School Closes, Officers Scramble As Lions, Tigers Escape
LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho (AP) _ The elementary school was closed and dozens of law enforcement officers scrambled to stop lions, tigers and crossbred cats today after they escaped from a private wild animal compound.
``There’s been 11 and possibly 12 killed and we know that three are still loose,″ said a Bannock County sheriff’s dispatcher, who would not give her name. She said officials were hedging on the numbers because there were reports that ``a few more″ of the big cats had escaped today.
She said the owners of the privately owned compound, called Ligertown, were attacked by at least one of the cats after they escaped about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday. ``Liger″ is a term for a cross between a lion and a tiger.
The owners, Robert Fieber and Dotti Martin, were treated for minor injuries at Pocatello Regional Medical Center. They had tangled with authorities in past years over their wild animal holdings. No other injuries were reported.
The compound is located just outside the southeastern Idaho town of about 420 people, 28 miles southeast of Pocatello.
About 50 sheriff’s deputies from surrounding counties, SWAT teams, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers and Idaho State Police troopers were on the scene.
A helicopter equipped with a heat-sensing device was being used to help search for the cats, which one deputy said appeared to weigh between 450 and 550 pounds.
``They’re full-grown lions,″ the dispatcher said.
Late this morning, a large male lion could be scene perched atop a shack within the compound, roaring loud enough to be heard a quarter-mile away. Two females were with him. Two sharpshooters were in place atop a van nearby, but their guns were not raised.
Lava Elementary School, with about 140 students, was closed this morning.
``We want to keep everybody inside as much as possible,″ the dispatcher said.
In 1984, federal and state authorities in Oregon raided a game ranch Fieber had operated there and charged him with 54 counts of animal cruelty. He pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor counts alleging food sanitation violations and the other charges were dropped.
He later moved to north-central Idaho, where a 250-pound lion he owned with Martin was shot after a resident saw it stalking a horse. Fieber and Martin were ordered to build adequate cages for the animals to prevent more escapes, but instead they moved to Lava Hot Springs in 1986. They had 14 lions and tigers at the time.
The owners were found guilty in 1989 of operating a private wildlife park without a permit, but a judge overturned the conviction because a state law defining a wildlife park was vague.
Greg Tourtlotte, a regional supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game, said his staff has been worried for some time about the potential for escape from Ligertown because enclosures seem to be made with ``mostly salvage material _ various and sundry types of wire, net wire, plywood, chicken wire.″
``A lot of our people felt that it was just a matter of time before something happened,″ he said.
Ligertown had not been open to the public, Tourtlotte said.
``I believe that they may have sold some animals in the past. They may market them somehow or other, but as far as I know they just keep them,″ he said.
It was unclear where Fieber and Martin went after leaving the hospital. They had an unlisted telephone number.