Columbia couple dedicates their lives to saving wild animals

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 | 11:41 p.m. CDT; updated 11:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Dale Tolentino says hello to Tony, a three year old, 500-pound Siberian tiger, at D-D Farm Animal Sanctuary on Sunday. Tony was a "picture tiger" - he was used to pose with people for studio portraiture. However, Tony became too big and unmanageable after six months of age and came to Tolentino's farm to live out his life.

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.


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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.”

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Tonya Wolff July 8, 2008 | 1:12 p.m.

These are truly wonderful people and doing great work for the animals on their farm. Thank you for sharing their story.

(Report Comment)
Linda Eskew November 27, 2008 | 5:33 p.m.

I am thrilled to know that someone is looking after them. Recently in my area they shot to death an African cervil found roaming around. It was said they tried to trap it, but I don't believe they tried very hard. I am sick about it. To read the article go to:
I hope someone investigates the excessive use of firearms against it.

(Report Comment)
Lia August 30, 2010 | 5:53 p.m.

They killed my animal, a domestic rabbit with a disability- splay leg in the back legs- by keeping her outside. They ignored my warnings and information, I asked to have her returned to me if they could not do better for her, and they only ignored. She died after only six days of being there. They made her suffer outside, in conditions alien, acutely uncomfortable, hostile, fatal to her. They displayed ignorance and insensitivity in not communicating with me and doing whatever they wanted instead, the wrong things. In the end Mr. Tolentino did not take responsibility, lacked the courage and remorse to admit what he had done- which is obvious anyway- had the nerve to try to pawn blame off on me, when I could not have said more to these people, could not have implored them more to do right, and informed them, and fed them information that they are supposed to know already, without a layperson telling them, as animal welfare "professionals" inviting a vulnerable animal to stay at their sanctuary. I am going to sue them. They did not learn enough to even be honest in the end; they did not care enough about what I'd been through (to say nothing of the bunny's incomparable suffering) in the week I daily tried to protect and get the rabbit back, making calls, calling them, calling the police and ineffectual Animal Control, not sleeping, hardly able to work (and much worse now that I know what happened)- with all this that man still tried to hoist blame on me, absurdly. Even threatened my friend who drove me there, and myself, when my friend only asked, sternly, what veterinarian the rabbit was supposedly taken to. Mr. Tolentino would not share that but became extremely agitated and defensive, and then, claiming he felt threatened (felt guilty/scared of what they did to that little animal returning somehow to them is more like it), talked about easily shooting people in Vietnam. I know people often cannot control what they become in battle, and I know he was referring to a hard moral line and unequivocal self-protection; but how wrong too, on top of everything, for the bunny to have spent her last days with such a person (animals know, and he said she would try to bite him- she didn't do that with me, she was sweetness with me).

(Report Comment)
Lia August 30, 2010 | 5:54 p.m.

I told them in a message, if they could not call back a vocal woman reasoning with them and imploring them, with expert information that if they are not mentally stunted and do care about animals they are supposed to at least entertain, try to verify, before it's too late, how can they possibly respect the needs and feelings of a mute little animal. So too, if you killed people easily, how are you best equipped to attend to the emotional and bodily discomfort of a rabbit. I want Truth from them finally, and I want people to know they do not listen or educate themselves, they Ignore information being fed to them even if it means the suffering and death of an innocent little animal, who had already suffered plenty in her five months of life.

(Report Comment)
Lia August 30, 2010 | 5:56 p.m.

--or inculcated/self-absolving hard "moral" line when you are in fact effecting calamity, I do not know, I am not commenting about that history or a personal history too rife for probing.

But in this case-- there was ready militancy as a sham, out of self-protection, not out of belief that he did all he could for the animal, because he didn't, they didn't listen. So militancy was way out of place, remorse and honesty would have been in order.

I must say, what you do when being shot at, when people want for you what he did to the animal (and rather than helplessly succumbing, you become monstrous), is one thing, and to act in kind is necessary and inevitable. The self is multiple, not unitary, it is many things, each aspect true in its moment, gentleness and callousness coexisting in one body. That is his story, and I am no one to manhandle it. I can only speak of insufficient decency with respect to what happened to the bunny, not in fairness pulling anything else in.

Perhaps he said what he did because he imagined my (male) friend would want to act vengefully and criminally on my behalf; this could occur to Mr. Tolentino as, again, they had known of my great concern, though they made no response to it. That he feared retribution on that level is a curious thing- to have understood then how much I cared and to have behaved with such negligence and cruelty anyway. So in the end I got paranoid defensiveness rather than any authentic gesture of expiation, as in coming clean about their actions/lack of action, showing an effort, unmixed with lies, to get to the bottom of the experience they effected for the animal, the opposite of what she'd known with me, an effort to think and feel imaginatively their way to the place of loneliness, fear, discomfort, illness unto death that was their gift to my rabbit - so an effort at empathy (which is supposed to be rampant in these people according to these blind, slanted articles), extending an apology. That would not reverse anything, but it would be something more than deflecting all blame when the onus is in fact on you, as people of cheap moral mettle do. But naturally, to do what they did, they may not have better in them, even after the consequences have manifested for them, after killing a vulnerable pet rabbit that was capable of playing and bonding and seeking caresses, that they threw outside for the first time in its life. I guess they must live in luxury, to kill a pet rabbit instead of having the animal potentially chew on a shoelace in their home.

(Report Comment)
Lia August 30, 2010 | 5:57 p.m.

Of course people just are what they are, have limits, err; but still these things cannot be tolerated and accountability must be sought, that baby suffered because of them, and it was needless, out of how closed, ignorant, and insufficiently perspicacious and caring they were.

I came across this article trying to learn more about D&D Farm, and it unfortunately comforted me and made me feel better about sending the rabbit there, so I wanted to comment.

(Report Comment)
Lia August 30, 2010 | 6:24 p.m.

A rabbit can die of fright at just the sight of a predator. She must have been terrified out at night, all the noises, if a predator did not ultimately get her. Bunnies cannot stand intense heat. There was also a cold night last week. She had never been outside. She had never dealt with swarming ants, spiders, flies, etc. Because of her deformed back legs, she could not even scratch her ears like a normal rabbit, if a bug crawled inside one of her ears. She had blue eyes. She went from a family to the Humane Society to a pet store to me to the killers. In a cage most of her life. I got sick when I got her, I was very allergic, and tried to place her right away to avoid further attachment. She had come from the pet store aggressive, and in two days with me that was gone, she had only needed kind attention. She jumped and raced all over my carpet, she loved to be pet, she followed me when I got up so that I would keep petting her, she rested her little head on the floor and lay still to be pet. She was scared to be moving again when I took her to give her to these people, her eyes were wide. I'm so sorry I gave her. I tried to get her back a few days later, but they had killed her by then. She was all alone, scared, uncomfortable, getting sick, outside.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 30, 2010 | 7:24 p.m.

Better post a last name, Lia, or you won't be around here much longer.

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 7:17 a.m.

And you are?

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 7:22 a.m.

How is that relevant to what happened? What is your response to the actual text I posted? Why are you qualified to adjudicate what I posted?
The police and Animal Control and everyone else involved know my name. How are you directly involved? Who are you?
I won't be around where much longer? This forum? This city?
Better use less ambiguous speech, sir, or else!

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 7:29 a.m.

I think it is... disappointing... to read a story that is obviously significant to the writer, to myself, and to reply with something so banal. Insulting, obviously.

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 7:32 a.m.

or so pointless, so irrelevant. Thanks for listening as well as the other people in the story. (Banal is the lack of connection, the lack of a will to be attentive or empathize, yes.)

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 7:35 a.m.

Ah, you write for the paper. I see.

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 7:40 a.m.

or no, that long list I get when I click on your name are your various postings? It's a whole lot; so again, that is your investment in my story, the little protocol of your favored arena here.

(Report Comment)
Laura Johnston September 2, 2010 | 7:42 a.m.

The Missourian does require both a first and last name for anyone who wishes to post comments at the site. Please contact us about changing your profile to include a last name. You can read our comments policy online:

Laura Johnston, news editor

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 2, 2010 | 7:45 a.m.

Thank you, Laura.

(Report Comment)
Lia September 2, 2010 | 8:21 a.m.

Thanks, Laura. Again thanks for your response, Ellis.

(Report Comment)
Mike Rotch September 2, 2010 | 9:06 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Glenn Rice September 2, 2010 | 9:47 a.m.

This story is more than two years old. The comment by "Mike Rotch" (clearly a made-up name, and a pretty juvenile one at that) is just as deranged as Lia's, if not more so. What is all this?

(Report Comment)
Karla Watkins February 13, 2011 | 10:39 p.m.

Dear Lia, or whoever you are. Deb and Dale are very nice and caring people. The animals they care for are their LIFE. I have been to the rescue farm plenty of times and they do a wonderful job caring for all of the animals. My own horse was there at one point rehabilitation after a surgery and he came home just fine and completely healed. You are being completely ignorant of everything they have done for the rabbit you are talking about. Its a rabbit! No need to sue them over something that happened naturally. Its an act of god, get over it. You can go to the pet store and get another one. Its not the end of the world. You are completely and utterly immature for saying what you did. Not everyone has the heart to do what they do for a living, so appreciate the fact that they took in your rabbit and gave it the care it needed during its last days. There's no need to be hateful towards Deb and Dale. They are licensed professionals, there is no need for you to tell them how to do their job. If you think calling them and telling them what to do was necessary, then you should have kept the rabbit and cared for it yourself. So the next time you decide to insult people that cared for something you loved, you might want to think about what you say before you say it. Sincerly, Karla. (A CLOSE FRIEND of Deb and Dales.)

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 13, 2011 | 11:47 p.m.

I wish I would have caught this article when it was "happening"... This is some FUNNY stuff! ROFLMFAO!

God! I could have had some REAL fun with this article... LOL.

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)

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