Fire claims life of Evergreen man
Posted: Monday, November 2, 2009 10:05 am
The Daily Inter Lake
An Evergreen man died Monday morning in a mobile-home fire that apparently was caused by faulty wiring.
The body of Rodney A. Nelson, 52, was found in the kitchen of the single-wide trailer adjacent to the Shady Lane Pond, and he “had perished prior to our arrival,” Evergreen Fire Chief Craig Williams said.
Nelson was an animal trainer for the now-defunct Wild Eyes Animal and Photo Adventures animal park north of Columbia Falls.
Evergreen firefighters were dispatched to the fire at 161 Shady Lane about 8:08 a.m. Monday and arrived at the scene in about seven minutes.
“We encountered heavy smoke and fire venting from the windows,” Williams said. “There was an indication of a possible occupant entrapped.”
Firefighters attempted to go through the trailer’s front door but were met with heavy fire that forced them back, Williams said.
It took about a half hour to knock the fire down. “It was fully involved so it took us a while to suppress it,” Williams said.
Contrary to initial reports, the fire at Nelson’s trailer home was not the result of arson, Williams said. “It was faulty wiring that was the cause,” Williams said. “It was not arson.”
In addition to Evergreen firefighters, the Kalispell and South Kalispell fire departments provided assistance. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office established temporary roadblocks on Shady Lane.
The scene was cleared at 1:50 p.m.
The fire is being investigated by the Sheriff’s Office.
Nelson also was known for his involvement in a local alligator incident. Three years ago, a 5-foot-long alligator he owned escaped into the Shady Lane Pond, which led to the reptile being harassed by people for six hours.
A crowd of about 25 people reportedly tried to hook the alligator with fishing gear, shot it with a bow and arrow and slit its throat before a Flathead County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and put the reptile down.
“If you want people to care about nature and animals, what better way than for them to see it and touch it?” asked Jakob Luke as he spread photos of baby tigers and wolves across a restaurant table.
His wife Ginger added, “The most rewarding thing is to see their big eyes — that, people will always remember.”
Jakob and Ginger, owners of the Rickshaw Restaurant in north Seattle, also own Wild Eyes, an exotic animal park in Columbia Falls, Montana.
They are currently working to raise funds for their next endeavor — a new wildlife sanctuary, to be located somewhere in Washington State.
“If people value these animals more, they’ll do more to protect them,” said Jakob.
Since 1986, Wild Eyes has worked to keep animals close to the hearts of children and adults. The facility allows visitors to observe and photograph animals in a natural setting — often without fences.
Before certain laws were changed in Montana, visitors were even allowed to touch and play with baby tigers, bobcats and lions — just a few of the exotic and indigenous species raised there.
The Lukes first discovered Wild Eyes because a visit to Glacier National Park yielded no sightings of wildlife — the reason for their vacation in the first place.
When they found a brochure that boasted close encounters with exotic animals, the Lukes could not resist.
“We got to pet a cougar and a wolf. It was the closest we’d ever been to wildlife,” said Ginger. Jakob jokingly told the owners of Wild Eyes to let him know if they ever wanted to sell.
A few weeks later, they got a call. The owner of Wild Eyes had been in a collision and would no longer be able to manage the animals. Jakob immediately accepted an invitation to live at the facility for six months for training, and the Lukes purchased Wild Eyes.
The new Washington facility will be an extension of Wild Eyes, but will operate as a non-profit organization called Wild Eyes Foundation.
It will focus primarily on the protection and rehabilitation of animals, public education programs and scientific research.
The Lukes hope to someday start an endangered species breeding program.
Just when that day will arrive, however, depends on funding.
Along with the rest of Montana, Wild Eyes suffered a great financial loss in the summer of 2003, when wildfires swept across much of the state. In July, the animals were loaded into modified horse trailers and motor homes when approaching flames forced Wild Eyes to evacuate. Local news stations reported that businesses were losing over $1 million a day — this continued for nearly three months.
Wild Eyes was hit especially hard. Not only did they lose three peak months of revenue, but the cost of temporary housing for the animals far exceeded normal expenses.
“Wild Eyes (Montana) was supposed to help generate revenue for the sanctuary,” said Jakob. “We want to do our part as much as we can financially.”
But after the fires, added Jakob and Ginger, Wild Eyes has only cost them money, and expenses for the new sanctuary are expected to top $2 million.
“We’re still looking for land,” explained Ginger. “The zoning we need to buy in Washington, inter-commercial or industrial, is very expensive.”
The only other option is to apply for a special use permit, which may take up to six months — with no guarantee of approval.
Yet land in Washington is what the Wild Eyes Foundation needs — quickly.
During the 2003 Regular Session of the Legislature, House Bill 1151 was first introduced.
If passed, it will make private ownership of exotic animals illegal in Washington State, which will create a need for a federally licensed sanctuary such as the Wild Eyes Foundation is planning.
Owners of tigers, caimans, cougars and other exotic animals will be given a deadline to find new, authorized homes for their pets. It’s part of a plan to protect the public from potentially dangerous animals, said officials with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I understand the fears of some people,” said Jakob. “The media concentrates on accidents. Accidents happen because people are not being responsible when it comes to the animal. The animal is taken away or euthanized, but it’s not their fault.
“The animals need a place to be. We think, if we start working now, we can offer people a place to bring their animals — where owners can comply with the law, and even visit their animals,” he said.
Hopefully, Ginger added, someone will enter into some kind of partnership with the Wild Eyes Foundation to help make the new facility possible.
Until then, the Lukes will concentrate their efforts on fundraising. Several events are being planned, such as auctions and benefit dinners, but their first event will be a garage sale, held 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. the weekend of June 5-6, at 23406 78th Ave W, in Edmonds, one block off Hwy 99.
They are currently accepting item donations, which can be delivered to the Rickshaw Restaurant or picked up from homes (for a pick-up, call 206-390-9289). Tax-deductible receipts will be issued for all donations.
“In the end, it’s to raise awareness and support to make sure the next generations cares for animals,” said Jakob. “Nature — we need it, we cannot survive without it.”
For more information about the Wild Eyes Foundation, or to make a donation, visit their Web site, www.wildeyesfoundation.org or call Jakob at (206) 542-3888. For more information about the Wild Eyes facility in Montana, visit www.wildeyes-usa.com or 406-387-5391.