Hidden Haven

Jemma Paradise

A unique sanctuary provides refuge for wild animals in the heart of Orange County

Nestled in the suburban hills of Orange County, Rancho Las Lomas is an oasis of the unexpected. With its terracotta villas and lush, forested grounds, its tranquil beauty has evaded the surrounding urbanization, seemingly untouched by place or time. Yet the estate’s uniqueness extends far beyond its picturesque appearance. Through its Rancho Wildlife Foundation, this 32-acre property is also home to a one-of-a- kind animal sanctuary, a safe haven for exotic wildlife with nowhere else to go. In the words of Cynthia Findley, a zookeeper and volunteer coordinator, the foundation’s mission is both simple and profound: “to provide a permanent home for displaced animals and educate the public about the plight of endangered animals.”

Rancho Wildlife’s efforts shine particularly clear in the case of its largest resident, a white Bengal tiger named Lily. Classified as an endangered species, only 3,200 Bengal tigers exist in the wild, none of which share Lily’s coloration, for her snowy distinctiveness is too compromising in their native woodland environment. Instead, she was bred for the color of her fur by a wildlife photo attraction facility, born into the captivity of an industry that prioritizes human entertainment over animal care. However, when the operation shut down (in the wake of a negligent death), Rancho Wildlife offered the then six-month-old Lily a new life, complete with an expansive environment, lots of toys, and an adoring staff of zookeepers. According to the foundation’s veterinarian Dr. Klause, Lily is now one of the happiest big cats he has come across. At the sanctuary, she enjoys a vast array of activities, from pouncing on her giant blue ball to searching for hidden treats, along with other creative enrichments. “Sometimes, we’ll even do bubble baths,” says Findley. “We put a whole bottle of bubble bath in her pool, so it’s just this big pile of bubbles, and she loves it.”

Mark Anthony the peacock shows off his impressive seasonal plumage./Jemma Paradise

Rancho Las Lomas opened its doors to animals like Lily in 1998, beginning its journey with the arrival of its first inhabitant, Eli the serval. Since officializing its sanctuary status, the foundation has grown into a tight-knit community that both treasures the animals in its charge and strives to educate the public on their value to the wider world. “During the busiest school seasons, we often have field trips,” explains Findley with a smile. “The past few weeks, we’ve had a field trip basically every day.”

However, the heart of Rancho Wildlife’s mission remains rooted unconditionally in the care of its animals. Unlike many other zoos, its sanctuary prioritizes the needs of its wild- life over all else, utilizing a reservation-based structure that balances public interest with animal well being and enriches the overall visiting experience with its knowledgeable tour guides. Behind the scenes, volunteers and keepers work tirelessly to keep the operation running as smoothly as possible, and their dedication is apparent in the foundation’s many thriving inhabitants.

Yet for those in the Rancho Wildlife community, the work can also prove personally rewarding. “As a kid, I always wanted to be a zookeeper,” says Findley. “I started as a volunteer. I worked for about six months, and then they offered me a job. I was very lucky.” As she sits in the Rancho’s beautiful courtyard, surrounded by the last of O.C.’s untouched forestry and the distant calls of a peacock, it’s not hard to see why.

Lilly claims her favorite blue ball./Jemma Paradise

Fiji the cockatoo perches on her branch, a cheeky gleam in her eye. “She’s so cute, so playful,” says Findley. “She can neverget enough attention.”/Jemma Paradise