Big cat sanctuary co-founder guilty but avoids prison time

October 26, 2010
photo - Nick Sculac Photo by Carol Lawrence, The Gazette
Nick Sculac Photo by Carol Lawrence, The Gazette 

Nick Sculac, co-founder of the Calhan-area big cat sanctuary Serenity Springs Wildlife Center, was led out of court in handcuffs Tuesday after being sentenced for theft.

But his stay behind bars will be short. Under the terms of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to serve six years at community corrections, a halfway house. His attorney said Sculac could be allowed to live outside the facility within six to eight months.

Sculac, 60, pleaded guilty to bilking a volunteer at the center out of $40,500. The volunteer was mauled by a tiger, and Sculac falsely claimed the money was needed to pay fines related to the attack, according to  court documents.

“You’ve been a con artist,” 4th Judicial District Judge David Gilbert told Sculac, noting his two prior felony convictions. “You’ve been misusing people. You’ve been picking on people who are in a vulnerable state.”

The sanctuary is one of the largest in the state, and it exists largely on donations - $122,358 in 2007, according to tax records.

The judge said Sculac used peoples’ concern for the 138 big cats at the sanctuary to get money from people and line his own pockets.

“It’s criminal, but it’s just plain wrong. It’s immoral,” he said.

Gilbert also noted Sculac has done good work at the sanctuary, caring for animals that might not otherwise have a home. He said community corrections was appropriate, but added: “If you find yourself back in front of us again, you’ll be looking at spending potentially the rest of your life in prison."

Sculac was silent during the sentencing. His attorney, Mark Menscher, told the judge Sculac was worried about being fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and losing the sanctuary.

“He did tell (the volunteer) he had already been fined and he was wrong to do so,” Menscher said. “He was worried about getting closed down.”

The USDA is still investigating the April 2009 mauling and has not issued a fine. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the sanctuary $7,000.

The volunteer, Michael McCain, traveled from the Western Slope to testify Tuesday.

“We did not want anything to happen to the sanctuary, so I accepted all responsibility (for the mauling),” said McCain, who was in an area volunteers were not supposed to visit when a tiger grabbed his arm, pulled him against a cage and bit.

“(Sculac) had the chance to reel me in and he did because he knew how much we loved the animals,” McCain said.

McCain said he would have preferred Sculac spend time in prison, but he was still satisfied with the sentence.

Sculac was ordered to pay the money back.

The six-year sentence was the maximum under the plea agreement – he could have received two years – and Sculac’s supporters were upset.

“Nick Sculac works dusk to dawn caring for the animals and earning money on the side to care for the animals,” said his wife, Julie Walker, who runs the sanctuary with him.

She said the media attention around the theft case has not curtailed donations to the sanctuary, and it will stay in operation while Sculac is in community corrections.

“Things are going to go on as usual. We have many supporters who care about the animals and know the expert care they’re provided,” she said.

She said the employees who allowed McCain to enter the restricted area the day of the mauling have been fired.

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