, the ones that have no other options, are the ones Dale and Debbie take in. In their 27 years, they have only turned away one animal, a 7-foot elephant they did not have space to house.
Debbie said they generally have about 200 permanent-resident pets and wild animals, and about 400 “transients” — native Missouri wildlife that they eventually release — each year. The pets, just like all the other animals at the sanctuary, have been rescued from various situations.
As much as they care for each animal, they delineate between pets and others.
“We love them, but we don’t consider wildlife pets,” Dale said. However, “it’s important to us that the animals are cared for. It’s important to us that the animals are loved.”
He said they got started when neighbors brought the couple a group of squirrels to rehabilitate 27 years ago. They have been caring for animals ever since. In 1992, they purchased land north of Columbia on Creasy Springs Road, which gave them enough room to start housing more dangerous animals such as the large cats.
Debbie Leach from the My Zoo Animal Hospital is the veterinarian for the sanctuary, and although Dale said she doesn’t have to go to the sanctuary very often, they are in communication with her almost every day. She visits the farm four to eight times a year for check-ups and offers her services for free to D-D Farm.
According to a Columbia city ordinance, people are not allowed to keep or own dangerous exotic animals, although this does not apply to the farm because it is outside of city limits, and the Tolentinos’ USDA permit exempts them from the county rules.
While the issue of exotic animals has come up in the past, not many come through the city, said Environmental Health Manager Gerry Worley.
“I think typically even though we think maybe there might be some out there, they’re not bringing them by animal control,” he said.
Senior animal control officer Molly Aust said they bring animals to the Tolentinos when the animals cannot survive on their own. This is the only such sanctuary they know about in the area, and as such, the Tolentinos are “frequently” brought animals during spring months, when there are a lot of babies. The problem is generally not that people are keeping these animals as pets, but that the animals find their own way into people’s homes.
Under local, state and federal law, people need a permit to keep or breed most animals and must register dangerous wild animals with county or city law officials. Aust said Columbia/Boone County Animal Control only comes across an exotic animal about once a year.
But some people don’t know about these laws, and others have animals through legal means but have to get rid of them for various reasons. This is where the Tolentinos come in. They get their animals from all over the country from all different kinds of people. Sometimes the Missouri Department of Conservation brings an animal to their attention, or people will bring them pets or native animals who found their way into a home.
Missouri Conservation Agent Scott Rice said the Department of Conservation tries to discourage rehabilitation because often people don’t know how to teach the animals to survive in the wild.
“That’s why we trust Tolentinos to know what they’re doing,” he said.
The only other rehabilitation facility they send animals to in Boone County is the Raptor Rehabilitation Center at MU, he said.
As both these places require oversight from the Department of Conservation, they are not looking for more rehabilitators.
But some animals can’t ever be released into the wild, and they get a permanent home at the shelter.
Across the yard is Dale’s favorite animal, Bonnie the mountain lion, who he calls “my Bonnie girl.” She shares her cage with the year-old Lucy, who Bonnie has adopted as her own cub.
“I love Bonnie,” Dale said. “Of course, I love them all.”
They rescued Lucy from being sold to a roadside zoo after the owner asked Dale whether he should feed her dog food. The answer was no, he should not feed dog food to a mountain lion, a true carnivore that needs meat to survive.
Other animals have been saved from this sort of accidental or reckless mistreatment. Before he was 6 months old, Tony the Bengal tiger was used in picture taking with people. By a year-and-a-half, Dale said, tigers become “unmanageable,” which leads people to get rid of them.
Like the Tolentinos, Leach thinks irresponsible people should not be allowed to keep exotic animals as pets.
“I believe people’s hearts are in the right place, but they don’t fully understand the task they’re taking on,” Leach said.
If not for sanctuaries such as D-D Farm, Tony would be euthanized, dumped, killed for his fur or other parts, or used for canned hunting, which means put in a cage and shot by a hunter.
“It’s not their fault they were born a tiger,” Dale said.
Even when an animal injures him, Dale still insists the animal isn’t doing anything wrong. Once an Asian lynx named Ramsay bit Dale. The bite got infected and Dale had to go to the hospital. Still, Dale said Ramsay was doing exactly what Asian lynxes are supposed to do.
Even though the animals might be considered dangerous, neighbor Chip Price said that because he knows the Tolentinos, he isn’t worried. He said the animals are well cared for and in appropriate cages.
“I’m not fearful of the animals escaping,” Price said. “I have no concerns about living next to them.”
Although the sanctuary is not generally open to visitors, the Tolentinos have a USDA exhibitor’s permit, which allows them to show the animals to other people. There are 83 other groups that have this kind of permit in Missouri, but most are listed as individuals, zoos or other organizations that are not animal sanctuaries.
The Tolentinos also have licenses from the Missouri Department of Conservation for class 1 and 2 wildlife, which means they can take care of animals that don’t endanger humans as well as those that do.
Dale and Debbie work hard to comply with the Conservation Department and often go above and beyond the requirements. For example, for their four wolf hybrids and one full-blooded wolf, the minimum cage size is 10 feet by 20 feet. Their cage is 100 feet by 200 feet.
Although others breed exotic animals to make money, all the permanent animals at D-D Farm are spayed or neutered.
Along with neutering the animals, they research the nutritional, mental and environmental needs of the animals they are to receive.
The Tolentinos eventually want to open a wildlife education and conservation center to educate people about wildlife conservation. They already talk to school groups, from elementary school to college, about the issues, a service they do not charge for.
All in all, Dale said, he spends more time working with the animals than he does at his full-time job as a custodian at the post office. He puts all the money from his job into the farm, as does Debbie, who is a registered veterinarian technician at My Zoo Animal Hospital.
“Every cent that we have goes to the animals, other than bills,” Dale said.
To give an idea of their costs, Debbie said to feed one tiger, they need about 15 pounds of chicken per day, at a cost of about $7, plus about $150 per year in vitamins and minerals, which totals $2,705 per year. This number doesn’t include things like shelter or transportation costs to release the animals.
The Tolentinos said they have no savings. They can’t really afford to fix their house’s its leaky roof, much less eventually retire. The money that would go to that goes to the animals instead. After Debbie had two heart attacks in the early 1990s, the couple decided to live every day like it’s their last, which means the animals always come first, Dale said.
D-D Farm is a nonprofit organization, and about 30 percent of the money for the farm’s operations comes from three fundraisers the Tolentinos host each year and other donations. They also receive in-kind donations. If people have old meat that has gone bad, the animals can still eat it. And they’re always “desperately” looking for hay for their 14 horses.
They also get help from a number of volunteers who must be at least 18 years old and who help them care for the animals on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., and they’re always looking for more. Volunteers can interact with the animals, but only Dale and Debbie are allowed in the animal cages. Other than these volunteers and during fundraisers, the farm is closed to the public.
Dale and Debbie spend just about every minute with the animals, but Dale thinks it’s worth it.
“It’s our heart,” he said. “We put our whole hearts into it.”