What is Cheryl Jones hiding?
Two months ago, Jones and her partner, Steve Higgs, moved much of their family business to an old horse farm outside Hillsboro. Parts of the 80-acre property can be seen just south of Highway 26, but most of the land is tucked behind the tree line.
"No Trespassing" signs line the half-mile gravel driveway. A metal security gate flanked by two stone lions blocks visitors from the farmhouse where Jones and Higgs have set up shop.
Jones and Higgs run one of Oregon's odder nonprofits: A Walk on the Wild Side, a charity whose purpose, according to tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, is "educational." Its mission: to house exotic animals and transport them in a fifth-wheeler up and down the West Coast to county fairs and birthday parties. Higgs manages the business of the nonprofit. Jones is the self-taught animal handler.
Since their move to Hillsboro in May, Jones and Higgs have stirred up the largely rural neighborhood. A Walk on the Wild Side's new home sits among properties that are typically more than 80 acres in size, and are home to blueberry fields and horse stables. But it's also less than a four-minute drive to a McDonald's and a Subway. In other words, it sits at the edge of regional planning agency Metro's urban growth boundary.
A number of neighbors say Jones is a menace. Former neighbors say she keeps her animals in cages too small. Washington County planning officers say she's flouting regulations. Her landlord, on the other hand, calls her a freedom fighter.
Jones herself? She says she and her husband are misunderstood. "Come and see us at a fair," she says. "Come and talk to us. Don't just think that we're the most terrible people who walk this earth."
Just don't ask to visit their new home.
This much is certain: At dusk in Washington County, the roar of lions can be heard from more than a mile away.
That's because Jones and Higgs are assembling one of the largest collections of big cats in the state. Their farm, a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland, holds nearly twice as many lions and tigers as the Oregon Zoo.
No government official has inspected the property since they moved the cats in. Jones and Higgs declined to allow WW to see the animals, saying the publicity could embolden regulators trying to shut them down.
For two decades, allegations of animal neglect and insufficient safeguards have dogged the couple—part of the reason they left their previous location, in Canby, 26 miles south of Portland along 1-5. But those complaints, often filed by neighbors, have almost never been substantiated. In fact, the couple have only once been cited for criminal animal neglect, in 2002, and the charges were later dropped.
Yet their new home could be short-lived, for reasons that stem not from animal welfare protections but land-use laws. In June, Washington County officials sent Jones and Higgs notice that the property they are now renting for A Walk on the Wild Side isn't zoned for exotic animal exhibits. It can only be used as a farm.
Jones and Higgs, who have several decades' experience dealing with adversaries, say—with completely straight faces—that's exactly what it is. A farm.
And what are they farming? Tiger poop.
Zarah, a 3-month-old Bengal tiger cub, has spent most of her short life on the road: the Stockton County Fair in California, the Jackson County Fair in Southern Oregon, and Portland's own Rose Festival.
Because she's still so small—45 pounds, about twice the size of a housecat—she gets to sit in the cab of Jones and Higgs' van and sleep with them in hotel rooms. Jones feeds her formula from a bottle.
At each stop, A Walk on the Wild Side charges fairgoers $30 to pick Zarah up from behind and hoist her into the air, like Simba being offered to the sun in The Lion King.
Jones and Higgs also take cubs to birthday parties and other private events, charging $200 to add a tiger to elaborate photo ops with partygoers dressed as Aladdin and Jasmine.
On occasion, they waive the fee. Mindy Hegstad's son Jay is terminally ill with a rare genetic condition. Hegstad, who lives in Longview, Wash., called Higgs recently and asked if he would bring one of his big cats to Jay's 11th birthday party on July 1. Higgs brought Zarah for free.
"This birthday was a miracle. We didn't think he was going to make it," Hegstad says. "Jay got to hold the tiger and feed the tiger its bottle. The tiger was just freaking adorable and so well-behaved."
Cheryl Jones rescued her first animal when she was 12 years old and living on a Portland houseboat with her family, which had moved there from Pasadena, Calif. It was a seagull with a fishhook in its beak.
Ever since then, she's been in love with wild animals.
Jones and Higgs look as if they could be twins: straw blond-haired, tanned and clad in matching black polo shirts with a lion and tiger embroidered on the breast pocket.
The pair met 37 years ago at a Portland riding stable. She had worked as an operations manager at horse and greyhound racetracks. He had studied to become a physician's assistant but dropped out of school to take care of his kids when his first marriage fell apart.
When they moved in together in Sandy, people started bringing them farm animals. At first, it was donkeys, horses and goats that had been abandoned by their owners.
But in 1987, they took in a cougar from the litter of a friend's cat.
"A friend of ours asked us if we would bottle-raise one of her cougars," Higgs recalls. "It took off from there."
Keeping a big cat is perfectly legal.
There are more tigers in American backyards than in the jungles of Asia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses about 2,600 animal exhibitors nationally, including roadside zoos, circuses and private rescue organizations. A Walk on the Wild Side is one of them—and has been since the early 1990s.
In 2011, Oregon lawmakers stopped issuing permits to people who wanted to own exotic animals as pets, after a number of high-profile escapes and maulings nationwide. But because Jones and Higgs were already licensed by the USDA, they were grandfathered in. Not only could they keep their animals, they could take in new ones.
By then, Jones and Higgs had settled in Canby, on 72 leased acres. They began taking in strays in earnest—both animals and people.
Jennifer McCall Ricke, a Clackamas County medical assistant, volunteered at A Walk on the Wild Side when she was a teenager in the early 2000s. She says Jones and Higgs would often provide lodging for their volunteers, many of whom were otherwise homeless.
"They're good people," she says. "Some people think that they're not because of what they do, but you just have to get to know them."
In 2002, Jones and Higgs brought home their first tiger, Shere Khan. And in 2009, A Walk on the Wild Side registered as a nonprofit. According to the nonprofit's tax returns, no one takes a salary or stipend from the organization's revenues, including Jones and Higgs.
The money that A Walk on the Wild Side brings in from fairs, parties and photo ops—between $250,000 and $350,000 a year in recent years—helps pay for care of the animals, Higgs says.
"These animals are like our kids," says Higgs, who manages the nonprofit's business side. "We're not making money off these guys. All the money that we earn, that's keeping these guys alive."
Anna Frostic, an attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, questions whether A Walk on the Wild Side is a charity or just a hobby.
Frostic helped author a 2012 petition to the USDA asking for tighter restrictions on who may own exotic animals. She says A Walk on the Wild Side was mentioned twice in that petition for allowing thousands of strangers to hold, bottle-feed and pose for photos with baby tigers.
Frostic says A Walk on the Wild Side's justifications—that it is educating the public and training cubs to embrace human interaction—was "a common song we hear from unaccredited roadside zoos across the country."
Since 2009, Higgs and Jones have been dogged by complaint calls, often from neighbors going to the Clackamas County sheriff about undernourished horses and dirty cages. The sheriff's office and Canby police say they have responded to 83 calls regarding the property during the past nine years.
"It is an unusually high number of calls for a single property," says Deputy Brian Jensen.
In August 2009, Joanna Derungs, who lived nearby, called to report eight horses that looked too thin.
"I drove by there every day and saw the horses' health deteriorate," Derungs recalls. "I finally decided to do something about it. This was so obvious because the horses were getting sick and laying down and probably dying."
Jones acknowledges that inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture came out to look at their horses several times after calls like that—but she was never cited for neglect. (She says sometimes she'd take in sick, undernourished horses to treat and fatten them up.)
In fact, records show Jones and Higgs have actually been cited only a handful of times by the USDA, for insufficient fencing, dirty cages and improper paperwork. Jones says all of those problems were minor and fixed.
By 2012, Jones and Higgs had accumulated several lions and tigers, letting the public come and view the animals in their cages for $5 per person. Many of their early visitors also came for an annual pumpkin patch.
One of those visitors was John Robinson, who came to the property in October 2013. He told WW he was so shocked by the conditions he witnessed—specifically, small, filthy cages—that he called the sheriff. So did another visitor, Christine Smith.
"The last Halloween trip we took the kids there, it wasn't very clean," Smith says. "There was a lion, I think, or a cougar, a bunch of different rodent-type things, birds, chickens, skunks, different types of wild animals. They were stinky and nasty-looking. I'm never going back there again."
Clackamas County never found much to support the claims of animal neglect. But officials did start bugging Jones and Higgs about code violations.
In 2014, Andrea Hall and Kim Priest, code enforcement coordinators for Clackamas County, inspected the property. She found piles of garbage leaning against animal cages. The fencing around the bear's cage had been built without a permit. A barn had been converted into a reptile house, but the electrical work for lamps that kept the cold-blooded animals alive was installed without a permit, had not been inspected and left wires exposed. People were living in two unlicensed RVs that the county deemed illegally occupied.
"I don't think I've run into a case with such a variety of animals," Hall now says.
Higgs says the violations were nitpicky and designed to unfairly target A Walk on the Wild Side. "She was just like a pit bull going after us," he says. "If one thing didn't work, then she would just come up with another thing."
For more than a year, Clackamas County sent letters to Jones and Higgs about the zoning violations, which were upheld. By November 2014, the couple decided to shut down their public zoo and started traveling more often to county fairs, typically bringing tiger cubs and cougars.
About a year later, the Canby property they were renting was sold to a new owner. Fortunately, a wealthy patron had already invited them to Hillsboro.
The property that Jones and Higgs moved to is owned by Terry Emmert, a colorful figure in Oregon business. He's a heavy-hauling magnate who briefly launched a pro football team in Portland, owns a herd of water buffalo he butchers for jerky, and has waged court battles with environmental and land-use regulators in three counties.
He met Jones and Higgs at a local fair. When he heard they needed to move, he offered them a lease. And he says their battles with regulators in Canby motivated him to help.
"No matter what you're trying to do, whether you're trying to help kids or help animals, there's always someone who is going to try to stop you these days," Emmert says, sitting behind a conference table at his Clackamas hauling company, Emmert International. "No man's life, property or liberty is safe while we have unrealistic regulations."
In March 2015, a full year before Higgs and Jones began their move, Washington County officials say they informed their real estate agent that the land wasn't zoned for wild animals—it could only be used as a farm.
Rita Howard, who has lived nearby on her family farm in rural Hillsboro since 1966, was aware of the restriction. Which is why she was surprised in May when she heard lions roaring.
"It almost sounded like a cow calling its calf," Howard recalls, "but no, that's not a cow."
Standing on a neighbor's truck bed, she realized it was the sound of big cats. "I thought, 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?'" Howard says. "They were told they couldn't move in there. How could that be?"
In early June, Tom Harry, a code enforcer for Washington County, got the first call about lions roaring nightly. He sent a cease-and-desist letter June 23 informing A Walk on the Wild Side that it could not keep wild animals.
Jones and Higgs' attorney, Geordie Duckler, doesn't dispute that the couple is keeping exotic animals in Hillsboro. But he argued to Washington County in a June 28 letter that the nonprofit may keep big cats on the property because A Walk on the Wild Side meets the legal definition of a farm.
"They've got livestock," Duckler tells WW. "They're raising poultry. They're selling other animal products. They're not operating like an attraction."
To be considered a farm under Oregon law, A Walk on the Wild Side must produce an agricultural product. Duckler and his clients say they have one: tiger and lion dung.
"By raising these tigers, they of course have poop that [we] extract," Higgs says. "That is being used by farmers to keep the coyotes out and the cougars out. They smell that scent, and they don't want anything to do with a tiger."
Higgs says he has a dozen clients buying tiger dung. Among them are cattle and sheep ranchers—but he says the biggest market is cannabis growers who want to keep pests out of their crop.
Steve Pedery, who studies native predators as conservation director for the environmental nonprofit Oregon Wild, doesn't think tiger poop would help ranchers much. "I am dubious that exotic cat dung would do much to deter wolves or coyotes," he wrote in an email. "In the case of wolves, I'd fear it might actually serve as an attractant."
Washington County officials don't have a ready answer for Jones and Higgs' argument.
"This is the first we've heard about them selling manure," says county land-use spokeswoman Melissa DeLyser. She says the county's lawyer "would have to do some legal research to determine whether manure from an exotic animal is a farm use."
In 2013, Jones told Clackamas County officials that A Walk on the Wild Side owned sheep, goats, miniature cows, alpacas, pigs, horses, donkeys, rabbits, cavies (a large rodent), birds, kinkajous, lemurs, monkeys, bobcats, servals, caracals, a lynx, a fox, tigers, lions, a leopard, and hundreds of reptiles.
Jones and Higgs tells WW that most of these animals have been moved to Hillsboro—including the big cats: seven tigers and five lions. (The Oregon Zoo has six lions and one tiger.)
They are seeking more.
Jones claims to have one of the world's few purebred Barbary lionesses and and has partnered her with a mate, hoping for cubs. She says she's talking with zoos that aim to preserve the species, including the San Diego Zoo. (Neither the San Diego Zoo nor the Association of Zoos and Aquariums had any recollection of Jones.)
Jones also says she is successfully breeding smaller cats like servals and Canada lynx, and other animals like cavies and wallabies.
"Sometimes we feel like, 'God, we're the only ones out there trying to do anything and help with this,'" Higgs says. "We're working hard to make sure that our children's children's children are going to be able to see these cats."
The couple is adamant that they are an open book. For almost two weeks, Higgs told WW that a reporter would be welcome to tour the farm, to see how carefully it's being run. But last week, Duckler said abruptly that WW would not be allowed on the property.
When WW traveled to Jones and Higgs' property this week to ask follow-up questions, a reporter was not allowed to view the animals.
Jones says that's because they're gearing up for a battle with Washington County and don't want to give their opponents any ammunition.
"We'd love to have you," she says. "I have nothing whatsoever to hide, but we've kind of got a gun to our head."
Howard, their Hillsboro neighbor, remains worried.
"I'm an animal lover," she says. "I'm just opposed to the sneakiness. To me, that means they're hiding something."
Jones and Higgs laugh at the idea that neighbors should be alarmed at the prospect of their tigers escaping.
"If they got out, they're not going to go far," Jones says. "They're going to come to us. Tigers are the biggest chicken animals you've ever seen in your life."
"We have Chihuahuas that will chase our tigers away," Higgs adds.
A Walk on the Wild Side's next exhibit starts July 26 at the Hood River County Fair. Next month, it'll be a featured attraction at the Clark County Fair in Ridgefield, Wash.
Washington County planning officials say they still don't know their next move.
This story is published in the July 26 print edition of WW with the headline, "The Tiger Farmer."