Story and photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Ed Stewart couldn’t help but grin when a Siberian tiger sprang from cover and charged 27 firefighters of the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, before pulling up short at the secure fencing surrounding its massive enclosure.
“That’s a good thing,” the president and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) told the alarmed youth. “That means he sized you up and figured he could take you all.
The youth laughed nervously and marveled at the big cat as it briefly paced the perimeter of its habitat.
Except for a donated “Siberian Tiger St.” sign, there are no tourist plaques, souvenir maps or petting zoos at the PAWS sanctuary, ARK 2000.
That’s because it’s not a zoo, and in fact, Stewart wishes it didn’t have to exist. The spacious and devoutly maintained habitats at ARK 2000 are the best option for animals who have been the victims of the exotic and performing animal trades.
“I wish these animals were not here,” Stewart told the youth. “If there was a way to release any of them back into the wild, they’d be gone.”
Pine Grove youth and camp staff followed Stewart on an educational tour of leopard, tiger, bear and elephant habitats. He also showed off ARK 2000’s modern veterinary facilities and played a video exposing the horrors of a faux Tiger Rescue operation that neglected dozens of cats in horrid conditions. He explained the grand operation it took to move the animals to ARK 2000.
The Pine Grove youth were available for the trek to San Andreas during a week-long break from fire activity and conservation work while CAL FIRE captains go to their annual training. Youth earned the privilege of going on the trip by staying discipline-free for 90 days.
“I thought the trip went well and the educational component was amazing,” Pine Grove Superintendent Alicia Ginn said after joining the youth at ARK 2000. “A number of youth commented that is was good to see and meet people who really cared about their work and the animals they rescued.”
Pine Grove is maintained by the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in Amador County. It screens and accepts low risk classification youths from other DJJ facilities. Youth are certified to engage in wild-land firefighting operations. Fire crews from DJJ camps perform approximately 180,000 hours of fire suppression services in a normal year for the people of California. The firefighters who visited ARK 2000 recently returned from a busy fire season in Southern California and along the coast.
“These guys are fantastic,” Stewart said. “I can’t believe the schedule they have. They work all day and then go to school at night.”
Some of the youth were also members of the Pine Grove High School graduating class that enjoyed a special ceremony Nov. 17.
The valedictorian of that class, Fernando Herrera, was most impressed by the elephants. Stewart brought the group up to the highest point of the facility, and they were followed by an Asian bull elephant named Nicholas, who later demonstrated the training vital for his veterinary care.
Nicholas received trunk-fulls of jelly beans for his compliance.
“I never thought being incarcerated I’d see and learn about animals like that,” Herrera said. “I didn’t really know what they were all about.
“It was interesting ― the different background of them all, and how captivity really took a toll on their lives. It gave me a different perspective on animals and wildlife.”
The youth made a lasting impression on PAWS staff as well.
“It seems like they can relate to some of the stories about the animals,” Stewart said, gesturing toward the youth as they loaded in vans. ”You know people who have had kind of a raw deal in their life. It really does happen a lot.
“Every single one of those guys came up and shook hands when they left… just some of the nicest people I have met in a long time. And they work so hard. The state, everybody should appreciate those guys.”
See the YouTube video (may not play on a CDCR computer):