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Part Two of Oregon Coast's 'Liger King': Tragic Run Ends Like 'Waco'

Published 04/26/2020 at 5:54 PM PDT - Updated 04/26/2020 at 5:59 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Part Two of Oregon Coast's 'Liger King': Tragic Run Ends East

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(Newport, Oregon) – One of the nation’s most notorious and disturbing animal incidents was the climax of something that had begun two decades before on the Oregon coast. In the ‘80s, however, Robert Fieber was well known among many Oregonians, frequently making the news for his legal missteps and some amount of hucksterism with a “wildlife safari” complex in the coast range near Siletz. (Photo above courtesy South Bannock County Historical Museum. This was the aftermath at Bieber's facility in Idaho).

This is part two in Fieber's twisting, winding story, someone whom you could call a kind of “liger king,” in light of the popularity of the Netflix mini series Tiger King. In the late ‘80s he disappeared to Idaho, where he started breeding tiger / lion mixes, though it doesn’t appear he did that in this state. Part one of the story looks at several close calls he had with escaping big cats, including one cat that attacked a family member and bit part of his ear off, all starting in the ‘70s.

By the early ‘80s his wildlife attraction had had several run-ins with the law, which began to pick up heat when he illegally opened the complex to the public for a month in 1985. Read Oregon Coast Had Its Own 'Tiger King' in the '80s: Odd Newport History, Part 1 - part two picks up here.

Thus began a series of legal woes.

In November of ‘85, a Lane County judge officially declared him in violation of probation (based on previous charges of animal cruelty and neglect), but at first they went rather easy on him. They tried to get 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 she was clearly trying to save them. Testimony at that hearing in Newport showed Fieber admitting he didn’t have the resources to adequately care for the animals, and that he was trying to depend on volunteers.

Somewhere about this time he’d aligned himself with friend Dottie Martin, who would later play a bigger role in the tragic ending in Idaho.

Further red flags were getting raised by the state-assigned inspector saying that Fieber’s pens and fencing were inadequate, and that the “cats posed a hazard.”

In early 1986, Fieber was accused of violating more points of his probation, one of which was that he not remove any big cats to another location. It was discovered that he had housed 13 lions and one tiger at a spot in Wasco County, telling the property owners he was going to lease land from them and move up there to be with the big cats. They had not heard of his previous legal issues, and the Wasco land owner was cited for having these wild animals.

He had duped them. This kind of maneuver would surface again in Fieber’s life.

Officials found out about this move after he was pulled over twice by police for equipment violations, both times with two wild cats in his truck. At one point, Judge Bernie Smith of Lincoln County ordered Fieber to appear again in court over the Wasco County matter.

In March of ‘86 he was ordered to sell all the animals and shut down. At that hearing, the judge noted the animals were in better condition but security posed a serious risk. The judge also said she’d ordered him to sell the animals to make sure he didn’t simply move this slipshod operation elsewhere – which, of course, he did.

Fieber’s lawyer told the media and the court the Siletz property was being foreclosed on and the entire matter would be over soon.

Another hearing involving Fieber was ordered in the summer of '86 after he missed the deadline to get rid of the animals, but by July they issued a warrant for his arrest for skipping out on the hearing. At the time he was also in contempt of court for failure to pay child support, hearings that he also dodged. It’s right about this time when he hightailed it to Idaho. He left behind some 16 lions and three tigers, along with wolves and bison. There were some reports filtering in he’d taken 18 lions to the east, though at the time no one was sure where he was.

In August, it was confirmed Fieber was in Idaho Falls, and an animal dealer there expressed concerns they were not being fed properly. There were also serious worries the animals would freeze to death when winter came to Idaho.

Now, he was wanted by authorities in Portland and Lincoln County.

As the Siletz property was being foreclosed on and the animals carted off to a refuge in Bend, a vet from Barnum and Baily /Ringling Brothers Circus showed up at the Bend facility to consider some cats for the act. Through the Bend facility, animal dealer Dave Hanson assured the world the remaining animals would get a good home elsewhere.

Left behind were dozens of elk and some bison, which were able to feed on the grass of the Oregon Coast Range. A year later, in 1987, one animal expert went to check on that herd and was shot at by someone still associated with Fieber’s property. At that point, Fieber’s Newport lawyer disconnected himself from the case after having been by his side through the ‘80s.

Feiber was by this time firmly settled in Idaho, and apparently at one point he opened up a similar operation in Clearwater. By 1990 he and Dottie Martin started up a wildlife refuge called Ligertown in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, where his interbreeding of lions and tigers started. There began a series of financial issues: the pair never fully paid the owners of the property in an attempt to purchase the land he was on. He and Martin somehow managed to stay on the property – essentially squatters with large, dangerous cats - and the couple that had been selling it wound up losing it to the bank over the sketchy sale.

Ligertown is well documented, with witnesses all describing a ramshackle set up with cages “made of pallets and other garbage” - all rickety means of housing and securing wild animals. Locals said they knew something bad was going to happen.

On September 20, 1995 is when the liger droppings really hit the fan. That night, police were called to the area after a local rancher shot a lion on his property, clearly an escapee from Fieber’s land. From there, authorities discovered some 15 animals had escaped and they spent four days hunting them down. The entire town of Lava Hot Springs was told to keep their kids and pets inside, and even schools were closed. SWAT teams descended on the area to join in the hunt, with a total of 17 cats being killed between locals and law enforcement. This bloodbath is sometimes referred to as the “Waco of animal incidents.”

Another 25 animals were still in the compound, most of which wound up in an animal refuge in California. Conditions at his facility were filthy and disturbing on many levels, part of which involved heaps of roadkill lying around - primarily how Fieber fed them. Concerned about disease, authorities burned down the compound and according to documentation and retrospectives there’s actually no sign of it now.

In the end, Fieber and Martin faced heaps of charges for animal cruelty and other crimes, and they were convicted. However, much of that was overturned on an appeal. With other arrest warrants in Idaho, they left the state and never served time.

Somehow, Fieber and Martin managed to avoid many of the legal consequences for their actions or inactions. In spite of all the news coverage at the time, his stint on the Oregon coast left little mark, but in Idaho he’s a notorious figure. See Oregon Coast Had Its Own 'Tiger King' in the '80s: Odd Newport History, Part 1

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Fieber in the '80s, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

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