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Oregon Coast Had Its Own 'Tiger King' in the '80s: Odd Newport History, Part 1

Published 04/25/2020 at 6:54 AM PDT - Updated July 2022
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast Had Its Own 'Tiger King' in the '80s: Odd Newport History, Part 1

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(Newport, Oregon) – Perhaps it was timing: the country was in quarantine in 2020. Perhaps it’s simply riveting on its own merit. Whatever the case, the Netflix documentary The Tiger King had the U.S. hypnotized for a time. Even the post-documentary interviews of the various characters involved on TV tabloids and Court TV were engaging. (Above: Fieber's Ligertown in Idaho, where things really went awry in the '90s Photo courtesy South Bannock Historical Center, Idaho).

Little do Oregon residents know but the Oregon coast had its own somewhat juicy version of the Tiger King. He actually had more lions than tigers, and in fact after leaving the state became more of a “Liger King:” he went on to breed the two together to create larger cats. However, in this state he cut a swath of high-profile animal chaos, then went on to create something much darker in Idaho. He initiated a situation some call the “Waco of animal incidents.”

This is only part one of the story. See Part Two of Oregon Coast's 'Liger King': Tragic Run Ends to the East 

Robert Fieber arrived in the Oregon Coast Range in 1968, acquiring a tract of land just outside of Siletz, nar from Newport. According to the Corvallis Gazette-Times, he acquired a buffalo in 1971 and kept adding big beasts thereafter. His first big cats came in 1976, including lions, a tiger and a jaguar.

Two years later, one lion zipped out of its cage and bounded up the stairway of his family’s home, deciding it wanted to “play” with Fieber’s son. It bit part of the boy’s ear off, and a subsequent court hearing showed him taking full responsibility and promising it never to happen again.

Yet it did. Later in '78, the place was called the Oregon Coast Safari and operated to a paying public under the radar. A wild bear wandering nearby spooked a buffalo just outside the “safari” and it broke open a cage holding five lions. Two of the lions wound up roaming the town of Siletz and were captured by local sheriffs. It created quite a stir.

Longtime locals sometimes talk of other encounters with escaped wild cats in the countryside near Newport, but little is documented for certain. Social media posts show some having seen wild cats along the roadside, wandering free. One article from the Statesman Journal in the late '70s indicates local government had begun legislation banning or heavily regulating the keeping of exotic animals in Lincoln County because of this place. It’s not clear if any new laws were instituted at that time, but the county did eventually change them to keep such operations at bay.

Somewhere in the late '70s he began showcasing the wild cats periodically, getting paid to have them be part of a fashion show in Seattle and even having Lincoln City visitors pay to have pictures taken with them

By the early ‘80s, Fieber’s operation was called Siletz Game Ranch, and in that Corvallis newspaper article from '83 he talked about hoping to create a paid tourist attraction. Yet according to one Statesman Journal article in 1984, he had already done so: Oregon Coast Safari ran during the summers from '78 through '81. Fieber's habit of pulling the wool over people's eyes began to show. Other coverage from '83 details numerous safety structures he had to build to get approval of this so-called new attraction, such as a means to keep people’s hands out of the cages in order to make it suitable for visitors.

Fieber in the '80s, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

In September of ‘84, however, his ranch was raided by 20 cops and other officials such as members of the Humane Society, and he was slapped with numerous counts of animal neglect. They seized several animals, including seven lion cubs and one tiger, sending them to a refuge near Grants Pass. He told the Statesman Journal he did nothing wrong and that some of his cats were traumatized by the seizure. Lincoln County fined him a mere $115 but kept a few animals and made him pay about $2000 in care costs for all the animals. He was given five years probation.

At this point, Fieber considered moving out of state, and his operation now included over 75 animals, including about 30 exotic creatures like tigers, wolves, cougars and African lions. In December of 1984 he pleaded no contest to charges of animal cruelty and numerous conditions and restrictions were put on him.

A few animals were permanently removed by the county, based on testimony that he’d abused them, including a raccoon and a jaguar. Other cats returned to the coast from Grants Pass.

Yet he opted to stay. Still, somehow he was able to restart the reserve as a drive-through attraction in July of 1985. Major news coverage of his run-ins caused a flood of donations, including lots of dead animals to feed his zoo. According to other articles at the time, he had – at least on the surface – created a safer environment and one reporter noted some of the big cats were getting fat. Among the previous charges were that he was not feeding them properly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a veterinarian working for them named Overton were set about the task of keeping an eye on Fieber’s compound as part of the probation. The drive-through attraction opened on July 1, but by July 29 Overton’s inspection revealed the Oregon coast’s lion / tiger king had no license for this kind of operation. A restraining order was issued on Fieber, and all this in turn was a probation violation.

Thus began some crazy legal woes. (Above: the forests of the Siletz area / Google Maps)

In November of ‘85, a judge from a higher court in Lane County officially declared him in violation of probation, but at first they went rather easy on him. They tried to give him more time to fix his situation. Still, he complained of getting “rail-roaded” and that the judge was trying to order the destruction of the big animals. However her statements indicate that was truly not the case. Testimony at a hearing in Newport showed both the county and Fieber admitting he didn’t have the resources to adequately care for the animals, and that he was trying to depend on volunteers.

See Part Two of Oregon Coast's 'Liger King': Tragic Run Ends Like Waco which describes more of Fieber's law encounters on the coast and the tragedy in Idaho.

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