By day, Joel works as a DirectTV quality control inspector. But his No. 1 job is caring for these abused and rescued animals — costing upwards of $5,000 per month.
Joel, wife Chemaine, and their four kids Patricia, 15; Kiah, 8; Arianna, 5; and Noah, 18 months, aren’t your typical family.
Sure, they have a few dogs and horses running around their Phelan property. But it’s the large enclosures of tigers, black leopards and mountain lions that really catches your eye when approaching their tiger sanctuary.
“I’ve worked for years with exotics,” says Joel, who grew up in Huntington Beach and Westminster where his grandparents ran an exotic pet shop called Green Acres. “To me and my family, this is just normal. Doesn’t everyone have tigers?”
The Almquists own eight tigers, three servals, two cougars, two black leopards, two bobcats and a Siberian lynx. “I also have alligators, cobras, rattlesnakes and African tortoises,” says Joel, who carries a USDA license, a Fish and Game license and a San Bernardino County license.
Before starting the sanctuary, Joel consulted with all of his Phelan neighbors. “I let them know what I wanted to do and offered to leave if anyone objected,” he says. “I’ve never had any problems. In fact, at night when the leopards and the tigers start chuffing, my neighbors sit out and have coffee and say they feel like they’re in Africa.”
All of the animals at Forever Wild are rescues — many were illegally purchased as pets; some were found abused, neglected or tortured. The Almquists see to it that each animal lives out a happy life.
That doesn’t mean PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) hasn’t come knocking on their door. “Some PETA members told me to just shoot the tigers because they don’t belong in captivity,” he said. “I agree with them that they belong in the wild, but these are captive animals who wouldn’t know what to do if they were released.
To a wild tiger, a goat would be lunch. But to a tiger who has never seen one before, it can be scary. “I’ve had lizards and caterpillars scare a tiger,” he says. “The simple little things terrify the heck out of them.”
One of Joel’s newest acquisitions is a young mountain lion named Nakai.
“I got a phone call from a guy who had him as a pet in Texas,” says Joel. “We met at state line and I picked him up. He was lifeless and half the size he is now. We vaccinated him and removed about 30 ticks. He went from one extreme to the other. I have him quarantined for 60-90 days to make sure everything’s OK before putting him in with the others.”
Walking over to another cage, Joel peeks in at Paca, one of two black leopards. “Paca was found hanging from a tree bleeding with all but two of his back toes missing from some voodoo ritual,” he says. “She went to a sanctuary in Texas which eventually shut down, so we brought her here.”
Joel is working with the nonprofit Paw Project (www. pawproject.com) that helps with reconstructive surgeries for big cats that had bad declaws.
“We aren’t sure what they can do for him, considering there isn’t much tissue to work with,” says Joel. ”All we can do is try to make him as comfortable as possible.”
Joel’s love of animals does not come cheap. “It’s all public donations,” he says. “Just to feed the animals I go through about 1,000 to 1,200 pounds of chicken and beef a week at 50 to 65 cents per pound. I also get donations of frozen rabbits that were euthanized by local farmers.”
Though the animals have been brought up in captivity, they are certainly not tame.
“You can’t mess up or their natural instincts will kick in,” says Joel. “If I was walking Jade and fell in front of her, she’d be all over me. That’s just part of their psyche.”
When cleaning the enclosures, Joel is always armed with pepper spray. “Some people bring in guns, but I don’t feel that’s necessary,” he says. “The only time I had to use it was when one of the tigers got a hold of the hose. You can’t play tug of war with a tiger!”
Back in the early 1970s, explains Joel, it was legal to own exotic pets. “There were some regulations on tigers, but primates and smaller animals were allowed,” he says. “Montgomery Ward used to sell margays and ocelots out of the store for $150.”
Today, illegally purchased wild cats live in the shadows under inhumane conditions. “One of my tigers grew up in a cage in the back of a semi truck,” says Joel.
In 2009, Forever Wild was remodeled with a new Learning Center, animal cages and home on the TV show, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
Between food and electricity, Joel spends $5,000 per month to keep the facility running.
“We like to do educational things with kids. You can talk all day about saving tigers, but when the kids see them in person it really sinks in.”
Forever Wild Sanctuary offers tours by appointment. The facility is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Tours include General Tours, Guided Tours, VIP Tours, Group Tours and Flashlight Tours (held Wednesday nights during the summers only).