Mid-Missouri is home to cows, horses and even alpacas, but not everyone knows it’s also home to lions, tigers and pumas. Nearly a dozen of these jungle cats live on a farm north of the Columbia Mall.
The D&D Farm and Animal Sanctuary, just off Old Highway 63, houses more than 100 animals on a farm about five miles north of the Columbia Mall. It’s named for its owners, Dale and Deb Tolentino. Dale, a former mailman, and Deb, a former veterinarian technician, spend their retired years caring for these animals, day in and day out. There are lions, tigers, ligers, bobcats, mountain lions, pumas, wolves and other predators.
“We’ve had one vacation in 42 years of marriage. … The exotic wildlife, we take them in, lot of times they’ve been starved and abused, neglected. And we give them a permanent home,” Dale Tolentino said.
Tom Strother from the Department of Conservation says D&D is the only facility in mid-Missouri to hold a rehabilitation permit, meaning it can take in Missouri wildlife as well as exotic animals from outside the state.
“A lot of times staff would take those sick or injured animals to DD Farms. DD would release them once they've recovered,” Strother said.
But while D&D has gotten positive reviews from the agency, the federal Department of Agriculture is another story. The USDA monitors compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, and they’ve found more than one noncompliance at D&D Farms.
In fact, the USDA found 49 violations over the past five years – more than any other animal exhibitor in Missouri. That’s anyone licensed to show animals to the public, like farms, zoos and circuses.
Out of 49 violations, nearly a dozen were for not keeping dangerous predators safely enclosed. Last year, the Tolentinos were fined over $4,000 for, among other things, keeping tiger cages tied with plastic zip ties.
Tolentino says the cages were safe enough, because they had wire as well as plastic ties.
“The animals have never escaped here in the twenty three years that we've had them here. Ever. So obviously, we've done something right,” Dale Tolentino said.
There were only a couple reports expressing concern that the animals would actually escape into Columbia neighborhoods. Usually, the USDA inspectors were more concerned about the animals’ welfare. One time, it was three wolves digging a hole under their fence. Another, it was a lion pawing at an opening in its cage.
The cages tied with zip ties, though, were a direct violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The department gave D&D only five days to fix the issues, and the Tolentinos had to recruit volunteers from four states to get the fences fixed and raised to the required height.
“They said if we didn’t raise it to 16 feet in three days, they were going to kill all our animals. Those were their exact words,” Dale Tolentino said.
Tanya Espinosa, a spokesperson for the USDA’s animal inspection service, said the USDA does not euthanize animals, but could have confiscated them and given them to another licensee.
"The way that it works with non-compliances is that licensees are given a reasonable correction date to fix the non-compliances, and that all depends on the type of non-compliance it is,” Espinosa said.
D&D’s noncompliance issues have indeed been varied, from cages being too small, to missing documentation, to moldy food and algae-infested water. Last year, they got in trouble for letting an untrained volunteer feed a tiger.
Tolentino said the USDA sometimes cited them for breaking rules they didn’t know existed. He said sometimes they were simply nitpicky.
"We don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the things they say. A lot of times they’ve fined us for cobwebs… or puddles on the ground when it’s raining,” Dale Tolentino said.
At this year’s open house, Tolentino introduced one of his favorite animals: a lion named Aslan. He said he spent three years riding around on Aslan, wanting to be like the lion tamers he saw as a kid, until the day Aslan tried to kill him.
“It was just his hormones kicked in. …. And he forgot who I was. And I fell down and he jumped on top of me and he went from play to kill mode. I just had to get him to remember who I was,” Dale Tolentino said.
Though the Tolentinos dedicate their lives to caring for these animals, the government’s stance is the same: as much as you love your pet lion, you likely can’t ride it.
To view the USDA reports, click the links below: