The noise comes as dusk arrives and the day's last remaining sunbeams dance across this flat and dusty land. It is not a roar but a deep grunt, a sound that goes straight to the soul. It is at once terrifying and magical.
It is the early-evening call of a male African lion. He rises now and seems to stretch every muscle of his giant frame, and then lets out another low, vibrating, guttural moan, and the hair on your arms stands up. Soon, more than 100 tigers and African lions have joined in the primal chorus, cats weighing from 200 to more than 500 pounds greeting the darkness the same way big cats have for tens of thousands of years.
That they are out here in this placid grassland, some 35 miles east of Colorado Springs, is fascinating. That they are alive at all is a miracle.
Nick Sculac, the big and brawny pony-tailed owner of the place who began this love affair as a big-cat handler for Hollywood films, smiles for a moment at what he has created. Then he glances at a patch of orange and yellow tiger lilies, petals glowing in the sunset, and his smile fades.
Karen was his wife, and she planted the tiger lilies. They were, she said, appropriate. She had a way with the giant cats like no one else, a soft hand and gentle voice that would comfort the lions and tigers, most of them abused or kept in cramped cages for years by other owners and breeders and failed refuges and the uneducated who thought they were pets.
For these big cats, Nick says, Karen was the light.
And then she died.
"I see her every day when I walk past these flowers," Nick says. "She's always right here."
Last weekend, a truck hauling a big trailer turned into the winding drive that leads to the place called Big Cats of Serenity Springs. Sculac was behind the wheel and his assistant, Julie Walker, sat in the passenger seat. In the trailer were 10 more tigers.
They came from a troubled big-cat sanctuary in Missouri. They and five others were to be euthanized, 15 majestic animals that would have been put to sleep, all guilty of the same thing: being tigers. A 16th tiger at the Missouri sanctuary sank its teeth into a worker's leg a month or so ago. The man investigators say he might have been teasing the tiger with a piece of chicken lost the leg. The tiger was shot to death.
An expensive proposition
The other tigers would have paid for the attack with their lives, too. Few people have the land, environment, safe enclosures and will oh, and the money to take them in. Sculac has all of that. Except for the money.
"Day-to-day would be a good description," he says of the battle to feed and provide medical care for his stunning array of lions, tigers, mountain lions, black leopards and a few smaller critters. The monthly tab is about $19,000. All of it comes from donations. (You can help, and tour the unforgettable place go online to bigcatsofserenitysprings.org.)
So the 10 female tigers from Missouri have this week moved into their new Colorado home. Sculac will go back this weekend for the other five. In his world, no cat gets left behind.
The miracle on the prairie began to take shape in 1993, when Nick came upon a sick, under-fed mountain lion on a Kansas farm. Her name was Sierra, and Nick brought her home. Karen and their three daughters gasped. Then they got busy, saving the mountain lion's life. Nick and Karen had found their life's work.
Today, old Sierra roams, slowly, across her large enclosure. When Nick approaches she seems to melt, rubbing against the cage, begging for another touch from the man who saved her.
He has that effect on most of the big cats, even the biggest tigers and lions getting sleepy-eyed as he approaches with a tub of meat or just a kind word. Through the fence they rub against his leg. With a strong but gentle hand he rubs back, scratching an ear. Cats with paws the size of catcher's mitts make a soft purring sound.
Thanks to Sculac, they will live out their lives here. This would include Buggsy the bobcat. Buggsy, nearly toothless, is 28 years old. His fur is rumpled, his once-snarling roar no more than a whisper. Someday soon, Buggsy will lie down to sleep and he will not get up.
Life goes on
"It's hard to describe the feeling I have about this place and about these animals," Sculac says. "I just know that we're helping them out and taking care of them. And I remember, every day, that they don't have anywhere else to go."
He thought he would give it all up after he lost Karen. She developed pneumonia and died in August 2006, after just one day in the hospital. She was 47.
In 2005, a year before losing his wife, Nick suffered a massive heart attack. He says he is healthy today and that his heart has healed. Well, most of it.
"Karen planted the tiger lilies in front of the enclosure of a tiger she named Lilly," he says. "She lived in a horse trailer in Mississippi for five years before Karen rescued her. They had a special relationship. They were pretty close."
He gazes out across the sanctuary as the last light of day flickers through the cottonwoods. When he speaks again, his voice is just a whisper.
"Lilly died last year."