Make the McKenzie Connection!

Offbeat Oregon History

Oregon’s own fugitive ‘Tiger King’ became a big problem for Idaho

On the evening of Sept. 28, 1995, Woney and Laurie Peters, of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, were driving back to their home behind the local elementary school when they noticed something wasn’t right.

The first thing Woney noticed was the horses. They were confined in a corral in front of the house, next to the trampoline, which his teenage kids were playing on. The kids seemed fine — but the horses seemed terrified. They kept staring up at the hillside that ran along behind the house and the school.

Inside the house, Woney got up on the balcony for a better view of what was bothering the horses. In the distance, on the hillside, he saw something — “a two-tone animal going through the trees,” he recounted, in an interview with Idaho Public Broadcasting. “And I told Laurie, I said, ‘That’s — there’s an African lion in our back yard.”

Laurie got on the phone and called 911. Woney got his hunting rifle out and started glassing the slope with his scope, looking for the 400-pound monster cat.

“And then it stepped out from behind a dead cedar tree,” Woney said. “And he was looking straight at me and I was looking straight at him. And we were just eye to eye and probably seemed like forever, but it was probably five minutes we eyeballed each other, and it was getting so dark — I told Laurie to tell 911 that I have to take the shot.”

Woney took the shot. The lion raced away up the hillside out of view, then tumbled back down into view again — dead.

And thus ended the final episode in a drama that had started near Newport, Oregon, nearly 30 years earlier, and that today evokes memories of Tiger King, the Netflix series about rogue zookeeper Joe Exotic. You could think of it as the “season finale” of what was basically a three-season show. And what a finale it was: The lion Woney Peters shot was the last of 18 African lions killed after escaping from a ramshackle private zoo called “Ligertown” owned by a pair of relative newcomers to the Lava Hot Springs community: Bob Fieber and Dottie Martin.

By the time Peters shot the last one, it had been over a week since the giant predators had slipped through the fence and fanned out across the landscape, terrifying everyone for miles around and causing the local schools to be closed for the protection of the children.

Those children were back in school on the day Peters shot the last lion. It was a Thursday. Presumably, they had been playing in the schoolyard at recess just a few hours before. Presumably, also the lion, which had by that time been at large for four or five days, was pretty hungry.

All in all, it could have turned out worse.

Season one of the Oregon Tiger King drama started decades earlier, hundreds of miles away, when Robert Fieber bought a piece of country property near Siletz, just inland from Newport on the Oregon Coast. That was in 1968.

Three years later, Robert acquired an American bison, which apparently whetted his appetite for large and exotic fauna. By the mid-1970s he had added several African lions, a tiger, and a jaguar to his menagerie. At some point he opened the place for tourists to visit, calling it “Oregon Coast Safari.” By 1978 he had nine lions, as well as numerous other exotic animals.

But in May of that year, Robert was working with a very young lion named Mohammed outside the family home. When he opened the front door, Mohammed darted in, raced upstairs, and jumped on the bed in which Robert’s 11-year-old son Micha was sleeping.

Before Robert could get to the scene, Mohammed had bitten off Micha’s left ear and otherwise slashed him up severely. Micha was raced to the nearest hospital, in Toledo, and after two hours of surgery, he was listed in serious but stable condition.

It is tempting to wonder, with a tip of the hat to the Tiger King show, if Fieber might have said something like Joe Exotic’s famous line, “I am never gonna financially recover from this” (if you missed the episode, Joe spoke that line after a near-fatal incident in which one of his big cats ripped an employee’s arm off).

But if he didn’t, maybe he should have. The next time Fieber was arrested, part of his legal trouble was being behind on child-support payments, so obviously by that time he was divorced and his wife had custody of Micha. Sources don’t specify what caused the breakup of Fieber’s marriage, but given how mothers usually react when their husbands let something like this happen to their babies, it’s tempting to speculate.

Later that same year, Fieber’s bison spooked and bolted, breaking open one of the lion cages as it did, and five of Fieber’s lions fanned out across the landscape to do some exploring. With the help of some neighbors and several sheriff’s deputies, Fieber managed to corral the runaways. Two of them actually ended up roaming the streets of Siletz before they were recovered.

After that, over the following few years, there was a steady drumbeat of rumored sightings of lions and tigers wandering around loose in the area. It’s not clear whether these were real incidents or just rumors; all the excitement of 1978 had made Fieber locally notorious.

Season two opens in 1984. By that year, Fieber had more than 75 animals, including several dozen lions, tigers, jaguars, and wolves. He also had changed the name of his operation to Siletz Game Ranch.

But then, in September of that year, law enforcement agencies and members of the Humane Society raided his compound. Police seized several of Fieber’s animals and charged him with several counts of animal neglect, saying the facilities were inadequate and the beasts were not being properly fed.

Fieber hotly denied that he was abusing, neglecting, or starving his animals; but he accepted a deal that included pleading no contest to some of the charges, and he was put on probation for five years.

That would be important a year later, in 1985, when Fieber re-opened Siletz Game Ranch as a drive-through zoo. The problem was, he didn’t bother to secure a license for his operation, so he was operating it illegally … which was a probation violation.

At the resulting hearing, Fieber admitted he didn’t have the money to care for all the animals properly, which was obviously a big problem from the state’s perspective (and, of course, from the animals’ perspective too). Also, a state inspector who had looked over the facility testified that the pens and fencing were inadequate. The inspector told the court that the fencing was bad enough to pose a “security threat.”

(Sources: “Oregon Coast Had its Own Tiger King in the 80s,” an un-by-lined article published April 24, 2020, in Oregon Coast Beach Connection; “Liger King: Looking Back at Idaho’s Version of the Hit Series,” an article by Sally Krutzig published in the May 3, 2020, issue of the Idaho Falls Post Register; “Ligertown,” an episode of Idaho Experience aired Feb. 16, 2023, by Idaho Public Broadcasting)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

 

Reader Comments(0)

 
 
Rendered 05/27/2024 15:05