Something you might not know about northeast Indiana is that it’s home to exotic animals.
Today, as one of the most renowned exotic animal sanctuaries in the country, Black Pine Animal Sanctuary (BPAS) in Noble County, houses about one hundred animals, representing roughly 60 different species.
Lori Gagen, the Sanctuary's Executive Director, has been part of Black Pine since its infancy. Lori Gagen
Asked what she feels number among Black Pine's most significant accomplishments over the years, Gagen points to the 2006 relocation project, when the sanctuary moved from private property to its current location on 18-acres just a mile-and-a-half past the Albion, Indiana, courthouse.
"We survived that move," she sighs, "and, since then, I like to think we've matured and rounded the bend."
She points to the addition of more trained and qualified staff, and to much better control of all the facility's resources.
With four full-time employees and three part-time employees, complimented by an ever-expanding roster of interns and volunteers, the sanctuary is much better equipped to pursue its mission, dedicated to the care and nurturing of captive-raised exotic animals that have been abandoned, neglected, mistreated or abused.
When animals come to BPAS, they come "for the rest of their lives.” Many come from roadside "zoos" and "attractions" where they've often lived in miserable conditions.
An uncommon number of them come from private homes where—once the 'novelty' of owning an exotic animal wears off—the owners no longer want them. Either that, or the owners don't learn how to properly care for the animals, and, eventually, authorities confiscate them.
We asked Gagen about the challenges she faces as she works with a team that often requires wearing a variety of "hats.”
One minute she might be picking up poop; the next minute, she might be doing an interview with some new media outlet. Her outstanding staff subscribes to the motto: "The animals come first," and sometimes, that means missing an Easter or Thanksgiving family gathering so that the animals can enjoy their feast. It's definitely not a typical 9-to-5 "desk job" for any of the employees.
Advocacy for animals' rights has always been a difficult challenge, too. For centuries, people have regarded exotic animals as objects of entertainment or exploited them for commercial purposes.
"I think we've helped to have a direct local impact," Gagen says.
Joe, the long-tailed macaque, explores his shelter at BPAS.
She notes how many communities now ban circus animals. There has been an insurgence, or resistance, toward "backyard zoos" and private ownership of exotic animals. There's even been some movement toward making it illegal to declaw cats.
Gradually, there have been legislative changes at local and state levels, as well as more prosecutions of those who abuse or neglect animals. Public opinion is beginning to shift over the use of animals in fairs or festivals, either as objects of contests, or given away as prizes.
Another challenge involves Gagen’s goal of changing the perception that many people have of Black Pine.
"We're not a zoo," she says, "and many people still don't understand the difference." Nefertiti the tiger plays in the northeast Indiana snow.
While BPAS depends on the revenue generated by some 18,000 guests who visit every summer, she and her Board of Directors agree that—over the long term—BPAS needs to become less of an “attraction,” and more of a true animal sanctuary that is there for the safety and comfort of the animals, with less of a public footprint.
Achieving that will require more communication with the public and a much more aggressive program directed toward identifying and building donor relationships.
"Now that we're better staffed, we will be able to focus more on that long-term goal,” she says.
Albion has seen significant economic impact from Black Pine as it attracts visitors from virtually all over the world.
Just this past season has seen guests from almost every state in the U.S., as well as Australia, Japan, South America, and various European countries.
If visitors are in the northeast Indiana region for any reason—be it business or pleasure—BPAS often becomes a "must see" stop on their itinerary.
Gagen acknowledges the growing support BPAS receives from the town of Albion, Noble County officials, and even regional and state legislators, too.
Black Pine has recently joined a newly-formed Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, which will further help to create awareness of animal issues. It has also recently applied to be accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an international organization that will give BPAS more credibility when approaching individual and corporate donors.
A site visit has been completed, and the application is pending.
That's all a big part of the future Gagen and her team see for Black Pine. They hope to secure the land on which the organization operates, with Noble County's blessing.
The plans call for the hiring of more highly qualified personnel, and she, with the support of her Board of Directors, has a five-year strategic plan to expand the property, which will allow for more animals for many years to come.
Interns have become an integral part of the BPAS progress, as well. Gagen considers their intern program to be the "shining star” of the operation.
"We find good people," she says, "and they go on to do great things for the animal kingdom."
Walter the bobcat takes shelter at BPAS.
More than 150 interns are now “alumni” of the BPAS program, many of whom have gone on to work in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, and similar careers.
One such former intern now works at the New Haven Pet Hospital in East Allen County.
As proof of that pudding, just look at the cars in the staff parking lot. You'll invariably see license plates from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado.
As Black Pine's global reputation has grown, so has its ability to reach animal lovers from around the world.
Whether they come to Black Pine to learn, to volunteer, to work, or to visit, it's surely a place that remains in people's hearts, just as it does with the animals—"for the rest of their lives.” Taz the black bear lounges in his habitat.
Attend Black Pine's Earth Day Event
1-4 p.m. on Sunday, April 22
If you want to learn more about Black Pine, this upcoming weekend gives you two opportunities to do so: the sanctuary will have an exhibit at Pet Expo on Saturday and Sunday, at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
Also, in recognition of Earth Day, Black Pine is open to the public from 1-4 p.m. on Sunday, April 22. Standard admission rates apply, and you can even bring your aluminum cans, batteries, bulbs and electronics that need to be recycled. Fifty percent of the recycling fees collected will be donated to Black Pine to help care for the animals. For more information, you can visit http://www.blackpine.org
Black Pine officially opens for the 2018 season the first weekend in May.
From Memorial Day until Labor Day, Black Pine is open six days a week from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Visit the website before planning your visit in case weather conditions cause changes to the daily operating schedule.