By Scott Prater
Senior Master Sgt. Mark Perkins, 50th Operations Support Squadron superintendent, has been fascinated by big cats since he was a little kid, but he never imagined one day he might actually be close enough to touch one.
Early last year, he was watching TV late one night and saw a short piece on the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center.
“I was shocked when I learned the center was located just outside of Colorado Springs,” he said. “I called them the next day, wondering about volunteer possibilities, and within a month I was standing less than a foot away from a full-grown tiger.”
On his first visit, he learned the center is always in need of volunteers.
“I told the owners I would have no problem getting a group of volunteers together at least once a month,” Perkins said. “We’ve had as many as 20 people show up when it’s our day.”
Julie Walker, the center’s director of operations, appreciates volunteer groups because they can complete large projects quickly.
“Serenity Springs Wildlife Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and as with most non-profits the majority of our donations go directly to our cause. In our case, that is the care and rescue of exotic animals,” she said. “We do not have a lot of funds left for labor and employees. Our facility only has two paid employees on staff. Therefore, we rely heavily on volunteers to complete our mission.”
Located near Calhan, Colo., the center is home to more than 120 exotic animals, including lions, tigers, bears, cougars, leopards, genets, servals, caracals and a coatimundi. It is the largest federal and state licensed placement facility in the state.
Since Perkins is a certified volunteer at the center, he can manage and supervise his group while they’re working at the center.
Schriever volunteers typically spread mulch in animal cages, but they’ve also helped construct animal shelters and containment areas.
“We can get a group of 10 or larger during the warm-weather months and that means we can get a lot of work done in a short amount of time,” Perkins said. “We can get an entire tiger cage mulched in a morning, something that can take three people three days to complete.”
Perkin’s fondest memory so far was the day when center caretakers needed to move four tigers to new pens.
“They sedated the animals and we carried them from one area to the other,” he said. “I actually petted a sleeping tiger. It was unbelievable, but that’s the type of experience you get when you do this type of volunteer work.”
He began recruiting volunteers at Schriever soon after volunteering himself and he knew it would be an easy sell.
“The Air Force is big on volunteerism, but I suspect some people are just looking for a bullet to place on their enlisted performance report,” he said. “This is definitely manual labor, but most everybody who comes out with our group seems to enjoy it. I’ve always thought people should find something they enjoy doing and this is one place that’s different from most other volunteer opportunities.”
Staff Sgt. Benjamin Paxson, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, is a regular volunteer with the group.
“It’s great getting to the see the animals and knowing that what you are doing directly affects them,” he said. “You get to see the animals grow up each month you go and see how the Serenity Springs really cares for them. The members there donate a lot of their time to help out the lions, tigers and bears. They really do a great deal of work to maintain their habitat and I know they appreciate the few hours we put in each month. The work we accomplish gives them a lot more time to tend to the animals’ needs.”
The cats, bears and other animals housed at the center come from across the country. Many have worked for magicians or Hollywood studios that no longer need them.
“One of the best features of volunteering there is not only do you get to see these amazing creatures up close, but you also get to hear the stories of where they came from and what they’ve done.” Perkins said. “They all have a unique personality.”
Perkins sends out notifications for volunteers most every month. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact him via his global e-mail address.