Feed Cats

Feed Cats

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Big Cat Rescue’s Feeding Protocol


Big Cat Rescue feeds our 500 pounds of food per day and we use Triple A Brand Meat Company because it is the best and the cats LOVE it.

Feline Complete Diet: Beef muscle meat, KanTech Feline Complete vitamin/mineral premix.

  • Packaged in three 10 pound frozen bags per box
  • Click here for complete nutritional information*

Bones:Bovine leg shanks.

  • Packaged in one 40 pound bag per box
  • Choice of 4-5″ small and 8-10″ large
Raw Hides: Beef Hides
  • Approximately 18″ x 24″ pieces, 6 pieces per box
Chunk Meat: Beef Chunk
  • Packaged in five 5 pound frozen bags per box
  • Click here for complete nutritional information* 


Please call for further information at 1-800-437-5581  sales@tripleabrandmeatcompany.com

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:


We also use Colorado Box Beef

Colorado Box Beef $ per lb Master Purveyors $ per lb
Beef Beef
Kidneys $0.93 Kidneys 0.59
Livers $0.87 Livers 1.15
Tongue $2.30 Tongue 2.55
Head meat $1.52 Head meat 1.5
Back Rib bones 1.16-1.79 Back Rib bones 1.62
Tripe(Stomach) $0.62 Tripe(Stomach) 0.8
Hearts $0.90 Hearts 1.19
Clods $2.09
Tenders $2.26
Turkey Turkey
Necks $0.54 Necks 0.58
drumsticks $0.90 Drumsticks 0.94
Wings $0.94 Wings 0.98
1/4’s 0.52
Necks 0.35
Wings 0.88
Drumsticks 0.76





Big Cats Love Feeding Time!

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 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.
Tiger eating a bone at Big Cat Rescue

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.
Dominance factors.
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.




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.




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.




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
Paper plates

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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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:


  1. 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.
  2. 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.

whats it like to work at big cat rescue

whats it like to work at big cat rescue

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What’s It Like to Work at Big Cat Rescue?


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

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 Video

Operant Conditioning Video

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Operant Conditioning Video



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:

  • Lockout

  • Down

  • Up

  • 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.


General Guidelines:

  • 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.




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.



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Big Cat Rescue’s Quarantine Protocol


30 Day Quarantine

30 Day Quarantine

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.





  • 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.



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.



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.





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Big Cat Rescue’s Communication and Records


White Serval at Big Cat Rescue

White Serval at Big Cat Rescue

The cats at Big Cat Rescue live much longer and healthier lives than do most exotic cats in zoos, sanctuaries or private collections.  A big part of that is because of the record keeping process that is everyone’s job at Big Cat Rescue.

We share our record keeping system with anyone who wants it because we want animals to get the best possible care; no matter where they are.  We share all of our forms, training documents, training videos, charts, policies and processes in one google site template called Sanctuary Template.  It’s free.

All you have to do is have a google account and create a site using google sites.  In the template area, choose to browse the gallery and search the term: Sanctuary Template.  Choose that as your template and you are good to go.

Once you choose Sanctuary Template and click create, your site will be populated with everything we use to run Big Cat Rescue and it has videos embedded along the way to show you how to customize the site to reflect your organization.  It also has tutorial videos for you to share with others in your organization, so that they can quickly begin to implement the site’s resources into caring for the animals at their location.

Some of the charts may reflect that they are password protected, because they were directly shared from Big Cat Rescue’s site, which is password protected, so here are some of the screenshots so you can create your own forms.

This site has an interview I did talking about how we transitioned from paper and word of mouth to written, shared protocols here:



This section deals with the Keeper’s role as an effective communicator in the Sanctuary; different forms of communications, record keeping and Big Cat Rescue phone and radio system.

The Keeper’s role in at Big Cat Rescue involves many different skills; one of the most important of these is the Keeper as communicator. The Keeper is a vital link between the animals in his/her care, and the rest of the Refuge’s operation, directly and indirectly. Communications at and between the different organizational levels in the Sanctuary allow for a flow of information and ideas in both directions, to the benefit of the individual and the Sanctuary as a whole. A good Keeper cultivates good working relationships with other Keepers and all Sanctuary staff and auxiliary personnel.

Kathryn Gale Susan Lockout

Communication is basic to human experience and takes many forms. We communicate through the written and spoken word, through our attitudes and actions, and through our “body language”, dress, gestures and stance. Speech, perhaps the most basic and effective communication, is often the most difficult. The Keeper communicates with his/her animals, other Keepers, various levels of Sanctuary Management and with the public.



The following points should be considered in improving communication skills:

  • Clarify your ideas before communication. Think about your idea or problem and decide the goals and attitudes (yours and the recipient’s). Plan ahead. What is the purpose of the communication? Don’t try to accomplish too much; identify your goals, adapt your language, tone and total approach to a specific objective. Consider the total physical and human setting when you communicate, because the impact of the communication depends on such factors as the timing, setting (social or private) and on past procedures. Consult with others, if appropriate; get consultation and participation to lend insight and objectivity when planning communications. Remember that your tone of voice, expressions, and receptiveness to the responses of others all have impact; be aware of the overtones and the basic content of your message. Try to know the other person’s point of view, interests and needs and try to convey something of help or value to the listener. After communicating, follow up, get feed back. Did you get your message across? Communicate for tomorrow as well as today; plan with the past in mind but with long range interests and plans. “Practice what you preach”. Persuasive communication is not what you say but what you do. 
    • Be a good listener; tune in to others, understand as well as be understood.
    • Use the Code of Honor:

1.   I will focus on what works best to achieve our mission of caring for cats & ending the trade.

2.   I will speak my truth to the best of my ability & listen attentively as others speak theirs, with an end goal of finding solutions that work for all.

3.   I will support my fellow Rescuers early, often & unconditionally.

4.   I will be truthful & responsible for my actions, accepting my role with grace and performing to the best of my ability.

5.   I will deal with complete transparency & proactively work to resolve any conflicts directly with those involved. I will be sensitive to their feelings & in no way belittle or challenge them in front of others.  If no resolution is achieved I will ask that all involved parties meet together with the person(s) who can settle the matter.

6.   If it’s not my story, I won’t tell it.

7.   I will celebrate the good my fellow Rescuers do & show respect by saying please, thank you and job well done.

8.   It is my responsibility to uphold the code & address breaches of the code with my fellow Rescuers directly, privately & respectfully.

9.   I will be mindful of my tone, body language & the fact that we are all on the same path, albeit at different stages, so I will be open & gentle when asked for clarification.

10.I will trust that my fellow Rescuers share my same good intentions and will give the benefit of the doubt or seek their input in a kind and courteous way.


Communications in the Sanctuary, with respect to the Keeper, depend on two major factors.

  • The policy of the staff and volunteers in providing means for communication within the Refuge’s operation. Can the Keeper exchange ideas and information with co-workers and administrative staff? Can he or she record important observations and data for the Refuge’s permanent record, and be involved with the Refuge’s Volunteers and with Sanctuary visitors? Is the Keeper encouraged to develop as a communicator within his/her own Sanctuary, and with the community and other sanctuaries?
  • The Keeper’s attitude: Even if all the above lines of communications are open, unless there is effort by the individual they are useless. Good working relationships with other staff members don’t just happen, they must be developed through communication. With the right approach and the proper attitude, and by trying hard enough you can communicate successfully.
White Serval Kitten

White Serval Kitten

It sometimes happens that the chain of command communication system breaks down and your communications don’t reach their goal in the form you intended. Keepers should be aware of this and be prepared to pursue a matter until they receive a satisfactory answer, especially where animal health or welfare is at stake. This is part of the Keeper’s responsibility.

If in doubt about any procedure or request communicate with your immediate supervisor.  Communication and information are both important and different. Information can be given with no exchange of ideas or experience, but these become meaningful when transmitted to others, especially when we consider all the practical aspects of Keeping. The communication can be written or verbal.

Verbal: Effective verbal communication at all levels is important in the Sanctuary. As a Keeper, much of the information you will receive from and impart to other Keepers will be presented verbally. Be clear and precise in what you say; don’t be ambiguous, and always qualify your statements. “Let the animal out” isn’t sufficient – which animal, where is it, where does it go, how do you do it? Does the other person understand what you said? Do you understand what you have been told? Ask questions if you aren’t sure. Not only general and specific job knowledge is transmitted verbally, but changes in daily routine too. Talk to your co-workers. Use the two way radio system and staff meetings to make and maintain verbal contact.

Written: A perceptive and alert Keeper is provided with huge amounts of data. This can be of considerable value when recorded in writing. Read and use the Important Updates section of the Intranet site for written communications. Always read the Observation Charts for your area after your days-off, sickness, or any absence, as well as getting verbal updates from co-workers.  Make sure you record information in the Observation Chart so that others can make use of it.




Cat Hospital Logs

The keeping of consistent, factual, accurate records of captive animals is of great importance in the Sanctuary today for a number of reasons.


  • The Refuge’s changing role in the community, with trends towards non invasive research, education and conservation. Sanctuaries can supply scientific information to universities, zoologists, researchers and zoos. New government requirements regarding information that must be made available to them; information such as the acquisition and disposal of endangered or threatened species, animal movement in or out of the country, post-entry quarantine animals or those acquired under permits must be available to the government.
  • Record keeping enables Sanctuary staff to know more about their collection and improve their husbandry, both directly through animal care and by planning ahead.
  • Public relations:  The public are intimately involved in the Sanctuary and often want to know an animal’s age and background. Records can supply this information.
  • Co-operative programs such as ISIS or SSP require meticulous records if their standards are to be met. Records represent knowledge to the Sanctuary, about its collection past and present, patterns, breeding information and medical and other data.



Modern records are more useful and trustworthy than those of the past. Both the contributors and the audience have enlarged. We can produce more and retrieve data at a faster pace, as shown by the advent of computers and special software used in Sanctuary record systems.

Keepers are direct contributors to Sanctuary records, not only in recording factual information such as arrivals and  deaths, but in recording behavioral and nutritional information.

Almost all categories of information are important. Inventory and veterinary data must be recorded; also information on all aspects of an animal’s life and behavior. Taken individually much of this data may seem to be without value, but faithfully recorded over time, may cumulatively reveal patterns or trends which are clear and meaningful. Keepers in their daily work use massive amounts of information gathered by many Sanctuary professionals over many years. Information categories of importance include:
(a) Acquisitions – births (shouldn’t happen at sanctuaries), rescues and rehab.
(b) Dispositions – deaths and release of native wildlife.
(c) Medical records – diagnosis, treatment, prognosis.
(d) Statistics – age, weight, size, longevity, etc.
(e) Necropsy and information on cause of death.
(f) Nutritional and dietary information.
(g) Life history information – adjustment to new cage, non-reproductive behavior.

In order for a record keeping system to be effective, individuals within a species must be identifiable to the person(s) generating the facts and observations. We use a number of methods at the Big Cat Rescue to identify animals and these are discussed fully under ‘Identification and Marking’.

Big Cat Rescue has an extensive and valuable records system utilizing both a full time Record Keeper and Veterinary records, the latter maintained by Animal Care staff.

All records are kept in the Big Cat Rescue Intranet site and all Keepers are required to log in each day they work to check the Important Updates and to log their observations.

The Sanctuary also maintains a library of great information on this Intranet site and Keepers should make good use of this function to broaden their knowledge and understanding of the Sanctuary and the animals they care for. There are many excellent books, papers, various articles and journals, and a wealth of Internet resources.


Big Cat Rescue keeps a census of animals including their name, species, microchip number, date of birth, date of arrival, age in the current year, sex, neutered or not, and weight.  These charts are in a sortable spreadsheet.  In this same document, on other tabs, we include the ability to sort by Florida’s permit classification, and a page with totals of each species and the animals who have died within the last year, arrived within the last year and those released as part of our bobcat rehab program.

In many animal collections they use shorthand such as “males, females, sex unknown” example: A herd or group of two males and seven females would be simply written as 2.7, while a pair of animals with three unsexed young would be reported as 1.1.3. If there isn’t a male or female being recorded then use a zero, i.e. a single female is written 0.1.



Every cat has their own Observation Chart.  At the top of that cat’s chart is a link to their entire medical history and the Date of Birth for quick reference.  The Observation Chart is a series of drop down lists so that there is consistency in the way issues are reported.  There is a section for notes as well.  Keepers are to report fully and accurately what they see. This information may be used in subsequent years to predict the onset of seasonal diet changes, animal movement or behavior patterns.


Observation Chart

As well as the Observation Chart as an information source, Food Prep maintains a sign up sheet for areas of the sanctuary to be cleaned and diet sheets are laminated and kept in there as well.


Keeping track of medications on hand and making sure those medications are discarded properly when they expire is critical.  This chart can be made as a shared Google Doc for your animal care staff:

discard expired meds

If an animal is to receive supplements or medications it is important that the Animal Care Staff know who dispensed the meds, when and if the cat consumed them.  This looks like a calendar, but was created using Google Docs, so that the caregiver can record their initials by each dose.

Med Charts





The purpose of identifying an animal is to give it individuality within the Sanctuary; identification is an important tool in the day-to-day animal management in the Sanctuary, allowing the Keeper and Animal Care Staff to interact with each animal as an individual.

With certain species and certain Keepers, visually identifying each animal (by appearance alone) may be a consideration, but the possibility of error, staff changes and the lack of permanency where the system is used without adequate marking techniques do not allow for sufficient accuracy and continuity. A system of individual identification that is accurate, permanent and that doesn’t rely solely on personal observation and memory without written aids, serves the Sanctuary as the basis for the kinds of scientific records required for present and future references.


When deciding on a system for identifying animals in the Sanctuary, the following criteria should be considered:
(a) The system should be as free as possible from pain and stress to the animal.
(b) It should afford minimal opportunity for infection of the marked area.
(c) It should not inhibit normal activity, moulting, sloughing or feeding behaviors.
(d) It should give no cause for negative criticism from Sanctuary staff or the public.
(e) It should be easy to use.
(f) It should be adaptable for animals of different sizes and types.
(g) It should be permanent.


With about 100 exotic cats at Big Cat Rescue we use several methods to identify animals.

(a) Passive Identification: Passive identification uses permanent natural differences between animals. Color, size, shape, scars and patterns are all useful aids to differentiate one animal from another in groups, and as a record of the identity of individual animals. Such identifying features can be recorded by description, photography, or drawing. Snow leopards can be identified by the pattern of black markings on their foreheads.
(b) Positive Non-natural Identification: This method includes the use of microchips and/or tattooing. Some of these identifications are visible during the animal’s normal activity while others can’t be seen unless the animal is caught up, and serve only to record the identity of the individual.
(c) Cage signs are on all of the enclosures at Big Cat Rescue and include the cat’s name, date of birth, brief history and information as to whether or not the cat has claws.  Most cats are housed singly, but where there are more than two we may include a sign with photos of spot patterns to discern identities.



One of the most important skills a Keeper can acquire is the ability to accurately observe animals in the Sanctuary and interpret what he is seeing. This ability grows with experience as the Keeper becomes more familiar with the animals themselves. The more you as a Keeper know about the animals, what constitutes their normal appearance and behavior, the easier it becomes to “know” when something is wrong.

Often this knowledge is in the form of an instinct or a feeling for something undefined; at other times cues may be more obvious, such as swollen limbs or lack of appetite, etc. The Keeper must learn to make his mind receptive to the information provided by his senses. The more receptive your mind is to this data, the easier you will find it becoming available to the conscious mind. Quite often your subconscious may register small changes in color or locomotion etc., that will trigger the feeling that something isn’t normal about your animal. Learn to trust your instincts.

Try to develop your “critical eye”. It is almost like a sixth sense; try to really see what you are looking at and train yourself to observe and absorb details. Keeping is one of several professions in which observation, retention and interpretation of information play an important part. It is imperative that you do not let your skilled knowledge blind you to other possibilities or interpretations.

Wherever possible a Keeper should know his/her animals individually, by their natural distinguishing differences as well as by scars, cuts, marks, disabilities, lost digits, etc.

Remember that the animal’s environment, objects in it, and how the animal uses it can all tell you things about your animal. Fresh secretions indicate that the animal may be marking. The condition of the feces can be an excellent barometer of the animal’s general condition.

Use all your senses, when observing, to give you a good composite picture of the shape your animal is in. Know what a healthy specimen looks like, learn to recognize stance or posture, eye shine, coat condition and smell. Be aware of fences, buildings, etc. and don’t take them for granted – train yourself to notice holes in fences, loose wire, etc. Report all damage on the Maintenance Observation Chart.

Animal Keeping is a dynamic learning situation. Every encounter with Sanctuary animals can provide the Keeper with a wealth of information, if he can learn to truly observe and interpret what his senses convey to him.



  • Observe your animals
  • Record what you see
  • Report what you see
  • Communicate
  • Follow-up (feedback)




Whenever the Keeper is looking at an animal he should be observing the following:


  • The animal’s condition: overall coat or feather condition, eye shine, manner of standing and walking, state of claws, weight; any cuts or injuries, discharges, etc.
  • The animal’s behavior: normal for the species and the individual, or out of the ordinary?
  • The animal’s stool and urine: normal?
  • The animal’s food and water intake: normal?
  • Are all the animal’s in the group present?
  • Having asked and answered these questions, the Keeper can then ask himself why? to each answer. Has an animal stopped eating because it is sick or stressed? There should be a reason why the animal is different from normal, and the alert Keeper must be satisfied that he/she can explain everything about the animal he sees. 


Remember that the animals in the Sanctuary are the Keeper’s greatest teachers.


Once an observation has been made it should be recorded so that other Sanctuary staff can benefit from it. Note taking is a very important tool in observation; there are other methods of recording information, such as tape recording, video tape, movie and still photography but basic written records of observations are the most important.

The Keeper should always record the time and date that the observation was made. For proper behavioral studies, check sheets of certain behaviors are often made up. Keepers using abbreviations or special terms should always include an explanation so that others reading the observation notes can understand what is meant.

When describing animal behavior or interaction there are many categories which can be used to define the animal’s actions.

Social Behavior: Structure: dominance, submission

Compatibility: intra-species (within a species) or inter-species (among species).

Environment:territorial marking or protection; the animal’s use of the display space, the effect of the environment on the animal and vice versa.

Cyclic Behavior: seasonal or daily changes – sleep, rest and play cycles, etc.

Maintenance Behavior:

Feeding: social structure of the feeding group, food preferences, etc.

Grooming: self and social grooming, interaction with the exhibit.

Communications: vocal, visual, olfactory and physical contact with others in their group.

Elimination: fecal deposition, coprophagy, urine marking.

Locomotion: methods, sleep/rest position, aquatic, aerial, arboreal, terrestrial; flight; other methods.

Agonistic Behavior

Threat: bluffing, attack.

Thresholds: changes in critical and personal distances, etc.

Communications: vocal, postural.

Cyclic Behavior: aggression during feeding

Social Structure: group interaction, or solitary. Male/Female: interaction

Other Behaviors

Stress: boredom, pacing, other nervous behaviors.

Displacement behavior: problems or stress manifested in other behaviors.

Intra/Inter species: relationships with other animals.

Spatial occupation: use of various parts and levels of the exhibit.



Keep your descriptions accurate – only record what you see, not what you think you see.

Use your senses; listen to your animals, even when you can’t see them. Knowing what sounds they normally make and what the sounds mean, can alert you to problems, even when you are out of sight of your animals.

Learn to be observant. Know what the public are doing, what animals on site (both caged and uncaged i.e. squirrels, groundhogs, nesting birds, etc.) are doing. Watch the weather and think about your animals. Listen to weather reports. (Some storms with thunder and lightning can be dangerous to animals, especially in open fields; there is the danger of the animal’s panicking, and running into fences etc. and also the chance of being struck by lightning.) Use your common sense.

Don’t take your animals for granted; there are always reasons for activity or inactivity; make sure you know why your stock are behaving in a certain manner.

Observe first, then interpret. Observations should be made all day, every day while you are working, as part of your normal routine. In this way animals can be observed in different behaviors – playing, eating, sleeping, etc. Keep a notebook with you at all times to record your observations – don’t rely on memory.

Share your observations with colleagues who share an interest or who can learn from your skills. Others may be able to apply your observations to their animals or problems in ways you cannot appreciate. Often simple observations have far reaching implications. Remember that you may not be there when some treatment is needed and others should know what and how you are interpreting data or observations.



Ethology, the biology of behavior, is the objective study of animals and man from a biological point of view with emphasis on species typical behavior, its adaptiveness (function) and evolution (Heymer, Ethological Dictionary). Another definition of ethology is the study of an organism’s reaction to its environment. Ethology has been regarded as a science and systematically studied for less than 100 years.

Animal behavior is very important to the Keeper in the Sanctuary, and any study of behavior assists the Keeper in doing a better job. Only by knowing the animals can they be properly cared for.

Some of the early animal behavior studies were based on comparative psychology which inevitably led to anthropomorphism by attributing human characteristics to the animal and interpreting its behavior in terms of human behavior. Other approaches interpreted animals as automatic machines. The modern scientists like Tinbergen, Lorenz, von Frisch, Hediger, Mech and other focus on the animal as an individual of a species and then search for that species’ typical behavior patterns, without any reference necessarily to human behaviors.

Ethology is a young science with many differing approaches and opinions. For the purpose of managing and caring for Sanctuary animal collections, a knowledge of certain basic principles is essential.


A Keeper must be able to recognize typical or normal behavior patterns in a species, in order to “read” the animal, and to notice abnormal behaviors. Take the time to observe your animals at various times. A good Keeper knows what their animals are doing when they are not there to observe. Different species very often have different typical behavior, even when taxonomically closely related. For example, except for prides of related lions, most cats are solitary and prefer to live alone.  In some cases, where cats have been raised together, they may be content to stay together…at least until dinner time.

Species should be studied and treated as individuals first; grouping together by common characteristics may then follow.


Unconditioned reflexes are automatic, innate (unlearned) reactions, such as the closing of the eyelids when some object approaches the eyes, or quickly pulling a limb back from a hot surface.

Conditioned reflexes are indirect reactions associated with experience or knowledge. There are many examples of this reflex in Sanctuary animals, especially with feeding routines, where animals are conditioned to expect food in a particular place at a certain time.


Instinctual behavior is an innate “programmed” behavior pattern. Animals are born with these patterns and follow them without conscious knowledge of their purpose. In order to sustain life and assure the survival of the species, these instinctive behavior patterns are inherited and specific for each species. Some animals’ behavioral repertoire is largely instinctive, with very little learning (as in snakes) whereas other animals such as primates learn most of their behavior during their lifetime.

The knowledge of instinctive behavior patterns and their sequences are very important to the Keeper; Keepers who can interpret these patterns and utilize them in their work with Sanctuary animals can make their job easier, safer, less stressful for the animals and more successful in every way.


The central nervous system has a selective innate mechanism, triggered by stimuli having meaning to a particular species. The key or sign stimuli and the response they engender, fit together like a lock and key. The animal is “programmed” to respond in a certain way to certain stimuli. Stimuli are species specific; only a particular set of stimuli is of significance to each species, to which it responds with typical reactions. “Releasers” are animal structures which send out or give off key stimuli.


Reproductive behavior is very complex and may involve a long chain of important steps. it is an effective way of controlling hybridization in nature. Where species are geographically out of contact in a natural wild state, sign stimuli (for reproductive activity) may not vary enough to produce this barrier to interbreeding.


Man’s primary means of communication is vocal, but in animals, motion, pose and coloration are all important communication forms. The Keeper must rely on close observation to interpret an animal’s intention or mental state. Without the specific knowledge of the species under observation, the layman or inexperienced Keeper is likely to interpret animal behavior in human terms. This does not often lead to accurate observations and can be misleading and dangerous. Aggression is often misinterpreted, such as the sometimes violent copulatory neck bite in many carnivores.

Expressional behavior must be studied independently for each species, and even variations in male, female and juvenile behavior must be recognized.


The following outline of general behavior and its many facets is very important for the Keeper, because animals in captivity can show all the behaviors of their wild conspecifics, as well as some behavior stemming from their captive situation. The Keeper must understand that an animal’s exhibit may be its territory, and that a good knowledge of animal behavior makes a better Keeper.

Animals don’t live completely free in a wild state because their living space is confined by boundaries which are often undetectable to the casual observer. The size of the habitat is determined by the needs of the individual and the species to survive. Distribution or Range is the geographical distribution of a species. Within this range are areas of suitable habitat. Habitat represents the suitable physical area that will support the species. Ecological Niche describes the living space of the animal with emphasis on its role in the community; it is where the species fits into the habitat in relation to the food chain, plant and animal associations.

For example the geographical distribution (range) of the Snow leopard, Panthera uncia, is mainly the mountains of central Asia, the Himalayas and ranges north of Afghanistan, into the USSR, east from Pakistan through northern India, Bhutan, Nepal to Mongolia and China. Its habitat within this range is between the tree line and the permanent snows (3000 to 6000 meters), descending in winter to the upper valleys (1500 to 200 meters). Its ecological niche is that of a large, often solitary predator at the top of the food chain; with no natural predators except man, it preys on wild ungulates, hares, mountain birds and sometimes domestic stock.


Territory is the living area used and occupied by an animal. It may belong to a single individual, a pair, or to a social unit (a group represented by a single dominant animal).

Typical behavior is associated with the establishment and protection of an animal’s territory. This behavior, and reproductive behavior associated with the territory, is unique for each species, and allows several different animal species to live in the same space without rivalry, utilizing different niches within the habitat. Some animal species maintain a territory all year round while others only establish one for breeding, and migrate. It is uncommon for animals to establish territories in areas where they winter-over.

Territory size is related to the body size of an animal and its feeding habits, with larger animals usually having larger territories than smaller species, and carnivores having larger territories than herbivores.

Not every part of the territory is utilized by the animal; usually trails lead from one area of activity to another. There are preferred routes, whether the medium is air, water, on the ground or through tree tops. Often parts of the territory are used for specific functions, such as sleeping, eating (food may be caught in one place and eaten in another), washing, drinking, and defecation, etc.

Animals will only reluctantly change their pattern of movement, and places of familiarity provide them with security. This “home” aspect is very important to the animal and provides a focus of safety within the territory.

The territory is an important possession which may be aggressively defended against conspecific intruders, and to a lesser degree or not at all against other species. The closer species are related to each other, the more likely it is for territorial disputes to occur.

A defended territory is defined by the animal in one or more of several different ways, depending on the species. The demarcation may be optical (visual), acoustic (sound), olfactory (smell)  or a combination of these.

Optical or visual demarcation may involve using the whole body or only parts of it. Hediger calls the demarcation static-optical when the result is achieved by the presence or appearance of the animal’s body in the territorial area (as in the giraffe), and dynamic-optical when the animal uses a specially adapted signaling apparatus in a typical movement (the waving of the claw of the fiddler crab). Form and color may be important.

Acoustic demarcation, such as the singing of birds, the calling of amphibians, the bellowing of alligators and the calling of some primates and insects all serve to denote the animal’s territory.

Olfactory demarcation is very common in mammals, with their well developed sense of smell (except for primates). Urine, feces and the products of special glands are used to mark territorial boundaries and important places. Usually scent glands are more developed in males than in females.

Animals are creatures of habit, moving within their territories in established routines set in time and place. These patterns of movement and activity can often be seen clearly in the Sanctuary.  The cats will make use of certain trails and will usually travel on these (or by certain routes) rather than use the whole enclosure. Other parts of the cage may be exclusively reserved for certain activities such as eating and sleeping.


Behavior in relation to time is based on set laws for different species. There are daily routines or cycles which govern the animal’s periods of activity and rest; often these are determined by the way in which the animal functions in its niche, (for example, nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular). During the year different activity periods can be identified. Often their onset or termination is determined by day length. Hibernation, aestivation, migration, breeding and raising young all usually occupy set times.The Keeper must be familiar with the species-typical cycles in order to provide for the changing needs of the animal throughout the year. These needs may be dietary (increase in food or change in kind of food), or adjustments in light cycles, heat or humidity requirements, the provision of heated boxes and dens, etc.


Free living animals are often pressed to avoid confrontation with their enemies, including man. Animals in the wild may constantly check their surroundings for danger. Because man is regarded as a universal enemy by nearly all wild animals, we can speak of predator-prey relationships to include enemy-prey relationships. An animal’s normal response to the approach of a predator is the escape reaction, aimed at avoiding the enemy, by fleeing, hiding or camouflage, etc. The escape reaction is specific for sex, age, the kind of enemy, and surroundings.


  • Flight Distance: is the measurable distance at which an animal will flee when approached by an enemy. The distance is related to the significance of the intruder, and the individual experiences of an animal can increase or decrease the distance involved. Man can have both a positive (i.e. Keeper) and a negative (i.e. hunter, visiting public) effect. Sometimes the flight distance can be considerably reduced, perhaps even eliminated, or the flight reaction can change to an attack.
  • Critical Distance: represents a part of the flight distance. An animal without the choice of escape will tolerate the approach of an enemy up to the point where it is forced to defend itself; the attack/defense takes place within the critical distance range.



In any interaction within groups of animals we can distinguish different hierarchies or peck orders, which deal with the social position of an animal or a species in relation to other animals of the same or different species within the living space.


Biological rank is a hierarchy based on definite rules, among different species which compete for food and space. It implies a state of biological competition in which the competitors generally try to avoid each other. The biologically inferior species yields to the superior species and so fights rarely occur, and the superior species maintains a dominance over feeding places and other areas of interest. This situation is well known in the wild, i.e. gorilla over chimpanzee, grizzly bear over black bear, but sanctuaries face a unique problem when exhibiting together various species not normally associated in a wild state. The Keeper must detect the developing biological rank system and ensure that all animals in the exhibit will have access to food, shelter and be able to relax.


Social rank is the position of the individual within the society of animals of the same species. Most species existing in herds, flocks, packs, and bands, etc., are organized into orders of preference, each clearly defined in relation to the others. Every individual maintains a certain position or rank with clearly defined behavior patterns. The organization of some societies may be simple and linear, while others are very complex social structures.

The top position, the premier or alpha position is occupied by the lead animal, and confers more privileges on that animal than any other in the group. Being the Top Cat is a stressful job though and often these will be the first cats to die from age related illnesses in a group of cats.

An individual’s social rank may be determined by physiological characteristics not just physical strength. If the alpha animal loses its hold on the top position, the next highest animal may take over. It is thought that each individual has an established social rank, with the most submissive animal at the very bottom of the hierarchy: this animal has no subordinate, just as the alpha animal has no superior.

The established group structure enables the group to replace a leader with a minimum of disturbance and disorder which might endanger the species. The members must constantly show the dominant and or submissive behavior appropriate to their ranks to other group members. Young animals in the group are generally the freest, until they reach a socially important age. Up to this point they aren’t required to adhere to the rules of the rank system, and may take liberties denied other adult animals.

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MSDS for products that are typically used in an animal sanctuary or zoo.  These are the products and Material Data Safety Sheets used by Big Cat Rescue.







































































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Other products may be updated on the Big Cat Rescue Intranet site.

MSDS stands for Material Safety Data Sheet. The MSDS is a document that contains information on the potential health effects of exposure and how to work safely with the material it is written about.