The hilly scrublands of the Cleveland National Forest, just east of San Diego, are home to the Lions, Tigers & Bears rescue sanctuary. Its 1 1/2-hour tour, by appointment only, is a well-spent $32 for adults and $17 for kids 12 and younger ( 979-3370, www.zerve.com/LionsTigers). Dedicated staff will share with you the heartbreaking realities of America's captive exotic "pets," as well as introduce you to some wild-at-heart friends and their survival stories. Come witness the inner beauty of the beasts. The tab: $100 for one night at the Viejas, $26 for meals and $20 for road-trip snacks.
Spending a peaceful day with sleepy lions is memorable enough, but lion, tiger and bear junkies can go a step further by spending the night in a safari-chic cabin (whiteoakwildnights.com) and waking to the surprisingly romantic roar of a male lion. If you're craving some other form of activity after the sun sets, the Viejas Casino & Resort (5000 Willow Road, Alpine;  847-6537, viejas.com) is about 10 minutes away. For just less than $100 a night with a
The four-footed eating machines at LTB will make you crave your own feast. After a Jacuzzi soak, I wanted an early supper, but that left me with few options for dining, or so I thought. I ended up at Viejas' $26 buffet, lured by the unlimited beer and wine that's included. I skipped the red meat under the heat lamps and detoured, instead, to the impressive shellfish display. My wild instincts told me to feast when I could, so I attacked the shellfish so vigorously that my fingers will probably smell like the ocean for days. If the buffet isn't your thing, there are bountiful other dining options at the resort.
Most of the animals at LTB are victims of wildlife trafficking, while others have stories that are more familiar to us. The sanctuary is home to Meatball, the chunky black bear that was rescued in Glendale after he made his way down the mountains time and again to sunbathe by swimming pools and stuff his face with Ikea meatballs. This favorite resident can be seen picking through his lunch while actually sitting at his picnic table inside his enclosure. Then there's Conrad the cougar, who lingered too long near an elementary school in Redlands. Their quirky stories may make you smile; if not, you might prefer that intense feeling that comes from making piercing eye contact with a tiger.
The lesson learned
While exploring the Lions, Tigers & Bears website (lionstigersandbears.org), I found its wish list of household and other items that visitors are asked to donate when they buy a ticket. The fun starts here, as your care-giving instincts will have you scrambling for goodies. I wish I had known about this list earlier so I could have gone to the meat market for the big cats or snagged $5 sacks of avocados, another of Meatball's favorite snacks, as I drove along the back roads of San Diego County.
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