Daphne Butters’ 8th Visit to Big Cat Rescue
Tigers in Transit, Grumpy Bobcats and a Happy Hercules
I had counted the weeks down from April to the end of July, when I was booked to return to my beloved Big Cat Rescue. This time, I was only going to Florida for six days, but after a challenging three months in a new job, I really needed to go back, just to rejuvenate in the sanctuary’s tranquil setting and spend time with the big cats. My flight from Manchester to Philadelphia went without incident, and after a delay of four hours because of bad weather, I finally touched down at Tampa Airport at 10.40pm, having been traveling for some twenty-one hours. This time, my friend Carol Lawson had done all my food shopping in advance. She and her husband, Steve (not to be confused with my husband), met me at the airport. They had brought two cars – one to be left with me as well as all my BCR clothes (which now live in their spare wardrobe in Florida) and my food. They had also booked me into a local hotel, less stressful than driving fifty miles south to Bradenton, only to return to Tampa very early the following morning. This decision turned out to be the right one, especially since I was so late arriving in Florida.
The next day I was up at 6.30am, sorted out my luggage and sent a text message to Scott to let him know that I would be with them by 8.30am. Surprisingly, I found my way from the hotel to BCR with ease, even though the road system has changed dramatically over the last few months. This has had a drastic effect on local wildlife and the sanctuary has recently taken in a few bobcats as a result of losing their natural habitat – some had been injured, others were tiny kittens which had become separated from mother. Wherever possible, BCR aim to release them back into the wild, and they have already successfully rehabilitated and released Faith. Now they are working with Hope. Her story is amazing – she has been brought up by a feral domestic cat mother under the supervision of BCR staff, sharing the first few weeks with this cat and her kittens.
Perhaps the next rescued bobcat with be called ‘Charity’!
I pulled up at the gates about 8.20am, Scott was there and waved me through (normally red shirts are not allowed in until 8.30am) and I got out of the car to give him a hug, before going to park near the food prep area. I returned to the visitors’ centre and by this stage, visitors were arriving for the 9.00am morning tour, so I automatically got involved in helping to park the cars. Scott directed me to drive one of the golf carts on the tour – talk about culture shock – I had been in America less than 12 hours and had already had to switch my mind to drive on the ‘wrong side’ of the road and now I had to try to remember how to use a golf cart.
We set off and headed out past Rainedance the bobcat, Jumanji the black leopard and on to see Chloe, the female snow leopard who had seen an increase in her cage size since I was last there. Shortly after I left at Easter, Shaquille the black leopard had been put to sleep. Always one of my favourites, Shaq arrived from a performing act after he decided that the circus life was not for him. When he refused to jump through hoops of fire, his previous owner beat him leaving his skull permanently damaged and from that day onwards, until the day he died, his eyes permanently watered. Initially, he had been very nervous, though over the years I have watched his confidence soar, though he never really got over his mistrust of men, preferring the female humans. Consequently, I saw quite a lot of him over the years and it was heartbreaking when I heard the news that his arthritis had become so bad that one day he just could not get up and the decision had been made to put him to sleep. During sad times such as this, the volunteers support each other through the grief, and Julie thankfully now lets me know when there is sad news. I was not looking forward to seeing Shaq’s cage, with no Shaq, yet when we approached Chloe was out and about, enjoying her new territory and this made it a little easier for me to deal with. In fact, this was the only time I saw Chloe during my whole visit – but that is hardly surprising as she is really ‘a man’s cat’ as was proved a few years ago when my husband Steve was over. He saw lots of Chloe, took photos and video, and she openly flirted with him, which he managed to capture on film. The tour was about halfway through when it started to rain and within a few minutes, thunder and lightening started. This meant an automatic end to the tour – for safety reasons, in an area full of trees, we had no option but to cancel the rest of the tour and head back to the visitors’ centre. Better safe than sorry. This weather was to figure highly during my entire visit to BCR.
I was introduced to a new member of staff – his name is Chris and he is from Nottingham, England. He came over as an intern and BCR were so impressed with him that when a full time job came up, they knew who to approach. So Chris (who by this time was back in the UK) applied for a ‘green card’ and after a six month wait, he finally packed his bags and headed off to Florida. It was strange for me, of all the people in the world, they chose someone who is from just forty miles south of my home. I did feel rather guilty – had he known that I was coming, he would have asked me to bring some PG Tips teabags for him. I will know for next time. Chris is lovely and I am sure that he will be a great asset to the establishment.
Being Florida, the storms often don’t last too long and within an hour the sun had returned so Scott gave me the opportunity to go off and spend time wandering round to see the cats and take photos and video. I feel very honoured that I am able to do this – it’s not something that people normally have the opportunity to do. I started with Cheetaro the leopard, who resides beside the visitors’ centre, then on to Raindance, Willow & Natasha (European Lynx), Anna, Moses and Bailey the bobcats, not forgetting the naughty boys, Apollo & Zeus the lynx. These last two must be two of the most mischievous cats on site. They are always looking for trouble and today was no different. Here they were, trying to grab the long pole used to remove faeces from their cage and grab equipment as the volunteer was trying to clean out their lock-outs. In fact, they were being so naughty that one volunteer had to entertain them while another did the cleaning. They are so naughty that you cannot help but love them and their attitude. I left the boys to their antics and headed off to see ‘the cougar cubs’ – its really a bit of a laugh to call them cubs as they are now fully grown killing machines, but because they are ‘the babies at BCR’, they are still known as ‘the cubs’. It didn’t take long for one of them to spot me and soon all three had joined me at the fence. They are so funny – you can easily hear the purring and with their huge size, you would expect them to have a deep roar, but being a member of the ‘Felis’ family rather than ‘Panthera’, they can’t roar and instead have a rather high pitched squeak which sounds a little bizarre for such majestic creatures.
The one cat who is always happy to see rain is Zabu, the white tiger. She loves nothing more than to play at jumping in the puddles that form and today she was having a great time splashing in a muddy pool, getting dirtier by the minute. Cameron, the male lion that she shares her home with, was having none of it. He had found a warm sunny spot and was watching her with a look of total disbelief, probably wondering why any cat could be so stupid as to actually want to get wet and dirty. Opposite Cameron and Zabu, lives one of the smallest cats on site – and also one of my two favourites, Canyon the Sandcat. He is rarely seen except at feeding time, so I was really surprised to see him hanging out of his tree house, idly watching me beneath. This was one of the highlights of my time at BCR, as often I only get a quick glimpse of him at feeding time if I am on that particular route. He just sat there, watching me, then popped out for a stretch on the tree branch before heading back to bed.
I walked round the corner and came face to face with Diablo, a domestic hybrid – cat breeders might know this particular ‘breed’ as a Savannah because he is the result of a mixed mating between domestic cats and servals. He was an unwanted pet – his previous owners could not cope with his bad habits and attitude. BCR are unable to continue to take in these hybrids and it worries everyone that people will continue to buy these ‘exotic’ domestics and find that they cannot cope as the animal grows.
I headed down to the tiger area, looking forward to re-acquainting myself with TJ. I had first set eyes on him three months earlier and had fallen in love with his head and huge limbs. By the time I got there, it was midday and the sun was beating down. I found TJ sunning himself at the front of his cage beside the path. He is such an impressive cat – yet in a funny way, a bit scary and unpredictable. He still has a fascination for stalking golf carts and also loves to soak people by jumping into his pool as they walk past. He reminds me of a teenage boy – all legs and full of mischief. He pretends that he is all grown up and then hears a noise and bounds over like a kitten to see what is going on. I still love him – even though I am the first to admit that tigers are not my favourite big cat species. He is the first tiger that really ‘did something’ for me. Yes, I like the others, but for some reason, he is just special.
I finished my one-man private tour by heading up to see if Hercules was out. This male snow leopard means so much to me. When I first visited in 2001, I just wanted to see the place and meet Canyon, but it was love at first sight when I initially came face to face with Hercules.
I got to his cage and called his name as he was nowhere to be seen and was shocked when he sleepily emerged from his hidden den. In the heat of the Florida summer, snow leopards shouldn’t cope well, coming from a much cooler climate, and to make his life happier, BCR designed a cool den using a huge fridge, cleverly hidden behind a mock rock face. Many people visit BCR and never see Hercules, thankfully I am usually lucky to be able to see him at least once. Today was my lucky day – he must be an intelligent cat as he understands a ‘Northern English’ accent and came out when I called his name – well maybe it was just a co-incidence! It brought tears to my eyes as he came over to the fence and started rubbing the caging beside me. We held a one-way conversation – me basically telling him how wonderful he is and how much I loved him, and him lapping up all the attention. I was very careful to monitor his behaviour as Hercules has a nasty habit of biting his foot to get attention and if this happens, you must immediately move away, or he could end up damaging his skin. Thankfully he made no attempt to do this and we spent ten minutes together before I had to head off back to the visitors’ centre to help with a children’s’ tour that was starting at 1.00pm.
About sixty children arrived, aged five to eight years, and all were very well behaved, wide eyed at seeing the big cats at such close quarters. They asked lots of questions and perhaps we had a future David Attenborough within the group. At any rate, children are like sponges, absorbing everything they see and hear and the work that BCR does with children certainly helps to light the flame to hopefully make future generations more aware and sympathetic to the fauna and flora with which they share their world.
By the time we had finished the children’s tour, the main tour guests for the afternoon tour were already staring to arrive. I expected to back up one of the afternoon tour groups, but Scott had other plans. It had been three months since the cats had last been wormed and it was time for them to have their medication again. I had been on site the last time and had helped with this mammoth task and now I had another opportunity to help again. Worming takes place over three consecutive nights, every cat gets a dose each night. During this time, no operant conditioning is done as the keepers use pieces of meat to train the cats and it would mean that some cats would refuse to take the worming-treated meat if they had already eaten that day. It is impossible to mix the worming powder into chunks of meat so the minced variety is used and you can see that some of the cats are less than impressed on having to eat ‘mush’ rather than a couple of chicken legs or a chunk of red meat. Only Scott or Liz, the vet, can dish out the medication, so Scott sits with the tub of Panacur wormer, spooning out the powder into each portion of mush. We each have a large bowl and use this to mix the mush with the worming powder. It is important to ensure that the two are thoroughly mixed, as just like your domestic, these cats can fish out and leave the powder if it has not been thoroughly mixed. Now I had no problem with the mixing – but did have some issues with ‘ball size’ – please don’t laugh. Coming from the UK, I don’t have a lot of idea on what a soft ball or baseball size is and Scott kept telling me that my mush balls were either too big or too small. This caused a great deal of hilarity and at times the conversation did degenerate somewhat. I would challenge the volunteers to be able to accurately determine the size of a cricket or rounders ball – maybe I need to take one of each over when I next visit, just to help out all those interns who come over from Britain to work there these days.
One of the very long-standing volunteers, Kathryn, had changed positions since I was last there and she now works as a full time member of staff. She works in the office, her specialty is computers so she always has lots to do, though she still feeds in the evenings and helps out in other areas as necessary. Scott allowed me to go over the barrier with her to feed four of the leopards that are not on the tour path. It is many years since I last saw Bagheera and Adonis, as well as Jade and Armani. They were all excited at being fed, though did appear rather disappointed when they were only getting minced meat for dinner, instead of lovely chunks of red meat. It was under sufferance that they ate the food before them, but it is essential that they get their medication to prevent serious health problems. The tigers and lions do not get the powder version; instead they get a liquid wormer. When asked why, Scott told me that if they were given the powder type, there would be too much to effectively mix it with the correct level of meat, so they use a liquid version for the biggest cats instead.
I also accompanied Kathryn when she went to feed Aquarius the fishing cat and Windstar the bobcat. You don’t often see Aquarius, so this was a good opportunity to see her in all her glory. Fishing cats do swim and her cage is set up with pools and running water for her to enjoy. Kathryn fed Windstar and noted that this cat was scratching his ear, though there was no swelling. Everything about each cat must be noted, observation is a vital part of caring for the cats at BCR. Some are very shy and the only time you really get to check them for any potential health issues is when they feed. At feeding time, and also during cleaning, part of the job is to look for any signs of injury or illness and this must be reported. A little while after we had fed Windstar, one of the tours visited his cage. The tour guide noticed that there was some swelling on the ear and Scott was called. On our way back to food prep, Scott and Kathryn went over to check out the problem. The swelling was now very noticeable, which it hadn’t been when he had been fed an hour earlier. It would need watching.
We were back at food prep by 5.00pm, the containers were washed, floors swept and cleaned and I was ‘home’ by 6.00pm, a very early finish. Home was one of the intern cabins. Thankfully there was a spare room available so this enabled me to stay on site. However, BCR is now so popular as a training place for interns that often all rooms are taken. They now have regular applications from the UK, Canada and South America as well as American citizens, who wish to train for three months at this establishment.
Back on The Road Again
The following morning I was up at 6.00am and went to sit on the veranda to watch the dawn break over the lake before heading down to Food Prep for 7.45am. Each morning, the staff congregates in Food Prep to discuss what is happening that day – and also to put the world to rights. Scott asked me what I would like to do – clean or dirty work. I chose ‘dirty’ – to clean cages and he sent me out to do the ‘Road Section’ with Will, one of the interns. We started with Raindance, who is always so happy to greet people and rubs up against the cage wire continually. Then we moved onto the lynx girls, Willow and Natasha. I was ‘pooping’ while Will cleaned lockouts, giving me the opportunity to see the cats at very close quarters. However, with Natasha it really was “Houston we have a problem” as she plonked herself in the lockout and refused to move, making it impossible for Will to clean it. He tried everything – moving away, calling her out, putting on the hose, but no matter what he did, she refused to move and was settled for the duration. Eventually, she decided that she had irritated him enough, got up and stretched before moving out into the main area, allowing him to complete the job. As she walked out, you could almost see the superior smirk on her face.
We then moved on to Will (the bobcat, not the intern), who lives beside the three southern bobcats – Moses, Anna and Bailey and then on to those three. It is hoped that in time, Will will join the three other bobcats in their community. To clean the three, I had to get the really long poop pole as at least one of them defaecates in the middle of the cage, making it impossible to grab the ‘done deed’ with a normal scraper. The long scraper is more than twice my height and it’s a bit like trying to manipulate a long Jell-o, you just don’t seem to have control over the other end of the metal rod. However, after several attempts, I managed to manipulate the poop to the edge of the cage and grab it with the barbeque tongs. I felt pretty pleased with myself after attaining this feat – its amazing what can give you pleasure in situations like this. I can just imagine being asked what was the most challenging thing I did over the summer – and telling everyone that it was to manage to drag bobcat poop ten feet along the floor. Simple things please simple minds!
After an easier time cleaning Pharaoh the white serval, Esmerelda the normal coloured serval and Little Feather the bobcat, I headed over to clean Aquarius the fishing cat and Windstar the bobcat, near the lake. Aquarius has taken to pooping on top of her den, though I managed to get it out. Windstar was out and about. He had defaecated in his waterfall – now don’t laugh – it was a bit like Kyrpton Factor challenge game to find a way of getting the poop out of the water and into the poop bag, but perseverance paid off and I got my ‘brown gold’ eventually. I noticed that he was now holding his ear down and it was swollen. The irritation was possibly caused initially by an insect sting and he had scratched it so much that it was now swollen and very sore although he was still very active and interested in what I was doing, following me around as I cleaned. I made a note to record his ear on the report sheet when I finished. Although I did this, before I actually got back to report it, I saw Scott and BCR president Jamie over at his pen, examining him. They left and returned a little while later. Within minutes, they had enticed him over (probably using the operant conditioning clicker training method) and he was on his way to the cat hospital for treatment.
On leaving the lakeside cats, I headed over to the naughty lynx boys – who for once were on their best behaviour, allowing me to clean their lock-outs and even get the poop that they always do right in the middle of their cage (meaning that I again needed the long scraper that has a mind of its own). Today they were more interested in a rather loud squawking bird up in a tree above them so I made the most of the diversion tactics.
We finished cleaning ‘The Road’ and then double-checked the serval area. Why anyone would ever want a serval as a pet, I really don’t know. Almost every one of them has an attitude and makes a point of giving you a hiss – even if it’s only half-hearted. I have to say that I do like the servals – especially Frosty the white footed serval, though where he got his white bits from, I have no idea. He is the father of the white servals so there is some pretty complex genetic background there.
We then prepared the omnivore food and fed the cavy. These days the cavy has to be monitored while eating as rodents including squirrels, will come to steal the food if given half chance. I then went to help in the gift shop until the next round of parking for the afternoon tour started at 2.30pm. This time I backed up a tour on foot. Backing up is important – you need to ensure that everyone stays together as a group and people want to catch that special photo so are often reluctant to move on to the next cat, especially if the current cat is really close to the front of the cage.
During the day I witnessed two unusual and funny incidents. Firstly, Breezy, one of the bobcats had great fun with a group of guinea fowl when they inadvertently wandered over the barrier to eat close to her cage. She bounded over the top of her den and within seconds, her paws were through the bars as she tried to catch one – presumably she thought that they would be tastier than the wormer-filled meat that was being offered by the humans that week. Thankfully all the birds survived without injury but this incident really showed the other side of a normally placid and shy bobcat, that earlier in the day, I had cleaned. Guinea Fowl are actively encouraged to live on site, unlike all the other fowl, as they do an excellent job of eating the bugs, so help to keep down the insect population, and this is much more environmentally friendly than using insecticides.
Secondly, I saw something that made me wonder if I had been accidentally eating magic mushrooms and it was actually a hallucination. As we stood near the edge of the lake, I saw a golf cart towing a tiger cage (like one used in the old circuses) with a tiger inside it. I had to look twice as it just seemed so bizarre. Here I was, just ten minutes from Tampa airport, watching a tiger being transported around a site using a golf cart. Yes, it was totally safe and secure, yet I really did not expect it to happen that way. It turned out that they were moving Snorkle, one of the tigers who had always lived in the back area, away from the main tour path, to his new home beside Bengali. His cage had previously been Buffy’s home, and since the beloved Buffy had passed away of old age a couple of months earlier, it was now a new home for Snorkle. Later, we went to visit Snorkle in his new home, and whilst his next door neighbour, Bengali, was still unsure and ‘eye-balling’ him, Snorkle couldn’t care less. He had already inspected every area of his new abode and by the time we got there, he was lounging in his pool. Snorkle came to BCR from a small family circus. He had been underfed as a cub and consequently, because he was smaller and weaker than he should be, he was bullied by other tigers at the circus and suffered a badly bitten nose. He got his name because of the funny noise he makes when he ‘chuffs’, which sounds like he is drowning. He is a very happy tiger and should be a real favourite with visitors on future tours.
We finished the tour about 4.30pm and then monitored the visitors’ area until they had all left site. Back over to Food Prep to help to clean up and we were all done and dusted by 5.00pm. On both days there had been a number of heavy rain showers and thunder storms. If you visit a tropical area like Florida at this time of year you have to expect this. However, in an area with so many trees, there is abundance of insect life, much more than on the coast or the usual holiday resorts, and these creepy crawlies just love to come out when the rain stops. It was very noticeable that there were a great deal of mosquitoes around on Tuesday and in fact one of the interns, Andrew, had mentioned to Scott earlier in the day that a bite he had suffered on the upper arm, had started to develop an angry red line down towards his hand. Scott said that he would get the vet to look at it. This caused much hilarity, seeing the vet rather than a doctor. However, it later emerged that the vet had examined the inflamed area and told him to seek medical attention, which he did, and was diagnosed with Cat Scratch Fever. He had obviously been bitten and then he had scratched the area with dirty hands, so infected it. This is one of the reasons that you always wear disposable gloves when cleaning and feeding the animals. Whilst everyone was sympathetic to Andrew, there was talk of sending him ‘get well catnip’ and a tin of cat food. Now before you are put off coming to visit BCR, because of the bugs, let me say that, the volunteers are much more likely to be bitten as they work in the longer grass areas away from the tour routes. Don’t be put off, but do use an insect repellant – if you forget, they usually have lots available at the visitors’ centre.
Time to Leave
By Tuesday evening, I had several bites, mainly from mosquitoes. After all these years, I am now well aware that I have sensitivity to these bites, probably worst with fire ants, and use a very strong insect repellant, combined with antihistamine and antibiotics to prevent infection. Generally it works well, but there was one particular bite on my wrist that was really swelling up and by the time I got to the house, hand movement was restricted. It did not hurt, it was just frustrating to deal with. Early the next morning, after talking to husband Steve on the phone, I made the decision to leave that night, rather than irritate things further. I believe that if I could spent a much longer period of time on site, I would eventually build up an immunity to these stings, but just doing a few days does not give me long enough for the immune system to really kick in. I had to be sensible, I know that this happens to me and I did not wish to end up becoming ill, so with a very heavy heart I told Scott that I would be leaving on Wednesday night.
I started the day by helping to clean and feed the rodents in the food prep house. They are used to feed Hope, the baby bobcat, as, cruel as it may seem, this little bobcat must be able to catch her own life prey before she can be released. Though they do not like the idea of keeping rats and mice to be used as prey, this is the only way that Hope can be trained to survive without human help. At the moment she is eating about four or five live mice per day, but soon she will be introduced to rats. Eventually she will learn how to kill and eat turkeys as in the area that she will probably be released, wild turkeys are in abundance and will probably form the major part of her diet.
There were more ‘red shirt’ volunteers on-site today. Every volunteer must wear their shirt at all times on site. Red shirts are the bottom rung – trainees, and eventually after much training and hours put in, they may graduate to ‘yellow shirt’ (keeper status) and eventually green shirt (senior keeper). The majority of red shirts were sent over to cut down an area of foliage beside the lake. Scott told me that I could go off to take more photos and see the cats, since it was my last day. After spending several minutes with Rainedance, I headed into the sanctuary to see if Hercules was about. Once again I was in luck – he was out and he came over to greet me, sitting down on the other side of the cage from where I was standing. I must have spent twenty minutes with him, got some photos and video, but mainly I just stood just watching and talking to him. It was a wonderful experience and one that I will treasure forever. He (and of course Canyon) is one of the main reasons I return to BCR year after year. I cannot believe how lucky I was in the amount of time I spent with him this time.
It was very difficult to drag myself away from Hercules, but I did want to see as many cats as I could, knowing that in a few hours I would be leaving. I chatted to Enya the cougar. When we first met back in 2001, she was living at the back of Scott’s house and was recovering form having eaten a poisoned raccoon that had dared to enter her cage. She almost died after that incident, required major surgery and suffered liver problems, but today no one would ever know how ill she had once been. She loves human attention and always makes a bee-line over when she sees a ‘two-legs’ approaching. Now she lives opposite Sugar and Shadow, other cougars, and has much more stimuli than she had in her old home. I left these three, heading off to see ‘the cubs’. Once again, Orion and Ares came wandering over, no sign of their sister Artemis though. They were up to their usual playful antics, Ares trying to be sensible whilst Orion put on that silly expression that he is so well known for. I took some video, and when I got home, Steve watched it. The squeaking and purring noises that those boys made were of great amusement to Steve, making him laugh out loud at their clowning around. I also went over to see Shere Khan and China Doll. Next to them, Aurora is now back in her original cage. She had been way out over the back area for a little while because her enclosure was getting a full overhaul and she is very pleased to be back in the main body of the sanctuary. Aurora has health issues, caused by in-breeding and she has both neurological and skeletal problems. The new set-up includes a gentle incline up into her sleeping den, and in front of one area is a beautiful garden. Aurora likes humans, she will follow you as you walk down the path and today she came out to see me. As I walked round the corner, I saw a group of guinea fowl busily eating at the edge of the perimeter fence. Aurora spotted them too and came bounding over in her usual clumsy way, jumping towards them to frighten them away, before wandering off, looking very pleased with herself. I was so lucky to catch the entire episode on video and it really does look funny.
Finally, back to Canyon – unbelievably he was hanging his head out of his den again so I spent several minutes with him. He came out and went back into his tree house several times. I had been luckier than ever before with Hercules and Canyon on this visit.
Do We Need an Ark?
I had to be back at the visitors’ centre for 10.00am for a children’s’ tour, where I was going to back up one of the groups. Within minutes of the tour starting, the rain started and very soon we were all soaked to the skin. We offered to take them back to the visitor’s centre and some decided to do this. I took them back, whilst the tour guide continued with the reduced group until I got back to her. The rain appeared to ease, though ten minutes later it returned with vengeance accompanied by thunder. This time, we all had to return to the visitor’s centre, health and safety of guests and workers must take precedence. By this stage we were absolutely soaked to the skin and once the visitors had left site, I actually wrung out my dripping t-shirt. That night I found that my underwear had also turned a delicate shade of pink, quite a pretty shade if that is what I had wanted. The rain continued, getting heavier and heavier, we fed the cavy and the interns went off for an early lunch. Meanwhile, unknown to me, Barbara had gone off site for pizzas, to have a special lunch for me. The staff congregated in the food prep and we had the biggest pizzas I had ever seen in my life! It was a lovely end to a great visit – despite the rain. It’s a bit of a joke now – Daphne always brings the rain. But, the weather in Florida had been dry and harsh for the last couple of years so any rainfall is very welcome.
The vet had visited to examine Windstar and found that he had a haematoma on the ear. This is a collection of blood outside the blood vessels. The area had been punctured and apparently the blood had squirted everywhere because of the pressure build up. A very grumpy Windstar was moved back to his enclosure on Wednesday after veterinary treatment and a night in the cat hospital. However, catching the problem early prevented permanent damage and once he gets over his bad mood, Windstar will be fine.
The rain continued, leading to the afternoon tour being cancelled. That is not good – no tour, no money coming in. I sat under the veranda with Barbara and we watched the rain pelt down. A family of peacocks came up to investigate us and one of the babies was extremely bold, coming right up to peck my fingers. Barbara was desperate for it to come up to her, but it refused, obviously preferring British hands! How bizarre – sitting in the rain, being pecked by a baby peacock. I hasten to add that it’s actions did not hurt and it was fascinating to have one come right up to me. There was concern about whether the final night of worming could go ahead as it is vital that the worming powder is kept dry to prevent it clumping in the tub, but eventually the rain eased and we were able to carry out the third night of worming. Once again there was much humour over the size of balls that people were making – I won’t go down that route here!
After a successful worming session, we went back to the food prep house, checked on the rodents and helped to clean up for the night. Once again, I got the ‘final photo’ of Scott and I – you can see that I really look a bedraggled mess because of all the rain, and then it was time to say my final farewells to everyone. This is so hard for me, but I was determined not to cry in front of everyone, and managed to hold back the tears until I was just about to go through the gates. Once again, I ended up having to stop at MacDonald’s to compose myself before beginning the fifty mile drive south to Bradenton.
Scott had been over in the UK in March, to be part of the filming for a programme on ‘The Beast of Exmoor’ and the weather had been dreadful with continual heavy rain. In July, he was invited to go to South Africa to be part of a programme on lions. He did get to see lions, though not a lot else. You imagine that Africa will be hot – but poor Scott visited in mid-winter and spent the entire time in his heavy winter coat yet again. The ‘MonsterQuest – Beast of Exmoor’ has now been aired in the USA, perhaps it will be available here too in due course, but it can be seen if you search the internet and wish to watch it online. I look forward to seeing Scott’s latest programme on lions, probably due out at the end of the year. However, he is not impressed with the weather he has suffered during his two trips abroad and said that if it happens again, then he wants to go somewhere warm – I wonder if tiger watching in India could be the next expedition for him?
A Twist in The Tale
During my visit, Scott told me that a British film company had been over to BCR to film them, as part of a series called ‘Tiger Island’. This series is based on the day to day running of the Isle of Wight Zoo, and in fact Scott had been over to visit the zoo during his UK visit, to offer advice on BCR’s experience of cage design, operant conditioning and general care. Unfortunately, Tiger Island is a regional programme, only aired on the south coast of England, so I had never seen it. However, I thought that I had been really clever when I found a way of seeing the regional programmes on Sky TV. Just by chance, I was staying with a friend in Southampton when it was on and I also asked Steve to record it for me. I could not believe my eyes when it turned out to be the very programme showing Scott and the cats at BCR. I sat in tears as I saw Shere Khan, Jumanji and the rest of the gang on TV. Of all the episodes to be on the television when I could see it, it had to be the very one on Big Cat Rescue! How freaky is that? Some disappointment was to follow as for an unknown reason the programme had not recorded at home. I had wanted to be able to send this over to Florida for Scott to see. However, all was not lost. I decided to contact the owner of the Isle of Wight Zoo, to ask if anyone had recorded the episode and whether I could borrow it, explaining my connections with BCR. Charlotte replied and said that she would send me a copy of the DVD once she had it, which was very kind of her. The Isle of Wight Zoo is working very hard to continue to make superior enclosures for their cats, they are specializing in caring for rescued tigers and their most recent rescued acquisition is Rambo, an ex-circus tiger who came to the Isle of Wight all the way from Miami, Florida. Like BCR, they need financial help to enable their work to continue – big cats are very expensive to care for. They need people to visit and support them, so if you are ever near the Isle of Wight, you might consider going to see the big cats of ‘Tiger Island’. I have already decided that I will make a special trip to the Isle of Wight to visit the zoo, meet Rambo in person and hopefully get together with Charlotte. What a small world this is turning out to be. When I fist found the Big Cat Rescue website back in July 2001, little did I know that it would lead to all this.
And so my Big Cat Rescue experience is over for another year. It has been a bitter-sweet few months, several old cats have died over the last year, most of whom I have known since I first started going across the big pond to visit them. However, I am happy in the knowledge that this place gives them the best possible life that anyone can, if a big cat is resigned to a life in a cage. I am thankful that one of the volunteers, Julie, now e-mails me with the news, especially if someone has passed away, so I no longer worry that I will be greeted with bad news on one of my favourites when I arrive on site. I had a wonderful time – despite the rain and the bug bites – that is all part of the experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I finish this article with a poem by Pat Moon. I contacted Pat to ask permission to use this poem for Big Cat Rescue as it is so apt. Although the cats at BCR have grass beneath their feet and lots of foliage in their enclosures, they must still spend their lives in a cage and not wandering wild and free, though no fault of their own.
Tiger in a Zoo
“She stalks a steel-branched jungle
And paces concrete grass,
Though her stripes afford poor camouflage
Behind the metal bars.
She paces concrete grass
And sees the horizon shimmer
As beyond the city’s drizzle,
The distant mountains glimmer.
She sees the horizon shimmer
Beneath the uncaged sky
And hunts a shadow antelope
As spectral vultures fly.
Beneath an uncaged sky
My imagination stirs,
But the zoo is her world
And always has been;
And the dreams are mine
Not hers. ”
Keep up the good work Big Cat Rescue. I pray that laws are changed so that people cannot keep big cats as pets, thus enabling rescue sanctuaries to become a thing of the past.
MAKING DREAMS A REALITY
2008 Note: This is an archived item so many of the statistics, costs, offerings and policies may have changed. To see current tours and prices click HERE
Have you ever dreamed of visiting a place with over 170 exotic cats, from lions to leopard cats, tigers to bobcats, 22 species in all, available for the public to see? Well there is such a place, just ten minutes from Tampa International Airport in Florida. When I found Big Cat Rescue on the Internet I could not believe my eyes. Despite the fact that it was three thousand miles away in America, I knew that I just had to visit this place.
I stumbled upon Big Cat Rescue (BCR) by chance while searching for information about Sand Cats, a small feline species living in the Sahara and the Middle East, for an essay I was writing for my feline studies diploma. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I read page after page about different rescued wild cats living at the sanctuary. At the time, my husband was trying to find me a very special present for my 40th birthday. Now I really knew what I wanted – a trip to (BCR) would be a dream come true.
In early August I contacted (BCR) to find out more, decided to stay at the sanctuary overnight, do the full “Expedition Day” and booked my flight to Tampa. Now all I had to do was wait four months and count the days before my adventure would begin. It very nearly didn’t happen… With the events of 11th September, there was a period when I wondered whether the airline company would cease trading or there may be a halt to travelling to the USA, but thankfully neither happened and on a cold foggy late December morning I headed over the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester to catch my flight. Next stop, Florida.
Big Cat Rescue was started in 1993 by Carole Lewis and her husband. Carole’s affinity towards cats (which included breeding Persian Longhairs for a while) would eventually lead her to having one of the largest exotic cat rescue sanctuaries in the world. Carole is a Real Estate Agent (similar to an estate agent in the UK). One day back in the early 1990s she attended an exotic animal auction and amongst the items for sale was a Bobcat kitten. Thinking that it would be a great idea to own one of these cats, Carole bid and bought it. Shortly afterwards, she thought that it would be nice for her Bobcat to have a few friends, so after much searching, managed to locate a place where Bobcats were bred. She drove from Florida to Minnesota, and upon arriving at the farm, was horrified to find that it was actually a fur farm. In her naivety, she thought that the owners were probably breeding mink, went ahead and chose her six new Bobcat kittens. After choosing her new babies, she casually asked what would happen to the other Bobcats if they weren’t sold. She was told that they would be used in the fur trade. (A point to note is that only the pale tummy fur is used, the rest of the pelt is discarded and it takes twenty Bobcats to make one fur coat!) Horrified, she bought all 56 Bobcats and brought them back to Florida, where she enlisted the help of friends and family to raise them. Being just a couple of weeks old, they still needed to be bottle-fed and it was a round the clock job for all concerned. So Big Cat Rescue was born.
Being in Real Estate, Carole had her finger on the pulse and eventually managed to locate 40 acres of derelict land, being sold very cheaply because it was a filled-in refuse dump, full of old bicycles, cans and rubbish. Over the years it has been transformed into a leafy refuge for rescued large cats and today you would never guess its original purpose. According to those who work there, an occasional piece of metal can still rise to the surface after very heavy rainfall and the volunteers spend much time checking that the ground is safe to walk on for both man and feline.
Over the years many cats have spent time at Big Cat Rescue. Unlike in Britain, where one must hold a special license to obtain a wild cat, in America it is very different – if you know where to look, you can buy a tiger cub on a street corner in Miami or from sites on the internet, and take it home – no major restrictions or license required, although some states do require a permit. Cute as they may seem when they are small kittens or cubs, they soon grow into large animals, and many become unmanageable in a home environment. The lucky few end up here, but many more are destroyed or sold to game farms in the USA where people will pay to hunt and kill them. Hearing this really made me feel quite sick and I am very thankful that we have more restrictions in the UK to prevent similar occurrences.
In all, I made three visits to (BCR) during my week in Florida. Having arrived at Tampa on Thursday evening, I spent Friday visiting a Maine Coon breeder and then, with two American friends, headed to the sanctuary for a “Wild Eyes At Night” experience. This event takes place on the last Friday of every month, after dark, about 8.00pm in our case. Our guide, Jennifer, took us around the sanctuary in the dark, with just a flashlight. It was a good opportunity to see some of the shyer cats, many of which sleep during the day. It was quite daunting to see the 850 lbs Siberian-Bengal cross Tiger come bounding up to us from the hidden depths of his three acre pad. Known as Shere Khan, his story is all too familiar to those working at (BCR). Provisionally sold as a very small cub by a tiger breeder, his new owners refused to pick him up, because he was not white, and the breeder kept him in a pet carrier until he was four months old when Carole discovered him, while flying through Indiana. Consequently he did not receive enough calcium, nutrition and exercise and by the time he arrived at (BCR) some three months later, his teeth and bones were in a very sorry state. His baby teeth were disgraceful and had rotted through his face, causing the need for surgical drains to be installed. After much supplement and tender loving care he is now the largest cat on the premises although he still doesn’t look “quite perfect”. There are several cats living at Big Cat Rescue who have suffered a comparable fate with similar consequences.
As we wandered round in the darkness we were greeted by various noises as the cats recognized Jennifer, from tigers chuffing to lions roaring. We met Nikita, a lion cub who was (BCR)’s latest addition, arriving just a couple of weeks before my visit. What a character, chasing her tail, rolling over and doing head stands. She had been confiscated from a drug dealer during a raid and spent a short time at a zoo before arriving. Because she had been de-clawed, she could not remain at the zoo to run with fully-clawed lions and money was raised to bring her here, along with three Bobcats rescued at the same time. We also met Shaquiel, a rather shy Black Leopard who had been badly mistreated by his pervious owner when he wouldn’t perform in a Las Vegas nightclub. As we walked round we saw Fishing Cats, Jungle Cats, Servals, Caracals, Lynx, Bobcats, Ocelots, and lots of Pumas (also known as Mountain Lions or Cougars) as well as the odd domestic cat. This tour lasted almost two hours, and was well worth the $20 we paid.
The following day we started our real adventure, known as “Expedition”. Arriving at 9.00am, we were taken through the rules before being given our “Volunteer” t-shirts, which we were told to wear at all times when on site to allow identification. The main rule is “The Three Foot Rule”. Even if there are no barriers between you and the cats’ pen for some reason, and even if it seems the sweetest cat in the world, rubbing its head along the cage wire, don’t ever go closer than three feet. After all we, are dealing with wild cats here, some of which would just love to taste a finger or two. Failure to obey this rule leads to immediate expulsion from the site. Of course, there are occasions when the three-foot rule doesn’t count – but more about that later. After our initial talk, we then headed off into the main sanctuary to meet the cats. For anyone who wishes to see wild cats up close, this place really is a dream come true. We were greeted by Shere Khan – looking even bigger in the light of day, and his companion, China Doll. We watched Pisces the Fishing Cat dive into his pool for food, half a dozen ex-circus tigers all looking for attention, three lions including Nikita, the cub, still doing headstands and chasing her tail, Enya the cougar, who was recovering from liver failure, various groups of Lynx with the biggest ear tips I have ever seen, Bobcats lazing in the grass, Ocelots with amazing coat markings, Amur Leopard Cats, Jungle Cats, Servals being “hissy” (apparently that’s what they are best at), elegant Caracals, huge Leopards both spotted and black and five Sand Cats, the species that had helped me to find (BCR) in the first place. The list goes on and on. Each cat had its own story, and many did enjoy human attention, coming over to greet out tour guide, Jamie. As well as cats, there was also a group of Binturongs (Bear Cats, not a real cat but a member of the mongoose family) including a big male called Banjo, clumsily climbing a tree. When he gets excited he smells like popcorn cooking! There was a family of lemurs, who arrived after their owners divorced.But the love of my life was Hercules, a male Snow Leopard. He was just wonderful, with a tail so long that it curled round and round over his back, and feet that looked far to big for the body, reminding me of a clown. Hercules was house-reared but now lives in at large purpose-built cat-a-tat ((BCR)’s name for a cage) with a walk-in freezer cleverly hidden in fake rock, which enables him to keep cool during the hot Florida summers. It was quite a shock to learn that this endangered species can still be purchased as a pet in America. I really loved him and visited him several times during my time at the sanctuary. We were accompanied on our tour by various domestic cats, which were free to go where they liked. Interestingly, they were all well aware of the three-foot rule too! I guess that they would only make a mistake once, judging by how interested the big cats were in them.
The tour lasted about two hours and then we started our interaction. Some of the cats are so tame that people are allowed to go into their cat-a-tat with them and this is when the three-foot rule can be broken. Before entering each cage, we disinfected our hands, and were reminded that we were now entering their home and should respect this fact. If they didn’t wish to be petted, then it was their choice and we mustn’t pursue them. This was my chance to actually touch Caracals, Lynx, Bobcats and a Serval. Elijah, one of the Caracals, took an instant liking to me, making a beeline for me on each occasion – he wanted my camera, he rubbed against my legs and on one occasion tried to jump up. Sadly this last action meant that we had to leave – the cats are not allowed to jump up for safety reasons, and this rule is strictly adhered to. The rising star of the interactive cats was Moses – a Southern Bobcat who had been left, dumped in a carrier, at the gates of the sanctuary a few months previously. Still a kitten, he just wanted to play, and when you threw his toys (yes, cat toys just like we have at home, but bigger) he would bring them back to you. It is difficult to believe that I played ball with Bobcats, felt the difference in coat texture between them and the Lynx, and stroked a very beautiful Serval called Esmerelda. We had three interactive sessions in total, visiting seven different cat-a-tats and it was a great opportunity to take photos without the cage wire being in the way.
After a short break for lunch, we were off again. The first afternoon activity was training – the cats, not us. This is not performance training, but essential training, getting the cats to stand up on their hind legs against the cage wire so the paws and underbody can be examined. They also learn to go into their “lock-out”, a small cage attached to each cat-a-tat. Their water is kept here, and this is where they are fed so they associate this place with good things. But there is another important feature of the lock-out. If an animal needs to be closely examined, given medical treatment or moved (either to visit the vet, or in extreme weather conditions, such as a hurricane), this is where they go. The lock-out is detachable, enabling a safely caged animal to be transported as required. We all got the chance to try our hand at training, some worked with Conan, a large tiger, others including myself, worked with Catrina, the cougar, getting her to stand up, go into “lock-out” and sit down on all fours. We did have a few problems with my English accent, but got there eventually. Reward was given in the form of a piece of meat on a long stick and the cats seem to enjoy this interaction.
The next session was enrichment, where we all had to make up special boxes of goodies. We placed meat, fish, or large bones together with fresh herbs in the box before sealing it and rubbing the outside to make it smell attractive to the cat. Our job was to hide the box in the cat’s pen, whilst the cat was safely locked up in its lock-out. Then the cat was released to find its box. I hid my box in Sabre’s pen. Even though this huge black leopard was safely locked up, the adrenaline still pumped around my body as I entered his cat-a-tat. On his release, he sniffed round before jumping up on the mound where the box lay and began to tear it open. It was interesting to note that in the majority of cases, the cats were more interested in ripping up the box to play with, rather than eating its contents, a sign that these cats were very well fed.
After another interactive session, it was time to give the cats their daily feed. At this point of the day, its all hands on deck with over two hundred animals to feed before darkness falls. The sanctuary has three full time employees and about thirty volunteers who work on a rota to keep things ticking over. Many of the volunteers have a full time job and still manage to spend a further twenty to forty hours a week working at the sanctuary. There are different grades of volunteer, depending on their hours and experience. Some spend their time working in the gift shop, others keep the grounds tidy or cut up food. Gradually, as their experience widens, they will start to help with the various animals, eventually having more responsibility for certain felines. It is plain to see that these people build up excellent bonds with their charges; helping them to overcome any difficulties they had prior to arriving at (BCR). We all got the chance to feed Shere Khan – he ate nine chicken legs at one sitting. Other food in the form of red meat chunks and minced meat mixed with vitamin and mineral powder are also given to ensure the cats obtain a healthy balanced diet. Each cat has a set diet, listed on a sheet, and on Sundays the cats are not fed at all, to give their bodies a “rest day”. This is an approved method at zoos and sanctuaries across the world, for keeping the carnivorous cats in the best of health. As we approached each pen, the cats ran into their lock-out, ready for their dinner. I also fed a cougar, although this cat wasn’t quite as polite as the tiger and snatched the large chunk of red meat greedily. During feeding time, I was lucky enough to see Two Toes, the Bobcat that I had adopted back in the summer. She is an ex-fur farm cat and very nervous, only coming out to eat. I had originally chosen to adopt her because of her name, in memory of one of my old cats, also called Two Toes. Because she is so nervous, no one had ever adopted her, probably because they never get to see her. I was fortunate, managing to obtain some video of her eating her food.
As darkness fell, we left the main body of the sanctuary to head for our cabin, since we had made arrangements to spend the night there. Once it becomes dark, you are not allowed to wander around the site just in case you trip over the barriers and have an accident. However, you may leave the site but must be back by 10.00 pm. I had booked the Kenya Cabin, which was part of a converted barn. However, once inside you would never have guessed it, with all modern conveniences, such as TV and microwave present. The décor was amazing, photos of African wild cats hung on every wall, drapes and cushions of lions, and even the shower curtain design was big cats. The bedspread was of lions and tigers and to top the lot we had CCTV, which focused on the Sand Cats. What more could we ask for? Right outside out door was a cat-a-tat where Little Feather, one of the original Bobcats lived and we spent a considerable amount of time watching her prowl around her pen in the darkness. We could also hear the lions roaring in the distance.
The following morning we took a walk around the sanctuary to see the cats again before meeting with the others for our last interaction of the tour. Once again we played ball with the bobcats, especially Raindance who was a real favourite, threw toys for Moses, and Elijah the Caracal took another liking to my jeans. Thankfully no one sprayed on us during our visit, but it is not unheard of! Before leaving I made arrangements to adopt Hercules and Canyon the Sand Cat who was responsible for me find the sanctuary in the first place. As the gate closed behind us and we drove back up the dirt track to the main road, I knew that my dream had finally become reality. I had been able to spend time with wild cats.
According to the web site, Wildlife on East Street isn’t too easy to find because they are not allowed to have a big sign to advertise it. There is just a small discreet sign on a post with the picture of a running tiger. However, we had no problems finding the place, and it really is just ten minutes or so from Tampa International Airport. I left the sanctuary feeling rather bitter-sweet and very emotional. Whilst it had been wonderful to see so many feline species in one place, the fact that they were all there because they were rescued or unwanted was very sad. Some had been abused or severely underfed at their previous home. However, they are the lucky ones – in 2001, twenty-three new cats arrived, but fifty-one had to be turned away though lack of space and finances. This place has no outside financial help, it must be self-supporting and in 2001 it cost around $375,000 to maintain, $347,000 was raised in donations and the rest came out of Carole Lewis’ own pocket. One hundred percent of all donations go towards caring for the animals.
But that wasn’t the end of my experience. The following Thursday I convinced my friend Melissa that we needed to go back to take just one more look, so we got up at 6.00 am, drove north for an hour and a half (I was by this time staying with some friends near Sarasota) and arrived for the standard morning tour, where we once again visited the various cats and had interactive time with my friend Elijah. I was fortunate enough to meet the founder, Carole Lewis, with whom I had been in contact via e-mail over several months. It was great to put a face to the name. I told her that it’s a pity that (BCR) is so far away from Sheffield, since I would have loved to become a real volunteer.
Big Cat Rescue has had some famous visitors, including Ian Anderson of the rock group “Jethro Tull”. Ian is a real cat lover, who actually has a link from his website to (BCR). I managed to contact Ian, telling him of my experiences at the sanctuary. Ian replied, saying of (BCR), “Like all sanctuaries of that sort, they have the dilemma of showing for the public and housing animals who have sometimes been mentally or physically abused, rehoused from private facilities or dodgy zoos. But they do a good job and seem to have a great rapport with the animals, many of whom are quite sociable with humans”.
I hear people ask “Why can’t they be released back into the wild, especially the cats native to North America?” Well the truth is, these cats have all been hand-raised, usually taken from their mothers at only a few days old, so they would not be capable of looking after themselves if released. Occasionally, cats come along which can be released, and these do eventually go back to live in the wild, but the vast majority end their days at Big Cat Rescue.
My dream came true – I got to play, pet, train and feed lots of different wild cats. Whilst it is very tempting to want to handle them in the same way I handle my domestic cats at home, it is important to remember that these are wild cats, and therefore, to a degree, unpredictable. The volunteers do a fabulous job, its not all fun – cages to clean, maintenance work to do, but they seem to do it with a smile on their face and are always willing to answer questions, no matter how obscure they may be. These people obviously love their work. However, if you ask the volunteers what they would really like for the sanctuary – the majority will answer “For this place not to be needed anymore”. Sadly, because of human nature, it seems unlikely that their dreams will become reality unless there are major changes to the laws on keeping exotic animals.
So if you are thinking of visiting Florida this year, and have some free time, consider taking a trip to Big Cat Rescue. There are some restrictions on taking children, they must be at least twelve years old to do the standard tours but (BCR) have just started a new program for children of all ages every week, (prior appointment required if under 12 years old). Also you mustn’t wear any heavy perfume if you wish to go in with one of the cats. Standard day tours cost $20 and last about 1½ hours and no prior booking is required. The full day, called “Expedition” costs $100 and up to two people can stay the night for a further $100 in one of the cabins around the site (this all needs to be booked in advance). The staff are very helpful and will go through all the “do’s and don’ts” if you contact them before your visit. The phone number is 813 920 4130 if you call from the USA, don’t forget to add 011 if calling from the UK or e-mail them at email@example.com. For those of you who can’t actually visit, then do take the virtual tour by visiting the website at bigcatrescue.org where you will find so much information about the different species of cat around the world as well as the animals living at the sanctuary.
As for me – well my visit was certainly one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but being interested in the smaller cat species, which are rarely seen in zoos, this is not unexpected. Considering that I went thinking that this was “ the trip of a lifetime, a one-off experience”, my friends are not surprised to learn that I am now saving up to do it all again some day.