YAKIMA, Wash. -- When Dave Coleburn first began taking wolves and cougars into elementary schools, the animals were his metaphor for alerting children to be wary of other “predators” — drugs, alcohol, murder and suicide.
He would have a difficult time doing that now, 18 years later. It’s hard to instill wariness of one sort of predator when its furry metaphor is licking his face or loudly purring.
That’s one reason why Predators Of The Heart, an Anacortes-based wildlife sanctuary that will be featured at next week’s Central Washington Sportsmen Show at the SunDome, has evolved its message over the years.
“Our goal now is to get kids to fall in love with nature, and to get them to see how incredible nature is, and to experience it in a close-up situation,” says Coleburn, 59. “When you take a kid into the outdoors, you’re going to change his life.”
That Coleburn loves his animals is obvious at their public shows at schools, county fairs and outdoor-sports expos around Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
When he’s in a cage with a wolf — he always brings two, for the wolves’ companionship — or a cougar, it’s almost invariably a nuzzle-fest. He might hold his microphone close to the cougar’s throat so audiences can hear its loud purring, something like a two-stroke engine at low rev.
When demonstrating the animals in his shows, he’s always using words like “beautiful,” “magnificent” and “amazing” — even when the animals aren’t furry and purring, but are hissing or even rattling. Snakes are popular regulars in the Predators Of The Heart shows, especially the scary ones such as copperheads, water moccasins and diamondback rattlers.
With the venomous species, of course, the venom has been surgically removed — not only for spectators’ safety, but that of the animal handlers.
“If you get bit by something like that,” cracks Colburn, who has been bitten by several snakes, “you’re always thinking, ‘Man, I hope nothing went wrong with that operation.’”
Colburn’s sense of humor is part of his shows — he might mug, “OW! ... Just kidding,” while reaching into a crate for a nonvenomous kingsnake — but he’s also serious about reminding audience members to maintain a healthy respect and distance from wild animals.
“If you ever see a cougar in the wild,” he told the audience at a state fair in Oregon, “you never want to run, because running to a cougar is like throwing a dog a tennis ball. He will chase you. You make yourself look big and you yell ‘NO!’ But whatever you do, you never run from a cougar. They’re very strong, powerful animals.”
He paused and murmured, “Aren’t you?”, to the large cougar whose neck he was scratching.
Coleburn enjoys bringing his animals to sportsmen shows — such as last month’s Tri-Cities Sportsmen Show, run by the same folks, Shuyler Productions, that put on the SunDome event — because of his respect for hunters’ conservation ethic.
“Hunters are conservationists,” he says. “I’m not a hunter, but I know where the money comes from, and the guys who are keeping conservation alive are really our sportsmen.”
Keeping Predators Of The Heart alive has gotten harder for Coleburn over the last couple of years. In March 2014, Skagit County passed an ordinance regulating ownership of potentially dangerous wild animals, specifically prohibiting ownership of wolves, cougars, foxes and venomous snakes — all of which had been part of his shows for 15 years.
The county gave Coleburn until the end of 2014 to comply with their demands, while Coleburn remained insistent that his facility was in compliance with all federal and state regulations. The county then sued him in February 2015, and last spring and summer he was facing the possibility of being liable for daily fines by the county of up to $2,000 per animal.
In December, the county scheduled a summary judgment hearing in which Predators Of The Heart might face a fine in excess of $100,000, but then cancelled the hearing. Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich did not respond to telephone calls from the Herald-Republic on Monday.
Coleburn is hopeful his issues with the county are over, but just in case he no longer does “commerce” or public tours at the Anacortes facility.
“We had to really slow down. It really impacted us,” Coleburn says. “We’re just now to the point where we’re up and running again, because we just didn’t know what we could do and what we couldn’t do.”
That he found himself facing legal issues came as a surprise to Coleburn, who grew up planning to become a pastor — same as his father, brother and brother-in-law. He attended Northwest University, a Christian institution in Kirkland, and became a licensed minister.
“My faith hasn’t changed at all, but working with the animals has,” Coleburn says. “We live in such a controversial world. There’s so much controversy out there regarding private ownership of exotic animals. ... (Public officials) are confiscating exotic animals left and right, and things are really, really getting bad for the people who own these animals and work with them every day.”
It doesn’t take long during any of his shows to recognize the mutual relationship between Coleburn and his animals. Nor does it take long — especially at wildlife shows — to see the audiences stream away from the countless other attractions, booths and vendors once the Predators Of The Heart show begins.
“That’s the biggest complaint we have when we do a program like that,” Coleburn says. “When the show starts, everybody in the place where they are to come see the shows, and the vendors are like, hey, we paid to have a space at this show and now we lose all our customers!”
Coleburn’s personal favorites among all his animals are the ones perhaps most feared by show-goers — wolves and cougars. Most of his animals he’s had since they were puppies or kittens, in many cases — particularly with the cougars — having been in the birthing pen with the mother.
By definition, they’re all still predators.
To Dave Coleburn, though, they’re essentially family members. And inhabitants of his heart.