Some things happen EVERY day, some things happen a few times a week, some things happen once a month and some things happen once a year. The problem with all of this structured order is that EVERY day there is some chaos introduced, so it is always a balancing act to take care of both the critically important, and the things that have to get done every day.
To Set the Stage
There are 80+ exotic cats on 67 acres and about 80-100 volunteers and staff to care for them. Some cats have more than one cage, or Cat-a-Tat, as we call them, so there are 110 cages and most are the size of a person’s home, up to half acre – 2.5 acres in size.
70 of our cats are already past 15 years old, which is very old for these cats. (In human terms, it’s like being over 100) Right now, 30 of our cats are over the age of 20, which is practically unheard of elsewhere. Because we are dealing with so many old age issues we have a LOT of cats who get medications twice a day, EVERY day. If you have ever tried to pill a cat, you can appreciate the lengths our Keepers have to go through to get a cat to take their meds.
Our cats eat every day. Most zoos fast several days a week, but our cats are old and no one likes to go hungry, so 7 days a week the cats are fed by a cadre of volunteers. The food is taken from the freezers to the cooler a day or two in advance to thaw, and then each day special diets have to be made up for a huge number of our cats, because of medical issues they have, and all of the cats are fed. We feed whole prey rats and rabbits two days a week, which arrive frozen, and the rest of the week it is a combination of a ground beef diet, that has their vitamins and minerals pre mixed in, and chicken and beef chunks.
This is the happiest time of the day for the cats. A couple hours before feeding they all start pacing around and calling out to the Keepers when they hear the wagons hauling the buckets, full of food, coming down the path. Keepers shut the most dangerous cats out of the feeding lockouts before feeding time, so they can safely drop the food in on the platters. Then the cats are let in to feast!
All the buckets and utensils have to be washed, floors in food prep mopped and food set out for the next day to thaw.
Another thing that gets done every single day is the Cat-a-Tats all get cleaned. That’s like cleaning 110 homes a day where the inhabitants poop all over the place and try to hide it.
Each Cat-a-Tat has one to three bowls for water and a platter for food. Every single day the water is dumped out, the bowls are scrubbed and refilled, and the platters are sanitized and washed down.
If the cats dragged their food into the cage, the Keepers have to spot it and pull it out using long, L shaped scraper rakes to get the stuff to the side and tongs to pull it out through the side of the cage.
This is probably why no one comes to our barbecues.
A lot of things are going on while the cats are being fed and cleaned as well. All Keepers are looking for changes in the cats’ condition, behavior, food left behind and what the cats’ scat looks like. They are looking for cage and grounds maintenance issues as well. As soon as they finish feeding and cleaning they log into the computers and record their observations. Those observations immediately generate emails to the vet group for animal health issues, and to the maintenance people for the cage and grounds work. The Operations Manger, the CEO and the President are copied on all of these observations in real time so we all know what is happening.
Any of our volunteers or staff can subscribe to these alerts if they want to be informed and they all have access to our BigCat.me Intranet site where these issues are reported. The Operations Manager then has to check off the Observation, once she has taken a look at the issue, so that everyone knows that someone in charge has double checked the situation. All of the health related issues become a permanent part of each cat’s record.
We are closed to the public on Thursdays, but every other day of the week we have guided tours. All tours are led by a tour guide, with a back up to keep everyone together. They are done in groups of 22 or less, so everyone can hear as the guide shares the stories of the cats and what people can do to protect them in the wild and from captivity.
We have a tour every week day at 3 PM (except Thursdays) We also often will have busloads of children from schools, scouts, summer camps, etc. and busloads of cruise ship guests. We offer private tours throughout the day, as we have volunteers available to give them, so there are often small groups of people learning about the cats and their issues.
We have the large guided tours three times each weekend day, as we have many more of our volunteers available on week ends than on week days.
We also have Feeding Tours, where guests watch the Keepers feed and learn about what cats eat in the wild and at Big Cat Rescue. We have Keeper Tours where guests learn how to make enrichment for the cats and then go with the Keepers to see it handed out. Once a month we offer a Night Tour. Sometimes we have really special, special tours; like this week a Keeper from Spain, where we are helping a sanctuary build a facility for rescued circus cats, is coming for a week, so she will be shadowing our people in every aspect of what we do. Many of our private tours are for VIPs, large donors, other rescue groups, and those who pay extra for them.
Training the Volunteers
All of our animal care is done by volunteers. We can do that because of the intense training our volunteers get. Every day volunteers are taking classes, from other volunteers, and are getting their certifications. A certification is a sign off they get from a coordinator (the person in charge that day) saying they are proficient at the task. There are always at least 3 sign offs needed for each certification to be complete. So the way training works is:
1. The volunteer takes the class by watching a video or being read to by another volunteer.
2. They take and pass a test.
3. They go out and watch someone do it right 3 times.
4. They go out and do it, while being watched by a coordinator 3 times, to be sure they got it right.
5. They are certified as competent for the task.
6. Later in their career they can apply to be a teacher or coordinator to help train and lead others.
There are 30 or more of these classes they have to progress through, in a particular order for them to be able to proceed up the ranks of Red, to Yellow, to Green to Navy Blue. We use shirt colors to show a person’s level of expertise and time spent with us. Red is first 6 months and requires 4 hours a week, Yellow is next year and a half and requires 6 hours a week, Green is after 2 years and requires 8 hours a week. Keepers have to be Green to feed or clean the lions, tigers, or leopards. Navy is after 4 years and requires 16 hours a week of volunteerism.
Our interns train 6 days a week, daylight to dark, so they fast track through these levels. They live onsite and come from all around the world because this kind of training isn’t available any where else.
Training the Cats
Every day the Keepers do Operant Conditioning with the cats. This is training the cats to do things we need for administering their vet care, by using positive rewards (meat on a stick) to get them to do things like, show us their paws, open their mouths, let us give shots or draw blood from their tails. We never with hold food and never punish a cat in any way, so it is fun for them.
Cats are so smart that keeping them entertained is one of our toughest jobs. Operant Conditioning is a great way to alleviate their boredom. In addition to training the cats, the Keepers are constantly being trained and certified.
Enrichment is made on Wednesday nights by a dedicated group of volunteers who come to the sanctuary after work. In order to have enough enrichment to hand out every day, it takes them hours to stock the freezers with blood cicles and tuna pops. The volunteers make daily enrichment items that are small, easy to hand out and enough of them for 100 cats to get something new every day.
These creatives also manufacture, from all safe materials, some pretty spectacular mock ups of rhinos, giraffes, mice, Pinatas, Valentine’s day items, etc. Some just for the fun of it and others for filming for our holiday themed videos or for special occasions. Watching the cats tear these toys apart is a lot of fun because the cats show such gusto for it.
The cats get other seasonal enrichment items such as pumpkins for Halloween, turkeys for Thanksgiving, Christmas trees, and watermelons in the summer.
The Stores Support the Cats
The Gift Shop is open every day but Thursday, so there is always a lot going on in there. Our online and gift shop sales generate a lot of money for the cats so Partners (our non Keeper volunteers) are always busy fulfilling orders and shipping them, answering phone calls that range from: “Where are you located?” To “I have a lion I want to get rid of.” Got two of those calls last week.
Whenever you’re talking retail, you have a lot of decisions to make as to what will sell, labeling, organizing the shelves and the storage areas, seasonal decorations, and the dreaded annual inventory, which is an event of epic proportions, including a buffet to help everyone get through it.
Partners are trained to be nice to guests, to be able to answer questions or find someone who can, to keep the Gift Shop looking spiffy, to manage the huge groups of people (sometimes a few hundred at a time) who are all piling into our store before their tour. Our store is about 1000 square feet, so it’s crowded in there, but we don’t have room to expand it any further. We play our videos, via our Roku channel on a T.V. in the store and one in the back yard waiting area, so guests can get a preview of what we do while they are waiting. We are very strict about how people are to behave around the cats so we have a video they watch on our rules right before the tours.
We have had to raise our tour prices every few years because we have become too popular and can’t handle the crowds and still maintain the tranquility of a sanctuary. We use a ticketing agency called Zerve to handle our tickets and scheduling, which has increased revenues considerably and it tells us an hour in advance how many people are coming. We still have to scramble to find tour guides and back ups, and there is a considerable amount of cross scheduling, to make sure nothing falls through the cracks, when you are dealing with about 30,000 guests each year.
Our tours have 3 different ways of being done. Very small tours will be a guide just talking with the guests as they walk around the property spotting cats. Large tours usually have the guide wearing a transmitter and the guests each wearing a receiver with a headset, so they can hear. What they hear will either be the guide talking or we have an iPhone / Android app called Big Cat Rescue, where guides can play the stories of the cats. We prefer this method as it insures the guest gets an accurate message. Memorizing 100 cat stories has proven difficult for the best of tour guides.
At the end of the tour, people are asked to contact their lawmakers to ask for laws that ban the private possession of big cats, and to end the cub handling that causes all of the surplus big cats to be bred, used and discarded. They are greeted by one of our Legislative Interns who helps them place the call or write the letter on the spot.
People tell us all the time how surprised they were to get a thank you from us. We make it a habit to send a written thank you note to every donation over $25. When you consider our income is close to two million dollars a year, that’s a LOT of thank you notes.
It seems like there are a steady parade of trucks delivering piles of mail (that has to be sorted out to the right staff), supplies, water, soft drinks and the MEAT TRUCK. When the meat truck arrives it is all hands on deck to quickly transfer thousands and thousands of pounds of cat food into the freezers. We can store about 20,000 pounds of meat in our two freezers and the cats consume about 500 pounds a day.
Big Cat Rescue keeps all of its fundraising and admin costs under 20% (35% is considered the industry goal) by only paying staff to manage people and having all animal care done by volunteers. Because of the way we manage the sanctuary and our finances we have one of the highest charity ratings given at Charity Navigator. Even though we are closed to the public on Thursdays, we still have to manage volunteers 7 days a week.
That includes making sure they know they are appreciated by sending the birthday cards, anniversary (of joining Big Cat Rescue) cards, get well cards, condolence cards and showing our appreciation through recognition on our Intranet site. It means making sure they have clean conditions to work in and an environment where we all adhere to a Code of Conduct that encourages respect.
Taking care of our staff and volunteers means making sure their equipment and software is working, up to date, virus free and a lot of trouble shooting with computers, routers, Vox boxes, Internet connections, the registers, Roku, a stack of iPads and iPhones, that are used for tours and caring for the cats.
Intern Housing Tiger Tail Lodge at Big Cat Rescue
Every day there are intern issues to deal with from screening and interviewing new ones, arranging their flights, visas, airport pickup and trips out for groceries, if they don’t have cars, to training them, to doing house inspections to make sure they are caring for their foster kittens properly and keeping the houses clean.
Interns move on site for 3 months at a time and for many of them it is the first time they have ever been away from home. We give a crash course in how to get along with others (up to four others in their house) and how to take care of themselves, domestic kittens and, of course, all of our big cats.
All volunteers and interns clock in and out on a Volgistics time clock. We have to monitor that everyone is putting in sufficient hours for their color level and we reward those who are over achievers. Every class and certification has to be documented in every volunteer’s file, and when they seek a promotion, all of their coordinators have to be consulted to vote on the promotion.
If there are any conflicts the Volunteer Committee sits down with both parties to hash it out in an environment that ensures privacy and a resolution that works for everyone.
We are a NO TOUCH facility! Anyone caught touching an exotic cat is thrown off the property and never allowed back in. As you can imagine, our people LOVE cats and really, really, really want to touch them so we partnered with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Fostering is Cool to help save kittens and their moms from being killed in county run shelters.
We take the moms with kittens, or the orphaned kittens who are too young to adopt, and bottle raise them until they reach 2 pounds. They are then returned to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay to be altered and adopted. Many kittens come to us so young they have to be bottle fed every 4 hours around the clock. The interns keep the kittens in their houses at night, and bring them to the Kitten Cabana during the day, so they can continue their care.
When the kittens are weaned and get their shots, the other volunteers can play with them in the Kitten Cabana. It’s great therapy for our cat loving crew and the kittens are so loving and trusting, after all the handling, that they are adopted right away.
We are a news distribution service for anything exotic cat related. We have google alerts set for most species of wild cat and other terms such as zoos, sanctuary, etc. We curate the news daily via Spundge and then broadcast it out to the key word specific pages of our website and to our social sites. We also comment on the most pertinent stories, to educate reporters and readers about the truth of the matter and give links, documents and statistics to back it up. We are changing the conversation out there from, “Oh, how cute it is to pet a tiger cub!” to “Where is that cub’s mother and where will that cub go when it gets too big to pet next month?”
Disseminating our message; which is that big cats don’t belong in captivity, is done daily via our website which gets upwards of 2.5 million unique visitors a day, on our Facebook page that has more than one million fans and often has weeks where our reach has extended past 10 million people, our YouTube channel which has had more than 100 million views, and a plethora of other social sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Google Plus and others. We can’t just post our position and walk away. We have to engage in two way conversations with hundreds of thousands of people in order to help them understand the big picture when it comes to cats in cages.
Managing Real Estate
The founder donated many real estate parcels to the sanctuary over the years to create an income stream for the cats that was not tied to tourism or donations. This means there are daily issues of renting properties, evicting non paying squatters, marketing and selling homes, developing vacant lots and selling them, paying taxes, doing site inspections, dealing with county employees who drag their feet in permitting, trying to find new ways to keep tenants from stealing all of the appliances when they leave in the middle of the night, getting people to pay their mortgages, paying lawyers and grounds keeping on empty parcels.
So Far This Has Been the Daily Grind!
Three times a week we are performing K-Laser therapy on several of our cats in an experiment to cure hot spots, lameness and arthritis. So far the lameness in a bobcat, caused by a blood clot, has resolved, but we are still working on the others. We hold a blood ‘cicle or tuna pop on a stick through the side of the cage so the cat comes up close enough for the laser.
Some things only happen once a week, like going to the big box store and stocking up on snacks for the volunteers, cutting the grass, and big projects like painting a cage, or landscaping. Thursdays are usually set aside for doing big projects because we don’t have to break at 3 pm to do tours.
The vets are both volunteers and each of them comes out twice a week. They have a list, from the Observation Charts, and go out to check on cats and make recommendations for their care. They may decide to bring a cat into our onsite hospital, or to their clinic. Last year we had nearly 90 vet procedures which was up from only 20 the year before. As our cats continue to age, we expect those procedures to continue to escalate.
Laying out the medications for the cats is a weekly task for someone on our vet care team. They have to count out all of the pills, delete them from our inventory, put them in bags, labeled for the right cat and the right instructions, and these are kept under lock an key.
About once a week we will be asked to host some sort of corporate, church, school or other team building event where non volunteers come for a day and do something for the cats. Since we can’t let untrained people near the cats, these projects are usually grounds maintenance.
Once or twice a week we field calls from the press about some situation in the news. Today it was all about the Tiger Temple bust, and Tony the truckstop tiger being in Discovery Magazine. Yesterday is was a production crew pitching a story idea. Last week it was because of the release of a new book about saving tigers. These are excellent opportunities to reach far beyond our own fan base with our message. They suck up a lot of time, but it’s worth every minute.
Every week we are contacting and educating lawmakers, influencers and decision makers so they choose animal friendly options. This is done via email, phone calls, in person visits and hand written cards and letters.
About once a month, or every other month we are called on to rescue a cat. If it is a native bobcat that has been hit by a car or injured by a hunter then there is usually a death defying chase involved and it always seems to end up in a lake or river. There is then all of the emergency care for the bobcat and then weeks of rehab.
If the call is about a captive cat then we have to get the owner to contract with us to never own another exotic cat. We won’t let people dump adult cats on us just so they can try out a new baby. If they agree then we have to coordinate with their vet, or a vet in their area to issue a health certificate and we have to get an import permit from the Florida Wildlife Commission. In most cases we have to go get the cat and that could be anywhere in the U.S. The kind of people who have wild animals as pets are usually a crazy lot and dealing with them makes you want to pull your hair out.
They usually talk in manic circles as if they are on crack, they don’t return calls, they keep putting off the vet visit or the rescue, they give you false information, they don’t want you to tell anyone about what they did, they don’t show up the day you arrive to get their “pet” and they are just generally unreliable.
Sometimes it is a governmental seizure, so we can’t tell anyone where we are going or what we are doing until we have the cat safely in the vehicle and are heading back to Tampa. In most cases either the agencies, or the owner won’t allow any filming, so the most exciting work we do, is usually not something we can show. The shortened time for letting supporters know about the rescue is also a choke hold on donations.
The time leading up to and during a rescue is when people are most likely to donate. Once the cat is safely within our gates, most are off to the next exciting rescue and don’t think about the fact that we have just made a lifetime commitment to caring for the cat we just rescued. One tiger will cost us 10,000 a year for every year the cat lives with us. Last year a tiger was 25 when he died, so in a case like that, if he were rescued at the age of 10, he would typically cost us 150,000 over his lifetime.
The cats are de-wormed and de-flea’d once a month. It’s no easy task either because they don’t like the taste of the wormer and if you ever tried to put Advantage or Revolution on your own cat, you know they smell that coming a mile off and run under the bed. Same here, but their beds are big concrete cave dens. We have to get more clever all the time.
Golf carts need battery maintenance and washing. A/C filters have to be replaced. Sheds are reorganized. The vehicles may need oil changes, washing, tires checked, etc.
The Holleys are a couple of volunteers who come in a couple times a month to build platforms and “ADA” ramps for our old cats.
We send out a monthly newsletter called the AdvoCat to 82,000 people on our email list. Each e-zine typically has 10 or more stories including updating our supporters on cats rescued, cats who are ailing, cats who have died, holiday goodies for them from our BigCatFun.com site, exciting news in the cat world, progress on legislation to ban the private possession of big cats, and 3-5 of the most shocking examples of exotic cat exploitation and a call to action for people to speak up for the cats.
We try to get out a weekly podcast, called the Cat Chat Show, where cat experts are interviewed online, but that has dropped back to about once a month lately.
The Big Cat Times is a printed newsletter that we write, publish and distribute quarterly. We try to reach as many people as possible via email, but some of our audience still prefer the printed version. This has the top stories from the AdvoCat newsletters and breaking news, along with a couple of pages of mail order gifts that support the cats.
We host Volunteer Appreciation parties that can range from having a cat expert come and speak to the volunteers, to staff dunk tanks and lawn games at a pot luck lunch, to taking them out to see a big cat presentation at the theater, to costume parties, jewelry making parties, karaoke and anything else we can think of, to show these wonderful people who donate so much of their time, how much we love them.
About once a quarter we will have to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being in close proximity to those who abuse big cats for profit and see us as one of the primary threats to their activities. It may be a stake holder meeting by the state’s wildlife department, or a town hall meeting, or a congressional meeting, where we have to go to make sure the only people the decision makers hear from are not just the industry, that profits from using the big cats as pets and props and for their parts. The kind of people who breed tigers, rip the cubs away from their moms and then use them as pay to play money makers are a nasty bunch of people and will try to bully us out of the venue. This has resulted in being physically attacked, vehicles damaged and having insults hurled at us for speaking up for the animals.
The cats have to be vaccinated. Operant Conditioning helps a lot, but nobody likes getting stuck with a needle; much less with two. The cats get the same vaccines as your domestic cats (but a killed virus) and a rabies shot. We have 70 cats who are due for their boosters soon.
We became famous for a black tie event called The Fur Ball and won a number of awards for this gala that attracts up to 800 guests. It took a year of preparation though and we stopped doing the Fur Ball 4 years ago to focus more intently on legislation to end the trade in wild cats. Our supporters beg us, all the time, to do it again, so maybe next year. What made the Fur Ball such a hot ticket was that it was all about having fun whereas most fundraisers are all about patting yourself on the back and thanking sponsors.
We attend Taking Action for Animals and have been the largest sponsor of the event for the past two conferences. We often present at this event. We attend Animal Sheltering Expo and other cat related conferences and workshops that are annual events. We host an onsite event called the March for Lions, or something similar that will attract up to 500 guests. We donate to conservation projects every year around the world.
Annual events include our state and federal inspections. The breeders, dealers and animal exploiters make a career out of filing false complaints, so we have to deal with such inspections a lot more frequently than annual because the bad guys include OSHA, the EPC and many other government agencies on their speed dial list of ways to harass us.
These agencies have been forced to come out here on bogus complaints so many times that they are usually embarrassed to do so, and the complaints never amount to anything.
We have to renew licenses, permits, Combined Federal Campaign applications, solicitation permits in all of the states, and contracts for printing and distribution of our brochures.
Emergencies are pretty frequent, given the age of our cats and the number of things that can go wrong. Some of our cats are prone to seizures, and there isn’t much you can do for a big cat who is having a seizure, but it usually means someone stays with the cat and the vet is called if they don’t recover right away. To us it is an emergency if a cat doesn’t eat for two or three days in a row. Cats hide their illnesses well because in the wild, it is survival of the fittest.
If a cat stops eating then we either hand feed the cat so we know exactly what is going in and what is coming out, or we may have to move them inside the Cat Hospital to monitor that. That is especially true if the cat is weak, unresponsive to their environment, or it is cold or rainy. The vets will be alerted and the first one with an opening in their schedule will see the cat, either on site or at their own clinics. This all sounds pretty easy, but getting a sick cat into a transport cage is no easy matter.
It usually takes 4-6 people and we start the easy way and work our way up to the hard way as methods fail. We always try to get the cat to load themselves. This would be to shut the cat in half of their cage and put a transport in the other side of the cage, covered with a blanket to be a nice dark spot, at the guillotine door. We open the guillotine door and try to surround the side of the cage the cat is in, so they will want to walk away from us into the box. If that doesn’t work, we try to lure them into their feeding lockout, but that’s hard to do if they aren’t eating well to begin with. If we can lock them in that area, then we move the transport box up to that guillotine door and try to shoo the cat over.
If that doesn’t work and the cat is smaller than a cougar, we may have to suit up with boots, gloves and nets and go catch the cat. The cat is then shifted from the net to the transport box. If that isn’t an option, because the cat is a cougar or bigger, or because the cat is too aggressive and dangerous, then we have to resort to darting the cat. That is always a last ditch effort because sedation is very hard on the cats and if they are sick, doubly so. Any time a cat is sedated there are hours of sitting with them to make sure they wake up.
Thankfully, except for medical emergencies, most of the day to day emergencies are relatively minor, like a hose bib busts and there’s water spraying everywhere until we shut down the well pumps. Then there’s no water for cleaning cages, toilets, etc. while we scurry to replace the pipes and fixtures. A cat catches a possum and we have to rescue the “sleeping” critter. The front end loader breaks down and we put it back together with bailing wire and duct tape. A rabid raccoon starts threatening the cats and has to be caught and sent for testing. (that’s happened twice) A tree falls down, or is about to, and we have to become lumber jacks. The road washes out from heavy rains and we have to have tons of rock delivered and then have to spread it over the quarter mile road that leads to our front gate.
If we are known for anything, it is probably for being innovative in our approach. We are always looking for a better way to do our work. This includes major undertakings, such as building up an endowment to make sure we can always provide for the cats we have rescued. It includes automating our tours, our training, our observations and management of the cats, using ZIMS for our medical records, installing solar panels to provide clean energy and just yesterday we took Big Cat Rescue completely off the grid by partnering with Arcadia Power to ensure that ALL of our energy comes from wind, solar and other totally earth friendly sources. We use Melaleuca cleaning supplies because they are non toxic and do not test on animals. We built a Vacation Rotation area that is 2.5 acres so that all of our big cats get two 2 week vacations in the area each year.
It is easy to fall into a rut of responding to one crisis after another and never taking the time to think about the future. Instead we take a strategic approach to make sure the cats we have already rescued will have optimal care until they die of old age. This business like approach enables us to do the things necessary to provide that care. Our donors are kept abreast of everything we do and jump in to help.
Just recently a couple donated a much needed X-ray machine, which meant we had to build the new Windsong Memorial Hospital to house it. They helped with that and other donors, large and small, began chipping in to buy a surgery table, a dental wet table, autoclave, monitors and just about everything necessary to completely outfit the new hospital. We built the Windsong Memorial Hospital with a viewing theater that has a glass floor, so our volunteers can learn from the medical procedures without being in the room. We were able to take one generous donation of the machine and leverage it into creating a much needed facility that will mean no travel time for our cats to go to outside clinics and a much improved learning center for volunteers who are studying to be vets and vet techs.
We help other sanctuaries and rescue groups do the same by sharing our resources at workshops, conferences and one on one. We are always looking for a way to do things better and make the world a better place for cats… and people.
Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL is the world’s largest sanctuary in the world for abused, abandoned and orphaned wild cats (lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats etc.) accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries (GFAS).
The mission of the sanctuary is to provide the best home we can to the animals in our care and to end abuse of big cats in captivity and avoid extinction in the wild We do this by educating the world about the plight of these wild cats both in captivity, where the vast majority are kept in inhumane conditions, and in the wild, where they face extinction due largely to poaching, habitat loss and animal/human conflict.
The sanctuary houses 13 different species of wild cat, more than any other facility in the world. The sanctuary is held out by GFAS and generally viewed as the model not only for animal care but also for responsible, efficient financial and operational management and particularly for its extensive educational programs. The latter are devoted to building awareness of the plight of wild cats
A critical part of our education efforts is our training program. Trainees can come for up to a year. They live on property and are immersed in our philosophy, procedures and management techniques. The sanctuary has 14 paid staff who handle the administrative responsibilities and supervise the trainees.
The primary purpose of the training program is to train individuals on how animal care across this uniquely broad array of species should be done safely and in a way that provides a truly humane existence. There is extensive rigorous class training that the trainees must progress through during their stay. Then, as they become qualified, the trainees are given increasing levels of hands on experience.
The hands on training experience is absolutely critical to obtaining safe future employment as a keeper of these dangerous animals. Much like a commercial airline pilot should not be hired to fly a large jet based on classroom training; keepers should not be hired to care for these incredibly dangerous animals without extensive hands on training. The number of keeper deaths, lost limbs and other serious injuries is an unfortunate testimony to the lack of training. Big Cat Rescue provides a curriculum and intensity of experience that is not available anywhere else in the world. The level of hands on experience demonstrating the ability to apply the classroom learning safely and responsibly over a sufficient period of time is critical to the credential we provide to a trainee as a qualified keeper.
The training program is not solely for the benefit of the trainees and the future employment prospects. It is a critical part of our mission to impact many more animals than we can care for at our location. The trainees become in effect “missionaries” who take with them the philosophy and procedures we teach for humane care. They then question the substandard practices they find at other facilities and become catalysts for improved care at those facilities. This is a vivid contrast to people who are hired at a substandard facility and end up believing that what they experience there is acceptable.
Many of our requests to enter the training program originate overseas. There simply is no other training program like ours anywhere in the world, and particularly not outside the US. But there are facilities all around the world that house big cats who need care. Our training program provides these international trainees with a unique, world renowned credential that makes them highly qualified for jobs back in their home countries.
We have an Operations Manager who oversees all of the animal care and property maintenance. On most days we also have a Coordinator who assigns tasks, at other times the Operations Manager is the Coordinator. Their primary role is to supervise the trainees. Every day trainees are assigned to specific tasks that vary during the day and the Operations Manager and/or Coordinator supervise and check their progress and provide one on one or sometimes group guidance as needed. We also have a Training Manager whose responsibilities include taking applications, filtering for those of interest, interviewing (along with the Operations Manager who also interviews separately), tracking and making sure the trainees get their classes and range of hands on experience during their training period here, and being the primary contact person for any issues any individual trainees have. Our trainees do not replace any of our existing staff and they do not fill any of our existing positions. They are supervised / trained throughout their tenure at Big Cat Rescue.
Below is a list of the classes offered during the program. In many cases the classes are progressive, i.e. requiring completion of one or more other classes before one can be taken. In this way the learning evolves over time and we can gear the class structure to the length of the training.
The classes fall into a number of categories of training.
Animal care. The cat care training is primary. This includes:
– cage cleaning.
– feeding – this is a much far more involved process than the word indicates because there are complex charts showing the individualized nutrition requirements for each cat depending on species, age and medical needs.
– administering medication
– assisting with advance medical procedures like transporting cats on and off site for medical tests or procedures and assisting with and observing surgeries.
– constant observing for any medical issues. In the wild, cats who show infirmity become prey. So they are extremely good at hiding injuries and illness. The observation process requires knowledge of species specific behaviors and the ability to observe any changes in eating, stool, motion or habits.
Educating the public. Other classes involve learning to teach others, again a critical part of the sanctuary mission. Trainees learn how to give 90 minute tours that include the specific histories of the individual cats, information about each of the 13 species, and the challenges each species face in captivity and in the wild. These challenges vary widely by species. In captivity they range from tigers bred incessantly to be used for cub petting and then discarded to lion meat served as an exotic food. In the wild they range from tigers poached for their parts to panthers in Florida having their habitat increasingly diminished and their natural pattern of roaming disrupted creating small groups with insufficient genetic diversity to survive.
Sanctuary management. Running a successful sanctuary involves more than animal care. It involves understanding sanctuary finances and significant amounts of facility maintenance that needs to be done safely. Our CFO gives a class on financial management and the trainees receive training in some of the donor relations practices that have made us successful.
Hands On Training
KEEPER TRAINING FOR ONSITE TRAINEES
LEVEL 1 Training Program and Certifications:
Level 1 Keeper Trainee: A Level 1 onsite trainee may become a Keeper Trainee only after performing Partner Trainee program for an initial period of time to be determined by the Operations Manager. Keeper Trainees are considered a probationary level. A trainee serving at this level will train under the direct supervision of a ranking volunteer. Keeper Trainee program may include feeding and care of omnivores and live prey rats, sorting produce, cleaning small cat enclosures (Geoffrey Cats to Siberian Lynx), assisting animal feeders, guest sign in, serving as a tour back up for day tours and kid’s tours, gift shop assistant, data entry, housekeeping, landscaping, domestic cat care, daily chores, perimeter checks, and miscellaneous projects.
Level 1 Keeper Trainee Classes and Certifications (Timeline only a guideline, may vary):
Day 1: Orientation
Week 1: Tour Back Up, Gate Operation, and Guest Sign In, Human First Aid
Week 2: Animal Emergency, Animal Observation, Kids Tour Guide and Certification
Week 3: Tour Guide and Certification, Cleaning Small Cats, Red Level Quarantine Cleaning
Week 4: Events
After the completion of Week 4 and the successful completion of all of the Keeper Trainee Classes the Keeper Trainee will advance to Level 1 Keeper level. The trainee will be required to complete all certifications for Kids Tour Guide, Tour Guide, and Small Cat Cleaning prior to the end of the onsite trainee program.
Level 1 Keeper: Keeper training activity may include Beginner Trainee tasks, feeding small cats (Geoffrey Cats to Siberian Lynx), red level enrichment and red level 1 (click and treat with small cats) operant with small cats, leading projects, and training others. A minimum of one night tour must be observed during the Level 1 onsite trainee period and documented on the Night Tour Guide Certification sheet.
Level 1 Training Program and Certifications:
Week 5: Small Cat Feeding Class and Certification in one feeding section, Enrichment Class and Red Level Certification, Operant Training Class and Red Level 1 Certification
LEVEL 2 Training Program and Certifications:
Level 2 Keeper: The Level 2 onsite trainee program is reserved for returning trainees who showed exceptional skill and ability as a Level 1 onsite trainee. Acceptance into this program is contingent upon the unanimous agreement of our selection committee. Level 2 Keeper trainee program may include Level 1 refresher, cougar cleaning, yellow level enrichment, red level 2 (basic commands with small cats) operant, participate in feeding tours, leading animal husbandry tasks and projects, and ensuring maintenance of onsite trainee housing. A minimum of one night tour must be observed during the Level 2 onsite trainee period and documented on the Night Tour Guide Certification sheet.
Level 2 Keeper Classes and Certifications:
Cougar Cleaning, Yellow Level Quarantine Cleaning Certification, Small Cat Feeding Certification in a second feeding section, Feeding Tour Guide and Certification (speaking portion), Yellow Level Enrichment Certification, Red Level 2 Operant Certification
LEVEL 3 Training Program and Certifications:
Level 3 Senior Keeper: The Level 3 onsite trainee program is reserved for returning onsite trainees who showed outstanding skill and ability as a Level 2 trainee. Acceptance into this program is contingent upon the unanimous agreement of our selection committee. Level 3 Keeper trainee training may include Level 1 and Level 2 refresher tasks, big cat cleaning, green level enrichment, red level 3 (advanced commands with small cats) and yellow level 1 & 2 operant (click and treat and basic commands with cougars), and participate keeper tours. A minimum of one night tour must be observed during the Level 3 onsite trainee period and documented on the Night Tour Guide Certification sheet. Each household will be assigned one House Leader who is either a Level 3 or 4 trainee. The House Leader will be responsible for; giving new trainees the Kitten Nursing Class within their first week, overseeing all of the foster kitten care in their house, serving as the main contact with the Foster Kitten Program Manager, and communicating housing needs and issues with the Operations Manager.
Level 3 Senior Keeper Classes and Certifications:
Big Cat Cleaning, Green Level Quarantine Cleaning Certification, Small Cat Feeding Certification in a third feeding section, Green Level Enrichment Certification, Red Level 3 Operant Certification, Yellow Level 1 & 2 Operant Certification, Keeper Tour Guide and Certification (speaking portion)
LEVEL 4 Training Program and Certifications:
Level 4 Senior Keeper: The Level 4 onsite trainee program is reserved for returning onsite trainees who stood out as the best of the best and showed excellent skill and ability as a Level 3 trainee. Acceptance into this program is contingent upon the unanimous agreement of our selection committee. Level 4 Keeper trainee program may include Level 1, 2, and 3 refresher, big cat feeding, participate in night tours, green level 1 & 2 operant (click and treat and basic commands with big cats), and assisting with meds preparation and administration.
Level 4 Senior Keeper Classes and Certifications:
Big Cat Feeding and Certification, Green Level 1 & 2 Operant Certification, Night Tour Guide and Certification, Meds Administration
LEVEL 5 Training Program and Certifications:
Level 5 Senior Keeper: The Level 5 onsite trainee program is reserved for returning trainees who stood out as the best of the best and showed excellent skill and ability as a Level 4 onsite trainee. Acceptance into this program is contingent upon the unanimous agreement of our selection committee. Level 5 Keeper trainee curriculum may include Level 1, 2, 3, & 4 refresher training, administering medications (minimum of 4 times per month), coordinating keeper trainees and trainees (minimum 2 days per week), special project assignment, and hospitalized animal care. The duration of the Level 5 onsite trainee program is 52 weeks, which includes 14 vacation days. The training schedule for Level 5 onsite trainees is 5 days a week serving a minimum of 48 hours per week. A grant of up to $1,500 for airfare will be awarded to each trainee that is accepted as a Level 5 trainee to cover the cost of transportation to return for the onsite trainee program.
Level 5 Senior Keeper Classes and Certifications:
Meds Administration Certification, Coordinator Training and Certification, Hospitalized Animal Care Class
APPLICATIONS FOR GRADUATION TO NEXT LEVEL
A trainee may apply for advancement to the next level onsite trainee program or to be accepted into the onsite trainee program by submitting an application for graduation via email to the Committee. Applications can be found on the BigCat.me site. The trainee should apply for advancement prior to the end of the current onsite trainee program only after having completed all of the required classes of that onsite trainee program level. Certifications do not have to be completed prior to applying for graduation, but are required to be completed prior to the end of the current onsite trainee program.
The Committee will consult with the appropriate Coordinators and Operations Manager as well as fellow trainees to receive feedback on the applicants overall performance within the program. If the Coordinator or Operations Manager are not confident in the applicant’s current abilities the Committee will take this into advisement and may speak with and encourage the applicant to focus on sharpening these specific skills in question and then reapply for graduation after a designated period of time established by the Committee. The Coordinator and Operations Manager will also be advised to monitor the applicant’s improvements over the designated period of time after which the Committee, the Coordinator and Operations Manager will reevaluate the application for graduation.
If 3 months or less transpires between the end of the current onsite trainee Level and the beginning of the next onsite trainee Level, the trainee will move forward with the advanced training upon their return. Depending on circumstances it may be required for the trainee to spend a brief amount time refreshing themselves with the particulars of previous onsite trainee program before advancing.
No more than a maximum of 6 months may transpire between the end of the current onsite trainee Level and the beginning of the next onsite trainee Level. If 3-6 months transpires between Levels, the trainee will be required to; complete all of the training classes of the previous onsite trainee Level(s) and half of the required certifications for each class as well as spend the first 4 weeks of the onsite trainee Level performing the previous onsite trainee program(s) details. At week 5 the trainee will then be able to advance in their training.
Log in every morning between 8:30 and 9:30 am EDT to see lions and tigers being fed.
Log in to this page every day between 4PM and 8PM EDT to see Nikita Lion being fed.
If you see Nikita Lion pacing behind the gate at her feeding area, that means the door has been dropped so the Keepers can safely put the food in the lockout area for her. Then they open the gate to let her in. Nikita has another water bowl in the other side of her cage, so don’t worry if the door is down to this one right before feeding.
Read this article on a site that specializes in pet cat diets:
Nutrition is the process by which an organism takes in (ingests), digests and assimilates food. The types of food ingested and the manner in which they are taken in are as varied as the animals in the sanctuary. Nutrition is a science, while feeding sanctuary animals is an art. Feeding involves the animal’s behavior, the kind of food, when, where, how and why it is fed; the preparation and presentation of the food; feeding records and the sanctuary Commissary.
THE KEEPER’S ROLE
The Keeper is the interface between the animal and all the other staff in the sanctuary. This role is especially important where feeding is concerned because only the Keeper knows how well an animal is eating, whether or not the animal finds the food acceptable, and its general condition resulting from what, when and how it is fed.
No matter how good the diet is, it must be properly presented to the animal, at the optimum time, and under conditions that allow the animal to eat adequate amounts. The Keeper’s role is extremely important in the preparation and presentation of food and cannot be stressed enough. A knowledge of the kind of animal, its behavior and nutritional requirements are all necessary to provide a properly presented diet. Check diet sheets regularly to familiarize yourself with any changes and to ensure the diet as offered matches the diet sheet.
For most animals food is presented on a daily basis. Feeding times vary with different species, and with animal management techniques; for example most of our larger carnivores are fed in the evening or late afternoon to reduce the attraction of flies and ants.
Sanitation is very important, especially where the food offered is moist or starts to decompose rapidly (e.g. fish, meat or fruit). Dry foods such as hay and browse offer less of a problem but must be kept clean and uncontaminated. Food bowls, trays, feeding platforms and areas must be kept clean and (usually) dry.
Every organism needs nutrients for its maintenance as well as for growth or production. Maintenance is defined as the condition in which an animal is neither gaining nor losing body energy (or other nutrients). A maintenance diet is one that keeps the organism alive and healthy but does not provide for additional energy uses; these may take several forms – exercise, building additional organic substances (growth), production of a fetus or milk, and increases in reserves such as fat. Maintenance requirements are for maintaining body temperature, physiological functions (such as respiration and digestion) and repairing and replacing tissue, without the animal gaining or losing body weight.
Volume 6 of the International sanctuary Yearbook lists several criteria of importance in the feeding of sanctuary animals.
The employment of the teeth and digestive organs in such a way as to keep them healthy. Supplying the necessary nutrients which each animal requires. Providing occupation and contentment with respect to the feeding process. Allowing for seasonal changes in needs (sexual activity, external environment etc). Avoiding psychological stress, which is linked with nutrition. (R.Fiennes, Feeding Animals In Captivity) The cost of various foods must also be considered in the sanctuary. In feeding sanctuary animals we try to ensure that each animal ingests sufficient food to maintain its physical, physiological and psychological well being. Several points should be considered. The nature of the diet being offered – is it a natural or man-made diet? Does it require supplementing or is it already balanced?
The type of feed container, how many are needed, and the location.
The type of exhibit or holding area.
The number of animals and the sex ratio.
Seasonal requirements (climatic).
Mixed species exhibits.
The physical condition of the animal being offered food.
The animal’s previous diet.
Control of the animal’s routine.
In order to establish an effective feeding method we must take into consideration the animal’s natural feeding behavior. Some animals have evolved into very specialized feeders, which causes problems when trying to provide natural or acceptable substitute diets for them in captivity. Some animals are continuous feeders while others are occasional feeders, and food must be offered accordingly.
The presentation of food is as important as its composition. Animals which feed on live food may be gradually weaned onto dead food, which is often easier to keep, less costly and less dangerous.
Animals seek their food aided by their sensory organs; sense of smell, taste, touch and vision are not all equally well developed in all animals. Some species may rely heavily on a single sense, in which case the presentation must make the food appealing to that sense. Birds are often very dependent on vision. A perfect food in pellet form for a bird may be unacceptable because the bird does not recognize the diet as food. It may be necessary to put animals which aren’t familiar with an “unnatural” food together with others who already recognize the food and accept it, in order that the first group can learn to identify the new diet as a food source by watching the other animal eating.
As well as the need to recognize food as such, the animal must also be able to eat it. The physical adaptations of an animal, its food intake organs (tongue, teeth, lips, beak etc) must be considered when offering food; we must also consider its feeding patterns.
Many species swallow food whole. The size of the food particle is important. Rodents require material to gnaw on for dental conditioning.
LOCATION OF FOOD:
The positioning and number of food bowls and troughs, feeding stations etc. should be based on the feeding behavior of the species. In displays with a number of individuals several dishes may be necessary to reduce or avert fighting over food.
Hygiene considerations also dictate where bowls are placed; they must be positioned to avoid contamination with feces and urine. Food should be protected from rain, snow, excessive sunlight and heat. Pests such as mice, sparrows and insects must be kept away from food as much as possible. The public should have no direct access to animal food containers except under direct supervision. Keepers must be able to service the feeding area in a safe manner.
Hay feeders should be above ground to avoid fecal contamination, but should not be so high as to force the animal to reach too high for its feed. Grazing animals, with their continuous feeding habits, would in this situation, spend much of their time in unnatural positions which could result in spinal deformation. Eye infections and irritations can be caused by hay particles and dust falling into an animal’s eyes when the animal has to reach into a high feeder.
Construction of feeders should utilize smooth surfaces and rounded edges to avoid injury. Dishes for many species should be well fastened.
There are other special requirements; experience and a good basic understanding of animal feeding habits, behavior and adaptations will provide a guide for constructing safe effective feeding stations and for proper feeding techniques.
TIMING OF FEEDING
Animals feed at different times in a 24-hour period (nocturnal and diurnal feeders); some feed over very long periods and are continuous feeders whereas others feed only for short periods. Some animals feed several times a day (or night) while others, such as snakes and birds of prey may pause for days or even weeks between feedings.
Keepers have less opportunity to observe feeding in those species which are nocturnal, unless the light cycle is reversed. Animals which are continuous feeders make it difficult to judge the total amount of food consumed, especially when they are exhibited in groups. Some animals may be separated at feeding times, as part of their normal routine. This allows the Keeper to monitor the animal’s food intake, make diet adjustments; it also allows for exhibition in natural groups once feeding is over.
FOOD AND WATER CONTAINERS
Big Cat Rescue uses different kinds and sizes of containers for food and water:
Rubber bowls (2.5, 5, and 10 gallon size)
Stainless steel bowls, ceramic bowls, and plastic bowls
Wood and metal feed troughs various sizes and shapes
Food and water bowls should be cleaned thoroughly each day. Don’t forget the outside and underneath of the containers.
When selecting a container for an animal’s food or water, consider the hygiene requirements, pest control, safety and serviceability, and the position and number of bowls required. Always remember to clean the area around and underneath food stations.
There are many different aspects of food intake and several categories can be identified besides herbivorous, carnivorous and omnivorous, which only describe the type of food eaten.
Predators and Prey animals: Predators and prey show important differences in feeding behavior. Predators are species which may pursue and kill other animals, and consume them. The competition for potential food and the animal’s predatory skills develop an aggressive behavior and intolerance for other individuals. A Keeper may expect fighting over food with animals of this group during feeding. Ideally all individuals in a group of predators are presented with food simultaneously and spaced as far apart as is necessary to ensure a peaceful meal.
Competition and fighting over food stands in direct relation to its abundance or its availability to the species. Ungulates normally seen grazing peacefully together may become competitive and aggressive when a Keeper hands out tidbits, or where the feeding station is too small to allow all animals to feed together.
Group feeding disadvantages include:
Competition for food; fighting and possible injury.
Uneven distribution of various food items among individuals.
Lack of Keeper control over individual intake.
Individuals with specific needs (medication, lactation supplements, etc.) may not be served.
Competitive fighting for food, has no place in the sanctuary. Remember that animals will defend food or that food may be the cause of aggressive behavior in an otherwise calm and approachable animal. Take care in approaching animals which have food, or if you are carrying food.
FOOD PREPARATION AREAS
Make sure your kitchen or food preparation area is kept scrupulously clean. All tools and equipment must be kept dry, clean and oiled if necessary. Keep knives honed sharp; make sure all equipment is hung or shelved. Any foods or supplements should be kept in tightly closed, rodent proof containers. Containers should be amber, opaque or light proof as many vitamins are destroyed by light and heat. Disinfect this area regularly; clean benches, and keep cutting blocks dry and clean, and sinks scrubbed.
Keepers spend a good part of their day preparing foods for the animals in their area. The amount of time spent depends on the kind of animals and their diets. Each Keeper must be familiar with the kinds of food being fed and the manner of preparation and presentation. Keepers should take special care to see that food items, additives and supplements are properly mixed and presented in a manner acceptable to the animal. Do not assume that refusal of certain items is a rejection of that food without first altering food size or method of presentation.
The sanctuary’s Nutritionist has the responsibility of formulating the animals’ diet, working with the curator and veterinary staff. The initial preparation of the properly balanced diet for all of the variety of sanctuary animals then falls to the Commissary staff. The Keepers responsibility is the final preparation and presentation of the food in a manner which is acceptable to the animal in quality, quantity and timing. Keepers should be familiar with their animal’s nutritional needs, and can have direct input into the dietary system through requesting diet changes and speaking with the Nutritionist.
COMMISSARY AND NUTRITIONIST
Big Cat Rescue believes in the nutritional concept of sanctuary animal feeding. We have a fully trained Commissary staff working seven days a week.
Animal nutrition in the sanctuary involves a two way flow of information between the Commissary staff on one hand and the Keepers on the other. Feedback on diet acceptability, consumption levels, etc. is essential in the planning of sanctuary animal diets. Not much information is available on sanctuary nutrition because it is such a new field. Diets are often based on those developed for domestic stock or through ranching of such animals as mink, and proceed by trial and error often, until the right balance is achieved for sanctuary stock.
If you find new or relevant information in your reading which applies to sanctuary animals, share it with the Nutritionist. People with specific interests may come across dietary information of value to the sanctuary. Because sanctuary nutrition has become such an exact science the Keeper can be a valuable source of information from outside the sanctuary, as well as information about his or her animals.
The Commissary staff prepare and store all the food used in the sanctuary. Food is distributed to the Keepers daily or special additions as needed.
Big Cat Rescue offers a variety of pelletized and cubed foods for its animals as well as commercially prepared and packaged foods, whole animals and live foods. Pellets, crumble, cubes are all dry foods, often specifically prepared for the sanctuary from formula provided by the sanctuary’s Nutritionist.
Most foods are supplemented to correct nutritional imbalances, and where possible, formulated diets, (prepared flash frozen meats, pellets, cubes) that have a complete balanced nutritional “package” are offered.
However, the change of seasons, personal preferences, or specific animal manipulations may require dietary changes that the Keeper should initiate. No diet should be altered without consultation with your Foreman/Overseer, Nutritionist/ Veterinarian, or Curator. Even the slightest dietary change could have far-reaching positive or negative consequences that all the above should be aware of.
By defining diets for each animal or group in the sanctuary, and closely monitoring animal health, reproduction, longevity and food intake, we ensure the best quality of life for our sanctuary stock. A number of forms are used to facilitate this feeding control.
Each animal or group of animals has a diet sheet listing the kinds of food the animals receive, the quantity, how often and what supplements are added. The sheet is kept in the animal’s holding area or in a central kitchen area such as in each pavilion. These sheets are the results of considerable work and the instructions and amounts should be followed accurately. Diet sheets must be kept up-to-date and should reflect changes in the group (births and deaths), seasonal needs and the amounts and types of supplements required.
The Keeper’s sheet must be up-to-date and represent what the animal is actually being fed; make sure your sheets are reviewed and updated on a regular basis.
Diet changes can be requested on a feed requisition form (see 2, below). Provided that you have supplied relevant information about the diet and the animals involved, and that the changes are nutritionally acceptable, a new diet sheet can be issued within two days.
Current diets for all animals in the sanctuary are kept by the Nutritionist; outdated diet sheets are also kept so that the entire dietary history of an animal is available for reference. This enables us to correlate diet with breeding activity, birth rate, survival and growth of young to establish species parameters.
FEED CONTROL SHEETS
For some species we utilize feed control sheets which record the daily amounts of food offered, the different kinds of food, and the amounts eaten and refused. Diet control sheets offer an excellent means of closely following variations in food intake; studies of these sheets can determine whether diet changes are related to seasons or are for other reasons. They are also useful in establishing diet parameters for newly arrived species, determining quantities and preferences, and deciding maintenance and lactating diets.
The sheets are filled out daily by the Keeper; food going into an exhibit as well as the food coming out (as refuse) must be carefully weighed and recorded.
GUIDELINES FOR ANIMAL NUTRITION
Know what to feed and how much to feed. Underfed animals are more susceptible to disease; overfed animals may have health problems (from obesity) or reproductive problems.
Know what size food to offer each animal. Generally the smaller the animal the smaller the food size. You can provide occupational value by varying the food size.
Be familiar with different kinds of food used.
Try to feed according to the animal’s needs and feeding patterns; always use a routine.
Don’t feed spoiled, moldy or dusty food or food of poor quality.
Check all your food for contamination and spoilage, even in the bag.
If the food has been rejected by an animal, find out why. Is the animal sick? Or the food spoiled or at the wrong temperature? Has it been fed at the wrong time of day?
Make sure all animals in a group receive an adequate share of food, supplements, water and medication.
Keep food containers, bowls, storage bins, etc. clean inside and out.
Observe, record, report and follow-up any diet changes. Follow up on diet change requests.
If you are in doubt about an animal’s diet, ask questions.
When reporting an animal’s food consumption, report its attitude towards the food.
Keepers can present food in exciting and imaginative ways to interest their animals, (e.g. hiding food so the animal forages for it).
Feeding should be limited to how much the animals need and can eat, not the amount you think because they “look” hungry. Feed by your diet sheet; if this is too much or too little, have it changed.
Rotate your feed stations where possible – always clean up underneath feeding areas.
Use as many feed sites as are needed to safely feed your animals.
If your animal isn’t eating, tell someone. Note it on your report.
When storing bulk food, never add fresh food to older, stored food.
Empty and thoroughly clean out the container (jar, bin, etc.) before adding new foods.
Order only what food can be consumed in a reasonable period of time.
For example, the Mega C is readily oxidized. Even primate cubes with stabilized Vitamin C loses half of the Vitamin C within six weeks. Distinguish between production dates and expiry dates on bags before returning unused foods.
Most animals require fresh water for drinking, bathing or living in. The basic rule for the Keeper when supplying fresh water is to provide it as often as the animal requires, several times a day if necessary. Always keep your water dishes cleaned and disinfected; clean them inside and outside and underneath. Place water dishes in the exhibit in such a way that the animal won’t defecate or urinate in the bowl e.g. don’t place the water bowl under an arboreal animal’s branch. Use a dish of adequate size for your animals, or more than one dish if necessary. Some animals and birds delight in manipulating bowls, so sometimes a heavy ceramic or concrete dish may be needed. Be sure the dish is shaded.
Remember that most animals have no access to water other than that which you provide for them; a good Keeper doesn’t go off on a coffee break if his animals don’t have adequate clean, fresh water.
Water is used in a variety of ways by many species. Snakes may bathe in a water dish prior to shedding their skin. Before supplying an exhibit with water, make sure it is at the correct temperature; try to match the temperature with the animal’s environment. Never offer water that is too hot or too cold.
City water supplies usually contain chlorine, often in amounts which can vary from day to day. The chlorine in the water reacts with iron or copper in the water pipes to form metal (chloride) molecules which can inhibit absorption through the skin of oxygen in the water by amphibians. It is important that tap water isn’t used directly in amphibian tanks or displays; a supply of water should be kept at all times, aged for at least 24 hours to allow the chlorine to dissolve out of solution into the air before the water is used.
A NO (PUBLIC) FEEDING POLICY
Most sanctuary’s discourage the feeding of sanctuary animals by the public, but a no feeding rule is hard to enforce. Visitors like to feed animals because it links them with the sanctuary animal; it is a contact and a relationship, however brief. It may allow them control over the animal and may also stimulate behavior or movement in an otherwise inactive animal.
All sanctuary animals receive good, plentiful balanced diets; extra food isn’t required and can harm the animal. Most animals are like children, and will eat sweet food or junk-food all day. The sanctuary’s responsibility is like that of a child’s parents who must control the child’s diet. An animal full of junk-food won’t eat its normal sanctuary diet.
Animals will often eat whatever is offered to them – cigarettes, matches, food, bubblegum, cans, etc. Other animals are more fussy and won’t accept food that is very different from their basic diet.
Visitors who attempt to feed sanctuary animals should be apprised of the following facts:
The animal receives a nutritious balanced diet and doesn’t need extra food. Many animals will eat junk food or sweet food even when they aren’t hungry. The sanctuary can’t control what they eat when people feed them – animals can end up with deficiencies, poor teeth and bad health. Food offered by visitors to certain animals can transmit disease (such as measles and colds to primates). Feeding by visitors disrupts the proper maintenance cycle of the animals – renders any feed control data invalid and may cause the Keepers to make inaccurate observations on how much the animal is eating.
Causes aggressive encounters and a stereotyped dependency (begging).
There is no such thing as a free lunch for sanctuary animals. Make sure the public understand why they aren’t allowed to feed. The sanctuary staff aren’t trying to spoil the visitors fun, they are trying to discharge their responsibility in caring for their animals. The exception to this are the supervised Feeding Tours.
Most animal organizations our size have 30 paid staff, but we are able to maintain excellent care with about a third of that in paid staff because none of our paid staff are paid to work with animals. There are so many people who love big cats that they will do all of the cleaning, feeding, enrichment, operant conditioning and vet care for free. Our paid staff do the things animal lovers don’t enjoy like managing the gift shop, managing the data base, paying attention to donors, writing newsletters and managing volunteers. Our paid staff work for far less than industry standards because they love our mission and the cats.
Our intern and volunteer force averages around 80 people, who must put in a minimum of four hours per week, every week, rain or shine. A typical day starts at 7:30 am and often runs till way after dark. First the cats get their operant conditioning and morning meds. Most of our cats are geriatric and require supplements for all of their old age related ailments.
Then the cages are cleaned, water bowls are scrubbed and refilled, and projects are done which include cage enhancements, landscaping, and a plethora of other tasks to make the cats comfortable. Volunteers also write thank you notes to donors, help send out guest’s letters to lawmakers, stock and clean the gift shop, rest rooms and storage buildings.
All of the tours, like the one you are on now, are organized and led by volunteers. This might be your tour guide’s first tour, or their one thousandth tour, but before they are sent out to lead a tour they have already completed extensive training and have spent many hours backing up tours. With about 100 cats here, the guides have to know every cat’s story and every cat fact and that’s a lot to remember, so that is why the tours are automated, except in extreme weather.
You can tell a volunteer’s status by their shirt level:
Interns wear royal blue.
First six months: Red, who serve 4 hrs a week
Next year and a half: Yellow, who serve 6 hrs a week
After 2 years: Green, who serve 8 hrs a week
After 5 years: Navy, who serve 16 hrs a week
There are a LOT of classes, tests and certifications to graduate up that ladder!
Big Cat Rescue Volunteers
In the evenings the old and sick cats get their evening meds and then dinner is served. It takes an army of volunteers pulling carts full of food, about 500 lbs a day in all, to make sure that every cat gets exactly the right amount and types of food. After feeding, all of the buckets and carts have to be cleaned and put away, the floors mopped and then the day is done…for our volunteers.
For interns, who live on site, they still have intern housing full of foster cats and kittens who must be fed, cleaned and often medicated as they come to us sick from the shelters. Some kittens have to be hand fed, every 4 hours around the clock, so the interns take turns caring for the kittens around the clock.
A few hours of sleep and it starts all over again.
Operant Conditioning: Big Cat Rescue’s Animal Training Program is based on operant conditioning and clicker training techniques. Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behaviors are altered by the consequences that follow them. The behaviors are not forced, but “caught”, reinforced and therefore trained. We train only natural behaviors, no entertainment types of behaviors.
Clicker Training: Clicker training is a positive-reinforcement training system. It is based on the principle of operant conditioning. It incorporates the use of a Bridge (the click) to tell the animal precisely what it was doing right at that point in time. Behaviors that are marked by the click, and therefore reinforced, are more likely to happen again. Animals learn very quickly that click equals treat. The trainer “clicks” (marks the desired behavior) and then gives the animal a piece of favorite food or another reward for which the animal will work. It is crucial that the click be followed immediately by a treat. The sound of the click becomes associated with a positive reward.
Animal care managers all over North America are discovering that well planned animal behavior management programs featuring operant conditioning can:
Reduce the stress loads imposed by captivity
Enhance keeper safety
Facilitate routine care
Improve animal welfare
Enrich the volunteer experience
Big Cat Rescue’s Animal Training Program is intended for:
Eliciting calm behavior from each of our animals while they are in the presence of their keepers and veterinary staff
Training behaviors that are dependable regardless of the trainer present
Providing mental stimulation for our animals
Enabling safe emergency and non-emergency transportation of the animals
Providing public education
Levels of Training: Big Cat Rescue’s Animal Training Program is broken into 4 levels. These levels refer to the type of training being taught and the level at which the animal and or trainer has reached in their training. Volunteers are evaluated by the Operant Committee and approved for training specific levels of behaviors. Yellow Level Keepers and Level 1 Interns participate in Level 1 & 2 Operant Training with Small Cats (excluding lynx and quarantine). Green Level Keepers participate in Level 3 Operant Training with Small Cats and Level 1-3 Operant Training with Big Cats that they are certified to clean (ie. quarantine, Reno, and Cheetaro). Master Keepers and Coordinators participate in Level 4 Operant Training with all cats.
LEVEL 1: Click and Treat – Fishing for Cats
In this level the trainer will be:
Working with the animals that are more timid and are very new to the training program
Desensitizing the animals to the operant conditioning stick
Introducing the animals to the click (bridge)
Learning timing of the click and reward
The purpose of Click and Treat is to build rapport and trust with the cats and learn timing of the treat and your ability to read the cat.
Criteria for animal to advance to Level 2: To have the animal consistently come to a spot at the side of the cage where the trainer is located, and remain throughout the training session.
Criteria for volunteer to advance to Level 2:
Learn how to click and treat (C/T).
• Do not point the clicker at the animal.
• Reduce the amount of movement that you make when clicking.
• Let the click speak for itself – no additional praise.
• Click during the move, not after.
• Click should be before the treat is taken.
• Click and treat 10 times.
Put treats on the end of the operant conditioning stick and put the end of the stick into the cage.
Click BEFORE the animal takes the treat off of the stick, NOT AFTER.
Training will be done at the side of the cage near the lockout.
The volunteer must consistently deliver the correct timing of the click and the treat for the correct behavior. Cat is at side of cage all feet on ground, head inside cage.
LEVEL 2: Hand Signals and Behaviors
In this level, the trainers will be:
Working with animals that are familiar with the bridge and operant conditioning stick.
Using verbal and/or hand signals (commands) for desired behaviors.
Working on the following behaviors:
• Sit – this one is a bonus behavior, not required for cat to move to level 3
Working in pairs whenever possible to acclimate animals to multiple keepers being present.
LEVEL 3: Advanced Behaviors and Training Volunteers
Senior Keepers and Master Keepers participate in Level 3 training. Level 3 training includes; training and observing Level 1 and 2 trainers, fine-tuning behaviors that animals learned in Level 1 and 2, and advanced behaviors; right/left, open mouth, right/left paw, closing animals in lock out.
LEVEL 4: Veterinary Care Training
Master Keepers and veterinarians participate in Level 4 training. Level 4 training includes; working with animals in the cat hospital or in quarantine, desensitizing animals to topical sprays, training target behaviors for specific veterinary procedures, working with veterinary care staff, training and observing Level 1, 2, and 3 trainers, and evaluating the animals and trainers progress.
Trainers will only be working at or below their approved level of training.
Always check with the Coordinator prior to planning a session.
Training sessions should be well planned out before starting.
Training sessions will be logged on the Operant site on the .me site
Training sessions should be short.
If an animal acts aggressively towards any trainer it is the trainer’s responsibility to discontinue working with that animal and to report the incident to the Coordinator.
Use only approved verbal and hand signals.
“No” is never to be used during training sessions. Never draw attention to errors. Ignore what you don’t want. Reward what you do want.
If the animal is not cooperating step back and reset then resume training session. Do not repeat commands. Say it once and be patient.
Training sessions should be with a partner as often as possible. This will allow the animals to be accustomed to more than one person during the training sessions. This will also allow the other person to observe and to give their input on the session.
If there is more than one animal in a cage, two trainers must be present or the animals must be separated without causing stress.
Training sessions should take place when the environmental conditions are most favorable. Training sessions are not recommended in the rain or heat of the day.
Avoid food reinforcement immediately after feeding time. However, it would be optimal shortly before feeding.
Anytime we are feeding, interacting, cleaning, giving tours, etc we need to keep in mind that we are affecting how that animal interacts with us. Do not ever reward/reinforce bad behaviors.
We will need to work as a team for this program to work. Everyone will get to train animals they really like, but we need to make sure that the animals’ needs come before our needs.
Advancement to the next Level of training for animals and trainers will be decided after an
evaluation by the Operant Committee.
A master chart indicating each animal’s and trainer’s level of training will be maintained by the Operant Committee and will be posted on the Operant .me site.
Do not use the clicker to call the cat.
Training Program: Ideally we would like to have all animals and eligible keepers participating and helping us achieve the goal of the Operant Training program. That goal is to make feeding and caring for the animals including observations, medical exams, and vet procedures as safe and efficient as possible. This program is designed with the animals’ and sanctuary’s needs in mind. This is a very strict program that requires a lot of dedication and work to ensure success. Trainers should be prepared to commit a minimum of 2 days per week to participating in this program.
OPERANT CONDITIONING COMMANDS FOR LEVEL 1 & 2
Please use only the commands listed below. These are the approved commands that we will need for general husbandry. As the animals progress, additional commands and behaviors will be added.
Click and Treat – Animal: Animal comes to the side of the cage and takes reward off the stick without swatting, stick biting, or any part of their body out of the cage. Trainer: Trainer will use operant stick to deliver reward, clicking before the cat takes the reward. Make sure timing is such that cat is not getting anxious or walking away.
DOWN – Animal: Animal should have all 4 feet on the ground inside the cage, crouched so belly and chest is on the ground. Animal should be sternal and facing Trainer. Trainer: Verbal command “down” simultaneous with flat palm moving down. At the same time the trainer drops to one knee. Fingers should be closed, as with all hand signals hand should be well away from the cage and the reach of the cat.
UP – Animal: Animal should have back feet on the ground, front feet preferably flat on the side of the cage. Animal should not be reaching out or swatting at stick. Trainer: Verbal command simultaneous with palm facing up and raising palm appropriate to the height of the animal. (We don’t want the animal climbing the cage or having all 4 feet on the cage wire) Fingers should be closed together, as with all hand signals hand should be well away from the cage and the reach of the cat.
LOCKOUT – Animal: Animal should have all 4 feet in the lockout and remain until given several treats or another command. (Running in and grabbing a treat and running out is progress towards but not considered lockout) Trainer: Verbal command given while pointing to or walking towards lockout
SIT – Animal: Butt on the ground, front legs straight, both front paws on the ground facing the trainer. Trainer: Verbal command simultaneous with Open palm facing animal, i.e. stop signal. As with all hand signals hand should be well away from the cage and the reach of the cat.
To prevent the introduction of disease to animals already established in the Sanctuary, new animal arrivals are quarantined on arrival in the Sanctuary’s Quarantine Facility. Occasionally new arrivals will be quarantined elsewhere on site. To control certain health problems or outbreaks of disease, quarantine restrictions are sometimes placed on a certain Sanctuary area. The quarantine period is thirty days unless specified by the vet. The quarantine period may be extended indefinitely if the new animal has a health problem to be corrected.
While under quarantine animals are observed and examined for signs of illness, parasites, etc. At this time animals are acclimated and diets are established. These are designed to best settle the animal and may need modification once the animal moves to exhibit areas.Keepers must follow quarantine procedures strictly; use gloves, masks, rubber boots and foot baths wherever these are called for.
Quarantine is for the good of both the animals and the keeping staff.
A sample Quarantine Area posting: “QUARANTINE AREA — AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY”
THE FOLLOWING REGULATIONS MUST BE STRICTLY ADHERED TO:
Coveralls must be worn and regarded as quarantine material. Rubber boots must be worn and regarded as quarantine material. Face masks must be worn. Rubber gloves must be worn when handling animals or materials within the unit. All material leaving the unit must be thoroughly disinfected or in sealed plastic bags destined for disposal. One set of tools should be maintained within the unit to prevent cross infection. A phenol based foot bath must be maintained.
Phenol based disinfectant to be used within the area.
This unit should not be used as a passage between areas and minimal contact between staff and animals should be maintained.
CLEANING AGENTS:A number of different cleaning agents are used at Big Cat Rescue by Keepers in their daily cleaning tasks – disinfectants, bleach, soaps and window cleaners. Do not leave unattended in animal areas or where public can reach them.Disinfectants – there are two kinds in general use.TRL 35 Liquid Germicidal Detergent. This is used as a general disinfectant in cleaning exhibits. It contains a quaternary ammonium compound, so should not be used with soap. It is effective as a detergent and a disinfectant. At 2.5 oz. TRL 35 per gallon of water, it is an efficient fungicide and bactericide. It cleans, deodorizes and destroys bacteria in one operation and does not leave a film.TRL 132 Phenol Disinfectant Cleaner. Do not use cleaners that contain Phenol. It is a coal tar derivative and dangerous when used near cats, primates or bearcats.
CAUTION: “Tamed” iodine is sometimes used directly on the animal to clean wounds, cuts and scratches. It can also be used in foot baths, but is quickly degraded by dirt and organic matter when it turns from brown to clear (at which point it has lost its effectiveness). It is effective against tuberculosis and may be used in TB quarantines where phenol would not be suitable. Remember that iodine stains. Chlorine is commonly used for water purification, general sanitation and as a deodorizer; it can be used to loosen tenacious fecal matter after initial cleaning. Chlorine is effective against many bacteria, fungi, viruses and algae; it is unaffected by the hardness of water and is inexpensive. Chlorine is very corrosive and must be thoroughly flushed from all surfaces. Dilute as per instructions. Should only be used in well-ventilated areas; do not breathe the fumes. Add bleach to water as it may splash up to the eyes when water is added. Chlorine reacts with ammonia. Do not mix with ammonia compounds; use discretion when using near bird faces, as ammonia fumes can build up in poorly ventilated areas. Soaps and window cleaners: Use these as directed and for the purpose for which they were designed. (Hand soaps for personal hygiene; washing up soap for cleaning dishes, etc.)
NOTE: As some cleaning agents are transferred to smaller containers for storage near animal areas, it is very important that these containers are labeled with name of cleaning agent dilution ratio.Remember that just as water can be used incorrectly so can formulated products be a hazard to both Keeper and animal health , and to property, if they aren’t used in the correct dilutions – twice the recommended amount won’t do twice as good a job; it is a waste of cleaner. Use these products safely – read the labels and follow instructions. Take care of your eyes – you only have one pair; wear protective masks, glasses and gloves when necessary.We do not use a general cleaner with a deodorizer in the Sanctuary as this can cause some stress to certain animals when their own smell is replaced by a chemical one. Many animals will mark their cage furniture after a cleaning to reestablish their territory or familiar smells.
HYGIENE – OVER CLEANING
Sanctuary hygiene is rather unnatural when considered in the environment outside the Sanctuary. Wind, rain, sunlight, snow, dilution etc. all act as hygienic agents in the natural world, as do the air, bacteria and other plants and animals. However animals contained in confined conditions, in close contact with their wastes, and without the benefits of natural cleaning forces require some form of hygiene to survive.
Cleaning can be carried too far. Some animals which aren’t maintained in meticulously clean cages may do better than those in unnaturally clean, sterile environments. This depends on the animal species, and whether marking and urinating places are important to the animal. The Keeper should remember that much exists outside the rather limited range of human sensory experience that may be necessary for the health and or psychological well being of the animal he/she cares for.
Hygiene is relative and the Keeper must learn when to clean and when it is too clean. Primate care requires the highest standards of hygiene. The season affects the technique, as does the type of animal, and visitor enjoyment (smell, appearance).
At the same time the Keeper must always clean certain areas, notably water and food dishes (these must be scrupulously clean), and the areas around them. Try to minimize the chances of spreading disease or infection from one area to another; clean off your boots before you leave your area, use a foot bath if necessary. Keep a set of tools in each area and try to avoid using them in other parts of the Sanctuary. Always wash tools after use and disinfect if necessary.
SPECIFIC APPLICATIONS OF HYGIENE
Special consideration must be given to zoological specimens in order to maintain them in good health in a captive environment.
This order of animals is highly susceptible to parasite infection and therefore requires a high standard of hygiene; exhibits should be frequently washed and disinfected. Walls will require additional attention as cats will often spray urine well above their body height. Provide good ventilation for quick drying. Animals should have dry sleeping platforms, preferably of wood. Logs should be provided for cats and bearcats for the care of their claws and for other carnivores as rubbing and marking posts. Natural logs are difficult to disinfect and should be replaced periodically.
HOSPITALIZED ANIMAL CARE
If you found this information helpful help us keep it available to others with your donation.