LAVA HOT SPRINGS — On April 1, 1995, the residents of Lava Hot Springs were told to keep their kids and pets inside because a lion had escaped from a nearby compound, known as Ligertown, according to Cathy Sher, the director of the South Bannock County Historical Center. Fortunately, this was just an April Fools joke.
A few months later, the town was completely shut down as law enforcement spent days killing and capturing lions, tigers and hybrid ligers that escaped from Ligertown, located just 2 miles outside of town. This time it wasn’t a joke.
In the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 20, 1995, law enforcement received a call that a rancher had shot and killed a lion on his property. When they arrived, they found that the owner of Ligertown, Bob Fieber, was also injured after trying to stop an escaping male lion.
“For about three or four days, it was quite an event,” said Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen, who was the chief deputy at the time of the event and was the second officer on the scene.
Schools were shut down and the fewer than 500 residents of Lava Hot Springs were told to keep themselves and their pets inside as sheriff’s deputies, SWAT team members and SWAT team members proceeded to track and kill the 15 lions and tigers that escaped the compound Wednesday night.
“Fish and Game had tranquilizer guns, but those were meant for cougars, not lions,” said Nielsen. “Nobody got hurt, but it was a shame the cats had to be killed.”
Ligertown was owned by Fieber and his partner, Dottie Martin. The couple came to town with a few lions and tigers in their truck and set up their home near Fish Creek, just outside of town, according to Sher.
She said there was a small movement to make Ligertown a tourist attraction when the couple first arrived, but as the compound grew and began to look more and more run down, it became more of a concern in the community.
“There were heaps of roadkill out in front,” said Sher. “They used palettes and salvage really for the cages, and you would look at those big cats and think, ‘How are they staying in there?’”
The conditions the animals lived in were so awful that the entire property was eventually condemned and burned to the ground. Today there’s no sign that anyone ever lived on the property, let alone more than 40 big cats.
“The conditions these animals were living in was deplorable to say the least,” said Nielsen. “That was part of our decision to burn the facility down. We were concerned about spreading diseases.”
In the end, law enforcement shot and killed 15 lions, and two Lava Hot Spring residents killed a lion each, 17 lions total. Wildlife Waystation came in to tranquilize and cage the rest of the 27 big cats, including three full-grown ligers and five lion cubs. Those animals were sent to a shelter in southern California.
Feiber and Martin, who previously ran similar compounds in Newport, Oregon, and Clearwater, Idaho, where they also had run ins with law enforcement, served no jail time for this incident after appealing their case in court.
However, while there may be no trace of the compound, Ligertown has left a lasting impact on Idaho. The situation at Ligertown forced Idaho to put new laws in place regarding exotic animals and animal cruelty. Culturally, Southeast Idaho will forever remember the liger thanks to the “Napoleon Dynamite” movie and TV show.
“It kind of put us on the map,” said Sher. “Ironically, not for our hot springs or beautiful scenery.”