Anacortes, WA – Predators of the Heart founder Dave Coleburn strolls into the dirt-floored enclosure and casually kisses the head of a muscular mountain lion that’s relaxing on top of a wooden perch. The enormous cat responds by head-butting gently against Coleburn’s face. In the background, there’s a chorus of wolves howling and the high-pitched squealing of an arctic fox.
It’s a typical day in the life for Coleburn, who has run the 10-acre animal sanctuary on Fidalgo Island for the past 19 years. Recently, a weight has been lifted off Coleburn’s shoulders—he believes that at last, the legal battle over the right to operate his sanctuary has come to an end.
“We’re hoping now, with that lawsuit being done, that we can get on with life and get things back on track,” he said of the recently dismissed case. “In the last two years, man, our finances have dropped and it’s been really, really tough to make it.”
The non-profit wildlife preserve is located just outside Anacortes city limits and serves as a home for many exotic animals, including bobcats, wolves, porcupines, and many types of reptiles and birds of prey. This is where they stay when they’re not traveling with Coleburn for shows and tours. His animals are rescued from various situations, sometimes from irresponsible owners or from other sanctuaries that couldn’t keep them. He’s bought others from different places around the country.
Coleburn says he doesn’t hold any animosity against anyone for the shelter’s problems, even the people who led the rallying cry against him. Their website is still up, he notes, and “full of lies”. But Coleburn said he’s finally made peace with his neighbors, some of whom were the most outspoken against his business and worked to get ordinances passed regulating “potentially dangerous wild animals,”—specifically calling out Predators of the Heart. Some people complained of noise, others worried about escaped animals.
Coleburn feels the local media portrayed him and his sanctuary unfairly after Skagit County filed a lawsuit against him in 2015 and the case caught the public’s eye.
“Right now, I just have to concentrate on getting the animals in a really good environment and get back up and running,” he said.
Coleburn’s sanctuary is licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
An evolving business
When Coleburn first started Predators of the Heart, the company had a much different message: his group used animals to issue a vivid warning to school-age children.
“We would do drug and alcohol assemblies,” Coleburn said. “The whole ‘catch’ was to show the kids how the predators stalk and kill their prey and then talk about the predators stalking the kids—drugs, alcohol, suicide, murder—and it worked really good.”
But using the predators in that manner didn’t sit quite right with him.
“After doing this for the first five or six years, I felt like I was portraying them wrongly. They were just doing what they do in nature and doing it well. They’re not going to hurt you.”
Now, Predators of the Heart focuses on housing unwanted animals and educating the public, according to their website.
Students and former students educated in Skagit County might recognize Coleburn and his animals: his tours throughout the state have taken him to local schools to impress kids who may have never seen exotic species before. He says teachers can never know if they have the next Jeff Corwin or Steve Irwin sitting in their classrooms—someone who will fall in love with animals and grow up to champion the cause.
“The academic kids might turn on with math. Some kids turn on with other things like animals,” he said. “And when that light turns on, it’s amazing.”
In his personal experience, he’s seen the way animals help people connect with the world. An assistant of his has Asperger’s syndrome and some people might not expect him to participate in public shows throughout the country, Coleburn said.
“And the kid hit home runs everywhere—perfect speeches. People love him. He’s one of the best guys in the state,” Coleburn said. “He can identify four thousand species of reptiles. He can tell you the common name, Latin name and he can spell them all correctly.”
Coleburn is very proud of his animals, especially his wolves. Over the years, he’s learned how to care for and handle tons of different species, and he says his fellow animal-enthusiast friends have helped him learn a lot about animal behavior, talking with them weekly. He also keeps tabs on similar animal rescues through the nation, many of whom are going though struggles not unlike his own.
“There’s not very many of us left,” he said. “But I’m friends with the best of the best.”
One way his company makes money is to allow music artists and photographers to film the animals. His favorite music video was done by Cody Beebe & The Crooks, in “Sweep” where his friendly 130-pound wolf, Max, makes an appearance.
From dawn to dusk daily, keeping his rescue running is a true labor of love. As Coleburn moves throughout his sanctuary, his animals enthusiastically greet him and the food he brings, except for one shy marsupial who nips at him rather than emerge from its dark habitat. An owl twists and turns its head at its unexpected visitors, and the alligators slosh in their water when he approaches. As a demonstration, Coleburn even “starts a howl” among his 20-or-so wolves, who quickly pick up his howl and echo it with their own for several minutes.
Coleburn’s next step and top priority is to expand his sanctuary to provide more space for his animals. He estimates they’ll have to raise $35,000 to $50,000 to do the projects he wants to do.
How to connect
“If anybody wants to donate some money, we could use that,” Coleburn said, laughing. His company runs on ten percent donations and the rest is earned, he said.
“We run on a 100 thousand a year, and other places work on a million a year,” he said. “We’re here for the community.”
“I have the best job in the world—getting to share my passion, and to work with kids and animals,” Coleburn said. “I love helping kids connect with nature and realize how important it is.”
To find out what public events are available, follow the Predators of the Heart Facebook page, or visit their website linked here. In the past, he’s hosted “Wolf Encounters,”chances for people to interact with them and pet their coarse fur. The canines—especially Max—get up close and personal with people who visit. See the video below, for example.
Cascade Hiker Podcast
Coleburn also discussed his sanctuary with Rudy Giecek for the Cascade Hiker Podcast. They talked about large predators that might be encountered while hiking trails and how to act when facing one. You can listen to the interview published Feb. 20, linked here, and their discussion of the powerful animals, myths and safety tips.