Offbeat Oregon History
Oregon’s own fugitive “Tiger King” became a big problem for Idaho
October 12, 2023 | View PDF
Continued From Last Week
By Finn J.D. John
The court also learned that Fieber had tried to slip away to a new piece of land beyond the county court’s jurisdiction, which he had secretly leased in Wasco County. He had already installed 13 lions and a tiger at the new place. Police figured this out when they pulled him over for a traffic stop and found a pair of lions sitting in the truck. This was another probation violation — he’d agreed not to move any of the animals.
Finally, in March 1986, the exasperated judge simply ordered Fieber to sell the animals and close down his operation. The judge told him that yes, the animals were in better condition and no longer supported a charge of animal neglect; but the pens and fences were still super janky and posed an obvious risk to the neighbors. The judge further explained that she was ordering the animals to be sold specifically to prevent Fieber from simply folding his tent, sneaking away, and reopening his slipshod operation somewhere else, like he had tried to do in Wasco County.
But, of course, that’s exactly what he did. Metaphorically if not literally Fieber slipped away to Idaho in the middle of the night, taking as many lions and tigers with him as he could. Hearing dates came and went, and warrants were issued for his arrest, but no one could find him. He had disappeared.
He’d left behind 16 lions, three tigers, and several wolves and bison, along with a small herd of elk, for the state to find homes for.
And that leads us to the third and final season of the Oregon Tiger King drama — the Ligertown part of the story. By 1990, Fieber had remarried — and this time, it seems, he’d found a soul-mate, someone as passionate about huge, dangerous apex predators as he was. Her name was Dottie Martin, and with her, he launched a new project: He was going to breed ligers.
Ligers are a hybrid cat, the offspring of a lion and a tigress — like a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey. Like mules, they are sterile. Unlike mules, they grow up to about twice the size of either parent, topping out at or near the 1,000-pound mark.
Fieber and Martin started their Idaho adventure in the Grangeville area, but one of their lions got out and started stalking a neighbor’s horse. The neighbor shot it, and Fieber and Martin, apparently taking this as a sign that they needed to move further off the beaten path, moved on to Lava Hot Springs.
They found a place just outside town that would work for them, a several-acre parcel along Fish Creek, with a single-wide trailer on it and a few outbuildings suitable for livestock. (The place was, by the way, a quarter-mile from the local elementary school, a detail that would become important later.) They bought it with an unrecorded land-sales contract, meaning the sellers agreed to finance the sale and take monthly payments from Fieber and Martin, but would not record the arrangement with the county. Pro-tip for you real-estate owners out there: Never do this with a buyer. Especially if you are already carrying a mortgage on the property, which, yes, was the case here … but I digress.
Ligertown started out as 13 lions and one tiger. But, of course, the cats bred and reproduced Soon there were lots more lions and several ligers. As the name of their “zoo” suggests, this was their goal — to breed a white liger.
Soon the, uh, livestock outgrew the buildings available to house them. Using old pallets, scrap lumber, scavenged fencing panels and chicken wire, Fieber built an addition to house the overflow. Then another, and another; as his menagerie grew, the ramshackle warren of outbuildings grew as well.
In Lava Hot Springs, Fieber was friendly and affable, but fiercely private. Nobody got invited to tour his facility; but, most folks wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. Within a year or two the place looked like one of those “Hoovervilles” from the Great Depression, surrounded by a line of scavenged fencing of various types and quality levels. Here and there the fenceline was dotted with hand-painted signs expressing extreme libertarian and anti-authority sentiments.
“Big Game Trophy Hunt,” one of them read. “Open season on corrupt officials, police, game wardens, and fire chiefs. Prizes are awarded for the biggest liar, thief, scalawag, and jerk, the ugliest, meanest, and most brutal. Sponsored (sic) by Ligertown Citizens Against Police Harassment: 1-800-Bag-A-Pig.”
“Liger: A Sovereign Alien Nation Governed by E.T. and his Alien Pride. Capitol: Ligertown,” read another.
So from the outside, over the years, residents of Lava Hot Springs nervously watched Fieber’s ramshackle leonine Hooverville grow and expand, one load of pallets and chicken wire at a time. The roars were getting steadily louder, and the smell was getting worse and worse – a smell like a long-neglected cat litter box topped with rotting meat. Everyone pretty much knew something was going to happen, sooner or later.
Then, near dusk on Sept. 20, 1995, something did. Lava Hot Springs Fire Chief Bruce Hansen was driving near his home when he saw a full-grown African lioness standing in the middle of the road.
He raced back to town to the nearest telephone (it was 1995, so he didn’t have a cell phone) and called 911. Then he grabbed his rifle, which he apparently had with him in the truck, and raced home to protect his livestock.
When he got there, he found his mother-in-law, LaVenna Long, milking her goats. She had driven her car down to the goat pen and left the car door open, and there was a lion — a male this time — standing next to it.
“LaVenna!” Hansen shouted, and the lion spooked and charged straight at him. So, of course, he shot it.
Shortly thereafter, another call came into the 911 dispatch center … from Robert Fieber. He needed help quick.
Sheriff’s deputy Lorin Nielsen, who had expected something like this to happen sooner or later, raced to the scene and found Fieber. He had tried to stop an escaping lion, which had slashed him up badly. Fieber was taken to the hospital.
It was late evening by now, and darkness had long since fallen; there were an unknown number of apex predators out there prowling the hills around town and they were probably hungry. Something had to be done, fast.
“We didn’t want to kill these animals,” Nielsen told Idaho Public Broadcasting. “But we had to protect the public … the biggest concern we had was, school was starting in the morning, we had about four or five hours. It was in a populated area, but we didn’t know how many had gotten out — we really didn’t even know how many animals he had.”
Police had a very busy, rather terrifying night that night. Helicopters were brought in, and heat-sensitive scanners. By morning, fifteen more escaped lions had been spotted and shot.
Then they had to go into Ligertown itself to secure the scene. Fieber, in the hospital, was in no condition to help with that even if they’d wanted him to, and Dottie Martin seems to have been away at the time.
The place was worse than they had feared.
“The ‘zoo,’ it turned out, was little more than a maze of chicken wire, random sheets of metal, and haphazard boards nailed together in ways that didn’t make structural sense,” writes Idaho Falls Post Register reporter Sally Krutzig in a 2020 article about the events of that night. “Animal feces were piled five feet high in some places, and bones covered nearly every square foot.”
Also, three of the lions that had escaped from their pens had climbed up onto the roof and were now watching the rescue operators as they moved through the compound, calling to each other with low guttural growls. They could not be lured down, so the rescuers just had to keep an eye on them and hope they weren’t hungry.
Now that it was daytime and the situation was less terrifying, nobody wanted to kill any more of the lions. Police got out the tranquilizer gun they’d gotten from Idaho Fish and Game; but the darts they had were dosed for cougars, which are a third the weight of an African lion; so they had to be shot with multiple darts.
Very soon, though, zoo specialists had arrived at the scene, and all 27 surviving lions (or, rather, 27 of 28; at this time there still was the one lost in the woods, the one Woney Peters would shoot several days later) were on semi trucks and on their way to other facilities. A large collection of wolf-dog hybrids also had to be re-homed from Ligertown.
After this disaster, of course, there was no suggestion of Fieber being ever allowed to do anything like this again. He and Dottie Martin tried to come back and take charge of the animals but were told that if they appeared on the scene they would be arrested and thrown in jail. Both of them were very bitter about the whole thing, and raged in newspaper articles that what was being done to them and their animals was unconstitutional government overreach; but in the wake of a security breach this big, and after seeing what conditions in Ligertown were like, none of the authorities were willing to waste time listening.
Fieber and Martin were brought up on more than 100 misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty. That was the closest prosecutors could get to throwing the book at them — apparently terrorizing the entire town and endangering its elementary-school children at recess with wild beasts of prey were not, at the time, criminal offenses. Roughly a dozen of these charges actually stuck and resulted in convictions; but the two of them went full Bonnie and Clyde, skipping town and fleeing the state while the case was on appeal. Authorities decided not to bother with the trouble and expense of having them extradited back to the state to face a handful of misdemeanor charges. So they more or less got away clean.
As for Ligertown, the animals were taken in by various more reputable zoos and refuges around the country; and the following year authorities bulldozed the whole ramshackle mess into a heap and set fire to it.
Meanwhile, the owners of the property — who had sold it to Fieber and Martin on a land-sales contract which the two git-er-done zookeepers had stopped making their payments on long before — found themselves unable to keep up their mortgage, and the property was foreclosed by the bank. Today, unless you know exactly where to look, there is no remaining sign that Ligertown ever existed.
But if you go into one of the nearby pubs and bars, chances are pretty good that you’ll be offered the chance to buy a pint of beer brewed by local craft brewery Portneuf Valley Brewing, called Ligertown Lager.
That, and a heavily strengthened set of laws and regulations on exotic animals, are the only remaining legacy of Ligertown today.
(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.