In 1995, exotic animals had local people and those in law enforcement in Bannock County scared to their core. You may remember lions, ligers and wolves escaped from what was then known as Ligertown. It brought national and international media attention to the resort town of Lava Hot Springs.
It was a night local law enforcement said they still share war stories about to this day. They said Ligertown shaped the history of Bannock County and eastern Idaho.
1995. Lt. Toni Vollmer was a detective for the Bannock County Sheriff’s Office. On the force just seven years, little did she know, a group of exotic animals would be a defining case for her career.
“It was just bizarre. Nobody would ever expect that living in Idaho you’d be dealing with African lions and ligers other than seeing them in a zoo,? said Vollmer.
The animals were part of what is now known as Ligertown. Bob Fieber and Dotti Martin had built a compound in Lava Hot Springs for African lions, wolf hybrids and ligers, which are a cross between a lion and a tiger.
“To have escaped from their confines and being loose in the community was just unimaginable,? said Vollmer.
The animals were kept in inhumane conditions. Their cages and pens looked like shacks and were put together with wood and chicken wire. Conditions were deemed unsafe for humans and investigators.
“It was a couple of weeks of living in animal feces up to your knees and the stench was ungodly,? said Vollmer.
“Their compound was just trash and chaos just looking at it,? said Captain Kevin G. Fonnesbeck, Bannock County Sheriff?s Office.
Fonnesbeck was a patrol sergeant when he got the call that a local rancher had shot and killed a lion and shot and wounded another.
Meanwhile, Fieber and Martin were taken to the local hospital for injuries sustained by the cats.
“It was getting dark and we weren’t going to go inside the compound itself but we were still concerned with this one loose lion that was wounded that was less than half a mile from the KOA campground and the hot pools,? said Fonnesbeck.
The hunt lasted through the night. Fieber and Martin didn’t know how many of their exotic pets were roaming the countryside. It was all hands on deck trying to secure the area.
“We look at the back side of the compound. There was, to me it looked like, 30 lions just out there on this rocky point,” said Fonnesbeck.
“Throughout the night more lions escaped and more lions had to be shot. Through the night about 18 or 19 lions were shot from 7 at night until 7 in the morning,? said Vollmer.
It was 12 hours of killing, capturing and transporting the felines. By the next morning, if a lion was spotted, it was shot immediately.
“There is nowhere in law enforcement training that has ever given us anything to do with African lions,? said Fonnesbeck.
Eventually law enforcement exhausted their resources and Martine Collette, who ran an animal rescue facility called the Wildlife Waystation in California, came to help. Fonnesbeck recalled one time he came face to face with one of the felines.
“A couple of them had me pinned. Literally the wires had collapsed on me. Their teeth and whiskers were touching my face and they are roaring at me and I was just scared stiff,? said Fonnesbeck.
When Ligertown was discovered, laws for exotic animals weren’t in place and animal cruelty laws weren’t as strict. In order to charge someone with cruelty to animals, officers had to show actual injuries on animals, not just how shady their environment was. Today that law is different.
“If the environment is filthy and appears to be life-threatening then they can be charged,? said Vollmer.
Vollmer documented one of her biggest cases by keeping hundreds of photos and media footage about a story she says not many in law enforcement can say they’ve ever covered.
“It was one of those things you never imagined happening and you’ll never forget,? said Vollmer.
Amazingly through shots fired in darkness and exotic animals versus humans, no one was seriously hurt.
“African lions in a resort community running loose, how do you describe it? Chaos, scared stiff but we survived,? said Fonnesbeck.
In the end, 19 lions were killed and 27 saved from Ligertown. The compound was burned and destroyed in 1996 and there are no signs today it ever existed.
The whole operation cost more than $1 million. As for Fieber and Martin, their initial 107 misdemeanor charges were later reduced to 12.
At last check, Fieber and Martin were in Oregon. They were denied appeals to try to regain custody of their animals. They never have paid their fines.