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Big cat sanctuary co-founder accused of theft

October 1, 2010
photo - Gazette file photo Photo by Nick Sculac, in this 2006 photo, with one of the 100-plus big cats at the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center
Gazette file photo Photo by Nick Sculac, in this 2006 photo, with one of the 100-plus big cats at the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center 

NOTE: A previous version of this story stated the Colorado Division of Wildlife allows breeding of exotic animals. More accurately, the DOW recognizes that Serenity Springs' licenses and permits allow the breeding of some animals at the facility.

At the Serenity Springs Wildlife Center, a big-cat sanctuary near Calhan, donations keep the 100-plus tigers, lions and other animals alive. Most of these wild predators have been rescued from appalling circumstances, and live in enclosures on the generosity of others.

The public has responded to many pleas over the years  (including in The Gazette)  for volunteer work and donations — $122,358 in 2007, according to tax records.

But when a volunteer was mauled by a tiger last year, co-founder Nick Sculac bilked the man out of $40,500 by falsely claiming — according to court documents — that he faced fines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that amount was “his share.”

Sculac is scheduled to be sentenced in court Tuesday after pleading guilty in July to one count of theft. He also faces an unrelated misdemeanor citation from the Colorado Division of Wildlife for illegally keeping bear and tiger cubs off the Serenity Springs property.

It will be the latest in a long string of court appearances for the 60-year-old Sculac, who founded the sanctuary with his late wife, Karen, in 1993. Court records show he was charged with theft in 1984, 1991, 1993, 2001 and 2002, and he has repeatedly battled with creditors.

Now he faces 2 to 6 years in prison and up to $500,0000 in fines. Neither Sculac nor his attorney responded to interview requests for this story.

Tiger bite

Michael McCain admits it was his fault.

“It was stupid on my part,” he told an El Paso County Sheriff’s Office investigator, according to a sheriff’s case report. (Read the entire report by clicking on the link on the upper right of this page.)

A Telluride-area resident, he came to Serenity Springs to volunteer after a mountain lion he and his wife had helped raise at another facility was moved here.

On April 24, 2009, he followed an employee into an area off-limits to volunteers, where gates to the pens have 12-inch openings. McCain strayed too close to one opening, and a 400-pound Bengal tiger reached through, grabbed his arm and pulled him against the cage in a manner he described as “playful.” When he tried to pull his arm out, the tiger bit in.

Employees hit the tiger with a shovel until it let go, and McCain was treated for wounds to his wrist, forearm, bicep and tricep, according to the sheriff’s office report.

A month later, recovering at home, his arm still in a cast, he got a message from Sculac, which he later played for a sheriff’s office detective. According to an arrest affidavit, Sculac told him he had to pay a fine by Friday. McCain returned the call.

According to the affidavit, Sculac told McCain the U.S. Department of Agriculture had fined him $40,500. He had the money in escrow, but he would lose his house if he used that money, and the sanctuary would be shut down and the animals killed.

The next day McCain, pooling money from his business and friends and family, wired Sculac the money. When he called the USDA a few weeks later, he was told the investigation was under way, but a fine had not been imposed, the affidavit states.

He called the sheriff’s office. On June 22, a detective confirmed with the USDA that no fine had been issued. Sculac was interviewed July 16. He said while no fines had been issued, he expected the sanctuary would be fined, and that he told McCain $40,500 was “his share” in order to come back to Serenity Springs, according to the affidavit.

Asked how much of the money was left, Sculac said $15,000.; the rest was spent to improve and pay off the property.

Sculac was arrested Dec. 7, and is free on $10,000 bail. (Read the entire arrest affidavit by clicking on the link on the upper right of this page.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Serenity Springs a $7,000 citation July 14, 2009. Serenity Springs is contesting the fine.

The USDA has not issued a fine. An agency spokesman said the investigation into the mauling is ongoing.

McCain declined to be interviewed, citing the sentencing, where he plans to testify.

Past offenses

The Sculacs’ wildlife refuge started small, just a handful of animals on the Sculacs’ ranch. But as sanctuaries around the country closed, and the number of people adopting big cats they couldn’t handle increased, so did the number of cats.

Karen Sculac handled the financial and business side of the sanctuary, the Sculacs told The Gazette in 2002. That’s the year Nick Sculac was arrested on four counts of theft, accused of taking money for projects in his contracting business and not carrying out the work and also taking payment for medical supplies in another business and not delivering. A deputy requested bail to be set at $100,000.

“(Sculac) has shown proficiency in obtaining large sums of money by deception, (Sculac) made it clear to victim in one case that he has a .44-magnum that he carries and can use it,” the deputy wrote.

The charges were eventually dropped and Sculac paid restitution.

Karen Sculac died of a sudden illness in 2006, and Nick Sculac decided to keep the sanctuary going. But his financial and legal problems continued. He was sued in 2007 by a former attorney, who claimed he owed $5,794 in legal bills. In 2008, Memorial Hospital sued him for $2,700 over unpaid medical bills. In April, a motorcycle he bought for $14,000 was repossessed. The property has been in and out of foreclosure several times.

It is unclear how the theft case will affect the sanctuary, one of the largest in Colorado.

Sculac no longer owns the property, following a series of real estate transfers. The name was changed from Big Cats of Serenity Springs to Serenity Springs Wildlife Center, formed in 2008 by Julie Walker, who owns the home on Constitution Avenue that Sculac listed as his home address in court records.

The most recent tax return available, from 2007, lists Sculac as president, with three other family members on a six-person board of directors. He also continues to write in the sanctuary’s newsletter, and a former employee said Sculac is heavily involved in fund-raising for the center.

Not an accredited sanctuary

The center has a valid USDA permit, issued in August and good for one year. It has a zoological permit and an exhibitor's permit from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said agency spokesman Michael Seraphin.

Sculac is also scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday for the misdemeanor citation of keeping animal cubs off the sanctuary property, issued in December.

The sanctuary is not listed as an accredited facility by the American Sanctuary Association, said association director Vernon Weir, because the association disapproves of breeding, which apparently goes on at Serenity Springs. Serenity Springs' permits allows some breeding of animals.

“Legitimate animal sanctuaries are taking in these animals because there’s nowhere else for them to go,” Weir said. “It’s to keep them from being killed, but they’re not in favor of private ownership. Wild animals belong in the wild, not in peoples’ backyards.”

The association also questioned if Serenity Springs was financially stable, he said.

Despite Sculac’s legal and financial troubles, the sanctuary seems to be doing OK. It offers tours of the sanctuary for $10 a person, takes photos with cubs for $25, and receives food donations regularly. Its Facebook page has 897 people who like it.

“Due to our generous donors, our meat freezers are full,” says a voice message on the sanctuary’s phone line.

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