Shaquille the Black Leopard


Tears dropped down onto his lifeless form from the eyes of those who had gathered around Shaq to ease him over to the other side. His black spotted fur, dappled by the afternoon sun, glistened but no longer gave rise and fall to his sedated breathing. His 17 year prison sentence ended today.


Shaquille the black leopard at Big Cat Rescue

Shaquille the black leopard at Big Cat Rescue

We were remembering the proud, fearless leopard and how he had touched all of our lives with his strength to overcome the awful lot he had been dealt. Shaq had been born in a cage. He was bred to be used in a nightclub act by a trainer who made his living from the suffering of many big cats. As long as people would pay to see big cats doing stupid pet tricks he could count on a good living by providing the disposable product of the trade; young, compliant felines.


Cubs live with their mothers for the first few years, so breeders pull the cubs before their eyes open and bottle raise them to be completely dependent and subservient to their human master. By the time the cats are a year old, they are nearly full sized; appearing to be adults, but still mentally kittens. The crowd is wowed by the mastery of the trainer over what they think to be a full-grown and fully intact lion, tiger or leopard. Usually they are declawed, defanged cubs who have been beaten into submission repeatedly behind the scenes.


A well known tiger tamer boasted to me that the way you teach a big cat “who is boss” is to chain them to a wall and beat them with a whip, standing just out of reach. After a while the cat learns that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot retaliate and after a while gives up hope. His spirit dies and he is considered tamed or trained.  The training goes on behind locked doors because the public would never support these wild animal acts if they knew the truth.


The trainers all claim that they only use “positive reinforcement” and when in front of the public they do, but the cats are ever reminded of the brutal force that will be used against them if they fail to comply. Sometimes it is in the carrying of a whip, which the trainer will defend as only being a guide, and sometimes it is in the verbal threats using words that only the cats in the ring can hear. It can be as subtle as a look (remember how your mom could do that?) or a gesture that the cat associates with pain.


At Big Cat Rescue we use positive reinforcement or operant conditioning as it is often called as a way to keep the cats’ minds stimulated and to assist us in their care and it works… when the cat wants it to work. This sort of training involves rewarding the cat with a little cube of meat for doing something we need them to do, like come into their feeding area, or show us a paw, or lay down next to the wall of the cage so we can give them their vaccinations or treat minor injuries. We do it because taking care of 100+ cats goes a lot easier if you have to get flea treatments on them and they come when called. It isn’t feasible to chase down a tiger just to put a few drops of Advantage on him. The cats at Big Cat Rescue do it because it is something fun to do and they are bored out of their minds. The agonizing boredom of captivity is the hardest issue for anyone to address when caring for animals who cannot be set free. We never withhold food from their main meals, so the treats are merely the cat’s way of measuring if they got our request right.


It’s helpful, but it isn’t reliable. The cats only respond to this kind of training on their own terms and for those who are being paid to perform for the public there isn’t the option of just turning to the crowd and saying, “Sorry, the cat doesn’t want to jump through the
hoop today.”


Shaquille the black leopard had been beaten by his former owner Karl Mitchell

Shaquille the black leopard had been beaten by his former owner Karl Mitchell

In Shaquille’s case, people paid to see him jump through the burning hoop in the nightclub show and he was going to jump or die, and he knew it. He knew what would happen if he didn’t and one day, upon reaching adulthood, he proudly decided he wasn’t going to do it any more. It was in the early days of the sanctuary when we would rescue a cat but not require the owner give up their rights to own again. Our policies evolved as we witnessed time and again that breeders, trainers, photo booth operators and exotic pet owners would dump the cats as they grew up in favor of new babies.


The first time I saw Shaquille and the cougar who came with him, I thought that some horrible accident must have happened en route to us.  Calling the former owner we learned that the injuries they suffered from had been the result of the beating they had taken at his hand for not performing. He had no remorse and had broken no laws because there are virtually none that protect the big cats. When we complained to USDA we were told that beating big cats to make them perform was considered “standard training methods.”


The cougar had a fungal infection in her brain because it had been exposed from the crashing blows to her head and wasn’t long for this world after that. Shaq’s face was the consistency of ground hamburger and his eye sockets had been crushed so that even years later, when he had fully recovered, his eyes teared constantly. His involuntary trail of tears were a solemn reminder of the abuse he had endured.  His story was told to thousands who visited him at the sanctuary, once he was comfortable around people, and to millions who visited his page on the Internet.


Shaquille’s indomitable spirit has been an inspiration to so many. He purr-sonified strength in adversity and the ability to forgive. As a result many people around the globe made a connection with him that bridged the gap perceived as “us” and “them.” All of those thoughts were passing through our minds as he breathed his last in our arms.


The silence of the moment was shattered by an unearthly howling across the refuge. Hallelujah, a cougar and, the first big cat to come to the sanctuary, made the same proclamation as has become his habit when cats cross over. To my ears it was both chilling and  comforting.  Hal’s timing and the fact that he never otherwise makes such a call let us know that we really are all connected. We feel each other and that connection transcends our physical bodies.


It is sad for us to lose the physical connection with another that we best understand, but Hallelujah reminded us that Shaquille and all those who have gone on before him are ever in our midst.


Leopards are designed to run 40 mph and leap 20 feet. They are strong swimmers and climbers and in my opinion are the smartest of all cat species. No cage is sufficient for their needs. Shaq was born in a cage, lived 17 years in a cage, and died in a cage…but now he is free.


His work is done. He brought to light the dark side of the entertainment industry and he put the torch in your hands to continue exposing animal abuse until it ends. You are his voice.


Visit Shaquille’s tribute page created by Julie Hanan.



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