Tiger behaviorist and advocate Peter Renzo of the SABRE (Siberians Are Becoming Rapidly Extinct) Foundation sits under a canopy in the parking lot of the Virginia City Beef Jerky Co. on C Street in Virginia City with his black leopard, Sheba, while assistant Rebecca Harris pampers the animal with a hand-held spray-mister.
Sheba is docile as she poses for pictures with children. She licks her paws like a house cat and rolls on her back while Renzo prepares to feed her raw meat by hand.
You will not see anything like this anywhere in the country. Sheba is the only leopard of her type in the United States licensed to freely interact with people. That includes children.
What is the SABRE Foundation?
It was named for a Siberian tiger named Sabre who passed away a few years ago. He was in National Geographic - once the biggest tiger in the world. Our goal is to protect and preserve Siberian tigers. We've got five cats right now - four Siberian tigers right now. By getting your picture taken and taking donations, we're educating children and the general public about big cats to keep them from becoming extinct.
We hope to raise money for an education and breeding facility outside of Virginia City in the next 12-18 months. We're talking with a guy, one of the wealthiest guys in America, who is hopefully going to help.
What or who is threatening the tigers?
One of the problems right now is that a lot of the money going to the cause of protection goes right into the hands of dictators and governments, instead of to the zoos and preservation efforts in Africa. There's a lot of corruption. I can think of one place in South Africa that's doing some good work, but there's a lot of bad people out there.
Is Sheba dangerous?
I've had her for 16 years, since she was a baby. She's verbally trained and only bites playfully. But, yes, she's a big cat. She can run 60 mph, jump 16 vertical feet, and when she strikes, it's in excess of 115 mph. Putting raw meat in front of a big cat is like putting it in front of a shark.
Where do you keep her? Does she hang out in the house?
Yes, but we've got natural habitats for the animals so they can live like they were supposed to. A cat like this would normally only live about nine or 10 years in the wild.
What do you feed her?
We get a special blend of meat from a supplier in the Midwest that sells to zoos. It's got lots of crushed organs and things that the cats would normally get in the wild. Are you ever afraid of working with such animals, especially considering what happened to Roy of Siegfried & Roy?
I'll tell you exactly what happened there: the cat caught a reflection from something in the audience and didn't want to go out on stage and started gently pulling Roy's arm to tell him he didn't want to go. Then Roy tripped and fell backwards, and then everybody started rushing toward him. It was the worst thing they could have done. Roy tried to tell them to stay back, but they came. The tiger smelled the blood and was protecting his master by trying to pick him up by the back of the neck and carry him off to safety.
How can people get more information on your work?
We've got a Web site at www.sabrefoundation.org.