Michael Miller has created all of the audio files for the big cat bios on this page and for our Vox guided tour system. He has been a true joy to work with and has a passion for protecting cats. If you need any kind of voice over work, we highly recommend Michael, not only for his talent, but because of his integrity and his inspiring sense of gratitude.
Some things happen EVERY day, some things happen a few times a week, some things happen once a month and some things happen once a year. The problem with all of this structured order is that EVERY day there is some chaos introduced, so it is always a balancing act to take care of both the critically important, and the things that have to get done every day.
To Set the Stage
There are 80+ exotic cats on 67 acres and about 80-100 volunteers and staff to care for them. Some cats have more than one cage, or Cat-a-Tat, as we call them, so there are 110 cages and most are the size of a person’s home, up to half acre – 2.5 acres in size.
70 of our cats are already past 15 years old, which is very old for these cats. (In human terms, it’s like being over 100) Right now, 30 of our cats are over the age of 20, which is practically unheard of elsewhere. Because we are dealing with so many old age issues we have a LOT of cats who get medications twice a day, EVERY day. If you have ever tried to pill a cat, you can appreciate the lengths our Keepers have to go through to get a cat to take their meds.
Our cats eat every day. Most zoos fast several days a week, but our cats are old and no one likes to go hungry, so 7 days a week the cats are fed by a cadre of volunteers. The food is taken from the freezers to the cooler a day or two in advance to thaw, and then each day special diets have to be made up for a huge number of our cats, because of medical issues they have, and all of the cats are fed. We feed whole prey rats and rabbits two days a week, which arrive frozen, and the rest of the week it is a combination of a ground beef diet, that has their vitamins and minerals pre mixed in, and chicken and beef chunks.
This is the happiest time of the day for the cats. A couple hours before feeding they all start pacing around and calling out to the Keepers when they hear the wagons hauling the buckets, full of food, coming down the path. Keepers shut the most dangerous cats out of the feeding lockouts before feeding time, so they can safely drop the food in on the platters. Then the cats are let in to feast!
All the buckets and utensils have to be washed, floors in food prep mopped and food set out for the next day to thaw.
Another thing that gets done every single day is the Cat-a-Tats all get cleaned. That’s like cleaning 110 homes a day where the inhabitants poop all over the place and try to hide it.
Each Cat-a-Tat has one to three bowls for water and a platter for food. Every single day the water is dumped out, the bowls are scrubbed and refilled, and the platters are sanitized and washed down.
If the cats dragged their food into the cage, the Keepers have to spot it and pull it out using long, L shaped scraper rakes to get the stuff to the side and tongs to pull it out through the side of the cage.
This is probably why no one comes to our barbecues.
A lot of things are going on while the cats are being fed and cleaned as well. All Keepers are looking for changes in the cats’ condition, behavior, food left behind and what the cats’ scat looks like. They are looking for cage and grounds maintenance issues as well. As soon as they finish feeding and cleaning they log into the computers and record their observations. Those observations immediately generate emails to the vet group for animal health issues, and to the maintenance people for the cage and grounds work. The Operations Manger, the CEO and the President are copied on all of these observations in real time so we all know what is happening.
Any of our volunteers or staff can subscribe to these alerts if they want to be informed and they all have access to our BigCat.me Intranet site where these issues are reported. The Operations Manager then has to check off the Observation, once she has taken a look at the issue, so that everyone knows that someone in charge has double checked the situation. All of the health related issues become a permanent part of each cat’s record.
We are closed to the public on Thursdays, but every other day of the week we have guided tours. All tours are led by a tour guide, with a back up to keep everyone together. They are done in groups of 22 or less, so everyone can hear as the guide shares the stories of the cats and what people can do to protect them in the wild and from captivity.
We have a tour every week day at 3 PM (except Thursdays) We also often will have busloads of children from schools, scouts, summer camps, etc. and busloads of cruise ship guests. We offer private tours throughout the day, as we have volunteers available to give them, so there are often small groups of people learning about the cats and their issues.
We have the large guided tours three times each weekend day, as we have many more of our volunteers available on week ends than on week days.
We also have Feeding Tours, where guests watch the Keepers feed and learn about what cats eat in the wild and at Big Cat Rescue. We have Keeper Tours where guests learn how to make enrichment for the cats and then go with the Keepers to see it handed out. Once a month we offer a Night Tour. Sometimes we have really special, special tours; like this week a Keeper from Spain, where we are helping a sanctuary build a facility for rescued circus cats, is coming for a week, so she will be shadowing our people in every aspect of what we do. Many of our private tours are for VIPs, large donors, other rescue groups, and those who pay extra for them.
Training the Volunteers
All of our animal care is done by volunteers. We can do that because of the intense training our volunteers get. Every day volunteers are taking classes, from other volunteers, and are getting their certifications. A certification is a sign off they get from a coordinator (the person in charge that day) saying they are proficient at the task. There are always at least 3 sign offs needed for each certification to be complete. So the way training works is:
1. The volunteer takes the class by watching a video or being read to by another volunteer.
2. They take and pass a test.
3. They go out and watch someone do it right 3 times.
4. They go out and do it, while being watched by a coordinator 3 times, to be sure they got it right.
5. They are certified as competent for the task.
6. Later in their career they can apply to be a teacher or coordinator to help train and lead others.
There are 30 or more of these classes they have to progress through, in a particular order for them to be able to proceed up the ranks of Red, to Yellow, to Green to Navy Blue. We use shirt colors to show a person’s level of expertise and time spent with us. Red is first 6 months and requires 4 hours a week, Yellow is next year and a half and requires 6 hours a week, Green is after 2 years and requires 8 hours a week. Keepers have to be Green to feed or clean the lions, tigers, or leopards. Navy is after 4 years and requires 16 hours a week of volunteerism.
Our interns train 6 days a week, daylight to dark, so they fast track through these levels. They live onsite and come from all around the world because this kind of training isn’t available any where else.
Training the Cats
Every day the Keepers do Operant Conditioning with the cats. This is training the cats to do things we need for administering their vet care, by using positive rewards (meat on a stick) to get them to do things like, show us their paws, open their mouths, let us give shots or draw blood from their tails. We never with hold food and never punish a cat in any way, so it is fun for them.
Cats are so smart that keeping them entertained is one of our toughest jobs. Operant Conditioning is a great way to alleviate their boredom. In addition to training the cats, the Keepers are constantly being trained and certified.
Enrichment is made on Wednesday nights by a dedicated group of volunteers who come to the sanctuary after work. In order to have enough enrichment to hand out every day, it takes them hours to stock the freezers with blood cicles and tuna pops. The volunteers make daily enrichment items that are small, easy to hand out and enough of them for 100 cats to get something new every day.
These creatives also manufacture, from all safe materials, some pretty spectacular mock ups of rhinos, giraffes, mice, Pinatas, Valentine’s day items, etc. Some just for the fun of it and others for filming for our holiday themed videos or for special occasions. Watching the cats tear these toys apart is a lot of fun because the cats show such gusto for it.
The cats get other seasonal enrichment items such as pumpkins for Halloween, turkeys for Thanksgiving, Christmas trees, and watermelons in the summer.
The Stores Support the Cats
The Gift Shop is open every day but Thursday, so there is always a lot going on in there. Our online and gift shop sales generate a lot of money for the cats so Partners (our non Keeper volunteers) are always busy fulfilling orders and shipping them, answering phone calls that range from: “Where are you located?” To “I have a lion I want to get rid of.” Got two of those calls last week.
Whenever you’re talking retail, you have a lot of decisions to make as to what will sell, labeling, organizing the shelves and the storage areas, seasonal decorations, and the dreaded annual inventory, which is an event of epic proportions, including a buffet to help everyone get through it.
Partners are trained to be nice to guests, to be able to answer questions or find someone who can, to keep the Gift Shop looking spiffy, to manage the huge groups of people (sometimes a few hundred at a time) who are all piling into our store before their tour. Our store is about 1000 square feet, so it’s crowded in there, but we don’t have room to expand it any further. We play our videos, via our Roku channel on a T.V. in the store and one in the back yard waiting area, so guests can get a preview of what we do while they are waiting. We are very strict about how people are to behave around the cats so we have a video they watch on our rules right before the tours.
We have had to raise our tour prices every few years because we have become too popular and can’t handle the crowds and still maintain the tranquility of a sanctuary. We use a ticketing agency called Zerve to handle our tickets and scheduling, which has increased revenues considerably and it tells us an hour in advance how many people are coming. We still have to scramble to find tour guides and back ups, and there is a considerable amount of cross scheduling, to make sure nothing falls through the cracks, when you are dealing with about 30,000 guests each year.
Our tours have 3 different ways of being done. Very small tours will be a guide just talking with the guests as they walk around the property spotting cats. Large tours usually have the guide wearing a transmitter and the guests each wearing a receiver with a headset, so they can hear. What they hear will either be the guide talking or we have an iPhone / Android app called Big Cat Rescue, where guides can play the stories of the cats. We prefer this method as it insures the guest gets an accurate message. Memorizing 100 cat stories has proven difficult for the best of tour guides.
At the end of the tour, people are asked to contact their lawmakers to ask for laws that ban the private possession of big cats, and to end the cub handling that causes all of the surplus big cats to be bred, used and discarded. They are greeted by one of our Legislative Interns who helps them place the call or write the letter on the spot.
People tell us all the time how surprised they were to get a thank you from us. We make it a habit to send a written thank you note to every donation over $25. When you consider our income is close to two million dollars a year, that’s a LOT of thank you notes.
It seems like there are a steady parade of trucks delivering piles of mail (that has to be sorted out to the right staff), supplies, water, soft drinks and the MEAT TRUCK. When the meat truck arrives it is all hands on deck to quickly transfer thousands and thousands of pounds of cat food into the freezers. We can store about 20,000 pounds of meat in our two freezers and the cats consume about 500 pounds a day.
Big Cat Rescue keeps all of its fundraising and admin costs under 20% (35% is considered the industry goal) by only paying staff to manage people and having all animal care done by volunteers. Because of the way we manage the sanctuary and our finances we have one of the highest charity ratings given at Charity Navigator. Even though we are closed to the public on Thursdays, we still have to manage volunteers 7 days a week.
That includes making sure they know they are appreciated by sending the birthday cards, anniversary (of joining Big Cat Rescue) cards, get well cards, condolence cards and showing our appreciation through recognition on our Intranet site. It means making sure they have clean conditions to work in and an environment where we all adhere to a Code of Conduct that encourages respect.
Taking care of our staff and volunteers means making sure their equipment and software is working, up to date, virus free and a lot of trouble shooting with computers, routers, Vox boxes, Internet connections, the registers, Roku, a stack of iPads and iPhones, that are used for tours and caring for the cats.
Intern Housing Tiger Tail Lodge at Big Cat Rescue
Every day there are intern issues to deal with from screening and interviewing new ones, arranging their flights, visas, airport pickup and trips out for groceries, if they don’t have cars, to training them, to doing house inspections to make sure they are caring for their foster kittens properly and keeping the houses clean.
Interns move on site for 3 months at a time and for many of them it is the first time they have ever been away from home. We give a crash course in how to get along with others (up to four others in their house) and how to take care of themselves, domestic kittens and, of course, all of our big cats.
All volunteers and interns clock in and out on a Volgistics time clock. We have to monitor that everyone is putting in sufficient hours for their color level and we reward those who are over achievers. Every class and certification has to be documented in every volunteer’s file, and when they seek a promotion, all of their coordinators have to be consulted to vote on the promotion.
If there are any conflicts the Volunteer Committee sits down with both parties to hash it out in an environment that ensures privacy and a resolution that works for everyone.
We are a NO TOUCH facility! Anyone caught touching an exotic cat is thrown off the property and never allowed back in. As you can imagine, our people LOVE cats and really, really, really want to touch them so we partnered with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Fostering is Cool to help save kittens and their moms from being killed in county run shelters.
We take the moms with kittens, or the orphaned kittens who are too young to adopt, and bottle raise them until they reach 2 pounds. They are then returned to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay to be altered and adopted. Many kittens come to us so young they have to be bottle fed every 4 hours around the clock. The interns keep the kittens in their houses at night, and bring them to the Kitten Cabana during the day, so they can continue their care.
When the kittens are weaned and get their shots, the other volunteers can play with them in the Kitten Cabana. It’s great therapy for our cat loving crew and the kittens are so loving and trusting, after all the handling, that they are adopted right away.
We are a news distribution service for anything exotic cat related. We have google alerts set for most species of wild cat and other terms such as zoos, sanctuary, etc. We curate the news daily via Spundge and then broadcast it out to the key word specific pages of our website and to our social sites. We also comment on the most pertinent stories, to educate reporters and readers about the truth of the matter and give links, documents and statistics to back it up. We are changing the conversation out there from, “Oh, how cute it is to pet a tiger cub!” to “Where is that cub’s mother and where will that cub go when it gets too big to pet next month?”
Disseminating our message; which is that big cats don’t belong in captivity, is done daily via our website which gets upwards of 2.5 million unique visitors a day, on our Facebook page that has more than one million fans and often has weeks where our reach has extended past 10 million people, our YouTube channel which has had more than 100 million views, and a plethora of other social sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Google Plus and others. We can’t just post our position and walk away. We have to engage in two way conversations with hundreds of thousands of people in order to help them understand the big picture when it comes to cats in cages.
Managing Real Estate
The founder donated many real estate parcels to the sanctuary over the years to create an income stream for the cats that was not tied to tourism or donations. This means there are daily issues of renting properties, evicting non paying squatters, marketing and selling homes, developing vacant lots and selling them, paying taxes, doing site inspections, dealing with county employees who drag their feet in permitting, trying to find new ways to keep tenants from stealing all of the appliances when they leave in the middle of the night, getting people to pay their mortgages, paying lawyers and grounds keeping on empty parcels.
So Far This Has Been the Daily Grind!
Three times a week we are performing K-Laser therapy on several of our cats in an experiment to cure hot spots, lameness and arthritis. So far the lameness in a bobcat, caused by a blood clot, has resolved, but we are still working on the others. We hold a blood ‘cicle or tuna pop on a stick through the side of the cage so the cat comes up close enough for the laser.
Some things only happen once a week, like going to the big box store and stocking up on snacks for the volunteers, cutting the grass, and big projects like painting a cage, or landscaping. Thursdays are usually set aside for doing big projects because we don’t have to break at 3 pm to do tours.
The vets are both volunteers and each of them comes out twice a week. They have a list, from the Observation Charts, and go out to check on cats and make recommendations for their care. They may decide to bring a cat into our onsite hospital, or to their clinic. Last year we had nearly 90 vet procedures which was up from only 20 the year before. As our cats continue to age, we expect those procedures to continue to escalate.
Laying out the medications for the cats is a weekly task for someone on our vet care team. They have to count out all of the pills, delete them from our inventory, put them in bags, labeled for the right cat and the right instructions, and these are kept under lock an key.
About once a week we will be asked to host some sort of corporate, church, school or other team building event where non volunteers come for a day and do something for the cats. Since we can’t let untrained people near the cats, these projects are usually grounds maintenance.
Once or twice a week we field calls from the press about some situation in the news. Today it was all about the Tiger Temple bust, and Tony the truckstop tiger being in Discovery Magazine. Yesterday is was a production crew pitching a story idea. Last week it was because of the release of a new book about saving tigers. These are excellent opportunities to reach far beyond our own fan base with our message. They suck up a lot of time, but it’s worth every minute.
Every week we are contacting and educating lawmakers, influencers and decision makers so they choose animal friendly options. This is done via email, phone calls, in person visits and hand written cards and letters.
About once a month, or every other month we are called on to rescue a cat. If it is a native bobcat that has been hit by a car or injured by a hunter then there is usually a death defying chase involved and it always seems to end up in a lake or river. There is then all of the emergency care for the bobcat and then weeks of rehab.
If the call is about a captive cat then we have to get the owner to contract with us to never own another exotic cat. We won’t let people dump adult cats on us just so they can try out a new baby. If they agree then we have to coordinate with their vet, or a vet in their area to issue a health certificate and we have to get an import permit from the Florida Wildlife Commission. In most cases we have to go get the cat and that could be anywhere in the U.S. The kind of people who have wild animals as pets are usually a crazy lot and dealing with them makes you want to pull your hair out.
They usually talk in manic circles as if they are on crack, they don’t return calls, they keep putting off the vet visit or the rescue, they give you false information, they don’t want you to tell anyone about what they did, they don’t show up the day you arrive to get their “pet” and they are just generally unreliable.
Sometimes it is a governmental seizure, so we can’t tell anyone where we are going or what we are doing until we have the cat safely in the vehicle and are heading back to Tampa. In most cases either the agencies, or the owner won’t allow any filming, so the most exciting work we do, is usually not something we can show. The shortened time for letting supporters know about the rescue is also a choke hold on donations.
The time leading up to and during a rescue is when people are most likely to donate. Once the cat is safely within our gates, most are off to the next exciting rescue and don’t think about the fact that we have just made a lifetime commitment to caring for the cat we just rescued. One tiger will cost us 10,000 a year for every year the cat lives with us. Last year a tiger was 25 when he died, so in a case like that, if he were rescued at the age of 10, he would typically cost us 150,000 over his lifetime.
The cats are de-wormed and de-flea’d once a month. It’s no easy task either because they don’t like the taste of the wormer and if you ever tried to put Advantage or Revolution on your own cat, you know they smell that coming a mile off and run under the bed. Same here, but their beds are big concrete cave dens. We have to get more clever all the time.
Golf carts need battery maintenance and washing. A/C filters have to be replaced. Sheds are reorganized. The vehicles may need oil changes, washing, tires checked, etc.
The Holleys are a couple of volunteers who come in a couple times a month to build platforms and “ADA” ramps for our old cats.
We send out a monthly newsletter called the AdvoCat to 82,000 people on our email list. Each e-zine typically has 10 or more stories including updating our supporters on cats rescued, cats who are ailing, cats who have died, holiday goodies for them from our BigCatFun.com site, exciting news in the cat world, progress on legislation to ban the private possession of big cats, and 3-5 of the most shocking examples of exotic cat exploitation and a call to action for people to speak up for the cats.
We try to get out a weekly podcast, called the Cat Chat Show, where cat experts are interviewed online, but that has dropped back to about once a month lately.
The Big Cat Times is a printed newsletter that we write, publish and distribute quarterly. We try to reach as many people as possible via email, but some of our audience still prefer the printed version. This has the top stories from the AdvoCat newsletters and breaking news, along with a couple of pages of mail order gifts that support the cats.
We host Volunteer Appreciation parties that can range from having a cat expert come and speak to the volunteers, to staff dunk tanks and lawn games at a pot luck lunch, to taking them out to see a big cat presentation at the theater, to costume parties, jewelry making parties, karaoke and anything else we can think of, to show these wonderful people who donate so much of their time, how much we love them.
About once a quarter we will have to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being in close proximity to those who abuse big cats for profit and see us as one of the primary threats to their activities. It may be a stake holder meeting by the state’s wildlife department, or a town hall meeting, or a congressional meeting, where we have to go to make sure the only people the decision makers hear from are not just the industry, that profits from using the big cats as pets and props and for their parts. The kind of people who breed tigers, rip the cubs away from their moms and then use them as pay to play money makers are a nasty bunch of people and will try to bully us out of the venue. This has resulted in being physically attacked, vehicles damaged and having insults hurled at us for speaking up for the animals.
The cats have to be vaccinated. Operant Conditioning helps a lot, but nobody likes getting stuck with a needle; much less with two. The cats get the same vaccines as your domestic cats (but a killed virus) and a rabies shot. We have 70 cats who are due for their boosters soon.
We became famous for a black tie event called The Fur Ball and won a number of awards for this gala that attracts up to 800 guests. It took a year of preparation though and we stopped doing the Fur Ball 4 years ago to focus more intently on legislation to end the trade in wild cats. Our supporters beg us, all the time, to do it again, so maybe next year. What made the Fur Ball such a hot ticket was that it was all about having fun whereas most fundraisers are all about patting yourself on the back and thanking sponsors.
We attend Taking Action for Animals and have been the largest sponsor of the event for the past two conferences. We often present at this event. We attend Animal Sheltering Expo and other cat related conferences and workshops that are annual events. We host an onsite event called the March for Lions, or something similar that will attract up to 500 guests. We donate to conservation projects every year around the world.
Annual events include our state and federal inspections. The breeders, dealers and animal exploiters make a career out of filing false complaints, so we have to deal with such inspections a lot more frequently than annual because the bad guys include OSHA, the EPC and many other government agencies on their speed dial list of ways to harass us.
These agencies have been forced to come out here on bogus complaints so many times that they are usually embarrassed to do so, and the complaints never amount to anything.
We have to renew licenses, permits, Combined Federal Campaign applications, solicitation permits in all of the states, and contracts for printing and distribution of our brochures.
Emergencies are pretty frequent, given the age of our cats and the number of things that can go wrong. Some of our cats are prone to seizures, and there isn’t much you can do for a big cat who is having a seizure, but it usually means someone stays with the cat and the vet is called if they don’t recover right away. To us it is an emergency if a cat doesn’t eat for two or three days in a row. Cats hide their illnesses well because in the wild, it is survival of the fittest.
If a cat stops eating then we either hand feed the cat so we know exactly what is going in and what is coming out, or we may have to move them inside the Cat Hospital to monitor that. That is especially true if the cat is weak, unresponsive to their environment, or it is cold or rainy. The vets will be alerted and the first one with an opening in their schedule will see the cat, either on site or at their own clinics. This all sounds pretty easy, but getting a sick cat into a transport cage is no easy matter.
It usually takes 4-6 people and we start the easy way and work our way up to the hard way as methods fail. We always try to get the cat to load themselves. This would be to shut the cat in half of their cage and put a transport in the other side of the cage, covered with a blanket to be a nice dark spot, at the guillotine door. We open the guillotine door and try to surround the side of the cage the cat is in, so they will want to walk away from us into the box. If that doesn’t work, we try to lure them into their feeding lockout, but that’s hard to do if they aren’t eating well to begin with. If we can lock them in that area, then we move the transport box up to that guillotine door and try to shoo the cat over.
If that doesn’t work and the cat is smaller than a cougar, we may have to suit up with boots, gloves and nets and go catch the cat. The cat is then shifted from the net to the transport box. If that isn’t an option, because the cat is a cougar or bigger, or because the cat is too aggressive and dangerous, then we have to resort to darting the cat. That is always a last ditch effort because sedation is very hard on the cats and if they are sick, doubly so. Any time a cat is sedated there are hours of sitting with them to make sure they wake up.
Thankfully, except for medical emergencies, most of the day to day emergencies are relatively minor, like a hose bib busts and there’s water spraying everywhere until we shut down the well pumps. Then there’s no water for cleaning cages, toilets, etc. while we scurry to replace the pipes and fixtures. A cat catches a possum and we have to rescue the “sleeping” critter. The front end loader breaks down and we put it back together with bailing wire and duct tape. A rabid raccoon starts threatening the cats and has to be caught and sent for testing. (that’s happened twice) A tree falls down, or is about to, and we have to become lumber jacks. The road washes out from heavy rains and we have to have tons of rock delivered and then have to spread it over the quarter mile road that leads to our front gate.
If we are known for anything, it is probably for being innovative in our approach. We are always looking for a better way to do our work. This includes major undertakings, such as building up an endowment to make sure we can always provide for the cats we have rescued. It includes automating our tours, our training, our observations and management of the cats, using ZIMS for our medical records, installing solar panels to provide clean energy and just yesterday we took Big Cat Rescue completely off the grid by partnering with Arcadia Power to ensure that ALL of our energy comes from wind, solar and other totally earth friendly sources. We use Melaleuca cleaning supplies because they are non toxic and do not test on animals. We built a Vacation Rotation area that is 2.5 acres so that all of our big cats get two 2 week vacations in the area each year.
It is easy to fall into a rut of responding to one crisis after another and never taking the time to think about the future. Instead we take a strategic approach to make sure the cats we have already rescued will have optimal care until they die of old age. This business like approach enables us to do the things necessary to provide that care. Our donors are kept abreast of everything we do and jump in to help.
Just recently a couple donated a much needed X-ray machine, which meant we had to build the new Windsong Memorial Hospital to house it. They helped with that and other donors, large and small, began chipping in to buy a surgery table, a dental wet table, autoclave, monitors and just about everything necessary to completely outfit the new hospital. We built the Windsong Memorial Hospital with a viewing theater that has a glass floor, so our volunteers can learn from the medical procedures without being in the room. We were able to take one generous donation of the machine and leverage it into creating a much needed facility that will mean no travel time for our cats to go to outside clinics and a much improved learning center for volunteers who are studying to be vets and vet techs.
We help other sanctuaries and rescue groups do the same by sharing our resources at workshops, conferences and one on one. We are always looking for a way to do things better and make the world a better place for cats… and people.
Did you know that the exotic pet trade causes more suffering for big cats than all of the other atrocities combined? Every week we are called upon to rescue another exotic cat because the sanctuaries are full and there is not enough money to take care of all of the rejects of the pet and entertainment industry. We take in as many as we can, but always have to consider the needs of the animals we have already committed to first.
In this video, you will see facilities that are currently licensed and approved by the USDA and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. As atrocious as it is, many have been operating at this level or worse for more than 10 years. Yet they are still permitted to remain open to the public. When you watch this video you will understand precisely why we need better laws. Join us in this effort to change the exotic pet laws!
Help us stop the breeding of wild animals for lives of confinement at CatLaws.com
ABC did an undercover investigation, with help from Big Cat Rescue, that you can watch online HERE. Be sure to watch all of the clips listed there. They start out the same but are very different. What they do share in common is the grim truth that some people are using animals in ways that put the public in deadly contact with dangerous animals.
The Animal Protection Institute completed a one year investigation into the cause of so many exotic animals being abandoned by going undercover into the homes of members of Phoenix Exotics and the Feline Conservation Federation. Watch the shocking video HERE and then TAKE ACTION. Please help support API for the great work they have done in exposing these issues.
The following charts are just the calls that we get personally. This is only a small percentage of the overwhelming problem. The saddest news is that, as one of the world’s largest exotic cat sanctuaries, if we cannot take them, there is virtually no where else for them to go.
** Wild Animal Orphanage collapsed in 2010 which caused the spike in displaced tigers. It would have been 39 if not for this influx.
We cannot even begin to take in every exotic cat that has ended up in abusive and neglectful situations. More and more we are dedicating our time and resources to stopping the problem at it’s source, by educating people about the pet trade and entertainment industry. Although we are taking in fewer cats each year, we are working harder toward solutions that will ultimately benefit all exotic animals. As laws become more protective for the animals, abusers are bailing out, and as you can see there has been a huge increase in the year 2003 of abandoned animals. Accredited facilities like ours, which meet the high standards of The Global Federation of Sanctuaries, need interim support to care for these animals and the revenue to pursue a change in perception that will ultimately end the suffering altogether.
View this slideshow to see what life is really like for captive exotic cats. Play Slideshow.
Did you know?
That the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that only 10% of the 10,000 tigers in the U.S. are in professionally regulated zoos and sanctuaries. Add to that more than 5000 cougars and assorted other big cats and you start to see the enormity of the problem. Up to 10,000 tigers are kept as private pets, according to R. Eric Miller, senior vice president of zoological operations at the St. Louis Zoo. By contrast, there are fewer than 400 tigers in American zoos, Miller said.
The U.S. State Department estimates that the market value of tiger parts at $7,000 for a set of bones. Tiger and other illegal wildlife products have reached $10 billion a year and possibly twice that. China is the largest market, with the United States a close second. Newsweek 2/4/08
There are only 1200-2000 tigers left in the wild due primarily to habitat loss and hunting. According to the World Wildlife Fund the tiger population has declined by as much as 95% in the past hundred years.
Even though Florida has an outright ban on possessing tigers as personal pets, the state now has 1,455 tigers (according to the Palm Beach Post), a 50 percent increase in 15 months and second only to Texas in the nation. Florida also has 262 USDA exhibitors for big cats, more than any other state. There are more tiger breeders in Florida than anywhere else but there is no plan for reintroducing tigers back to the wild and none of the tigers bred by these backyard breeders are pure bloodlines that could ever be used in Species Survival Plans.
That just in the state of Florida there are 3,837 people with permits to own wild animals. Of that number 389 facilities are permitted to own tigers, gorillas and other Class I & Class II dangerous animals, but only 21 are accredited zoos and only 3 are accredited as rescue facilies. 0.0002 of FL’s populations owns exotic animals and yet all of us pay the price in safety and damage to the environment when no-longer-novel pets are turned loose.
The undercover video above was filmed in FL. About IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) Founded in 1969, IFAW works around the globe to protect animals and their habitats and to create a better world for animals and people. Please support www.ifaw.org. Media clip provided by IFAW through TheNewsMarket.com
Florida issues almost 4000 exotic ownership permits each year and has to employ 18 inspectors at a cost to tax payers of 1.5 million dollars per year, just to allow people to keep, breed and sell exotic pets. Permits cost between 50. and 250. This falls 1,250,000.00 short of enough to cover the cost of administration. What can a County in Florida do to ban exotic pet ownership when FWCC says they have supreme authority and no intention of banning this inhumane practice? Click here to see what the Attorney General has to say.
That 98% of all exotic animals die within the first two years of being brought home as pets.
That with our existing cryobiological collection it is no longer necessary to keep breeding endangered species in captivity to preserve the species. More than 675 endangered species are preserved in the Frozen Zoo for repopulating the planet if we ever manage to set aside habitat that can sustain them.
That just since 1990 more than 23 people have been killed in the US by captive cats. See updates.
That the illegal portion of the 15 billion dollar trade in exotic pets is third only to the market for illegal drugs and weapons? (In 2007 the U.S. assistant secretary of state for environmental affairs, Claudia McMurray, estimates that the wildlife trade is valued at anywhere from $10 to $20 billion a year.) The Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking says the trade is often closely linked to organized crime, and follows the same routes as those used to smuggle drugs and people.
That in 2005 some 210 million wild animals were brought legally into the U.S. and many more were smuggled, because there are just 120 USFWS inspectors to cover 39 International airports and all of the border crossings. In just the legal importations that means each inspector must view and approve the health of almost 15,000 animals per day, every day of the year. See what is happening as a result here.
That for every one performing animal you see, there were 30 that were killed or discarded because they refused.
That it is still legal to raise and kill or trap and kill bobcats, cougars, lions and lynx for their fur and for the exotic meat industry.
That only 19 states ban big cats as pets in this country and most of those states have ridiculous loopholes that are exploited by those intent on breeding and selling big cats as pets.
That there are only 90 USDA inspectors who are responsible for inspecting more than 30,000 breeders, dealers and exhibitors of wildlife.
Until recently, most exotic cats seeking refuge came from pet owners, but since the 1990’s the majority come from badly managed facilities operating under the guise of being non profit sanctuaries. Most of the cats end up in these pseudo sanctuaries after being used as photo and handling props.
18.2 million Americans own exotic pets according to a recent National Pet Owners Survey. That’s a 1.4 million jump since 2002, an increase that is probably understated since a good portion of this trade is illegal.
It is important that lawmakers understand how much people care about animals. New figures just released from APPMA’s 2005-2006 National Pet Owners Survey (NPOS) show pet ownership is currently at its highest level, with 63 percent of all U.S. households owning a pet which equates to more than 69 million households.That’s up from 64 million in 2002 and 51 million in 1988 when APPMA’s tracking began .According to the 375 page survey that tracks hundreds of pet ownership trends, Americans own approximately 73 million dogs, 90 million cats, 139 million freshwater fish, 9 million saltwater fish, 16 million birds, 18 million small animals and 11 million reptiles.
There is a growing trend to prohibit the use of big cats in traveling acts and to ban their possession as pets. Read more: Big Cat Bans
If you like what Big Cat Rescue is doing to stop the suffering and abuse, please help us continue to do it:
Examples of Big Cats We Rescued
If you don’t jump through hoops at work,
does your boss smack you in the face with a baseball bat?
Think your job is stressful? Shaquille had to jump through flaming hoops, as part of a Las Vegas night club act. And when he didn’t perform as well as expected, his boss beat him bloody with a baseball bat.
As a result, this 150 lb. black leopard bears lots of scars. His face was so badly beaten that his eye sockets were permanently shattered, causing the eyelids to roll in. His eyes will always tear as a sorrowful reminder of the abuse he endured. Perhaps they are also tears for all those other animals who are still made to perform for man’s entertainment.
Big Cat Rescue may have saved Shaquille from further pain, but this majestic black leopard will always carry physical and emotional wounds. For years he would leap at the cage and hang there snarling whenever a man came into view for fear of being tortured again. Over time, however, he has become much more comfortable with his surroundings. Now Shaquille lounges the day away and enjoys room service provided by loving care takers at the Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary. With his new found care and trust, men don’t even draw so much as a second glance from him any more.
As an accredited non-profit educational rescue facility, Big Cat Rescue will continue to feed, love and care for Shaquille and other abused, abandoned big cats. The number of animals they take in keeps growing and growing, now encompassing over 100 exotic cats representing 16 different species. You’re invited to take a tour and see Shaquille and all the other big cats. It’s the largest and most diverse collection of exotic cats in the world. You can actually get within three feet of these magnificent creatures. A small tax deductible donation is encouraged, which will go directly to the care and feeding of these exotic cats.
While you are here, look into how you can personally sponsor any cat on the premises. With your support, Big Cat Rescue will continue to give these animals new lives and new hope.
Even animals have been brutalized
because of the color of their skin.
Believe or not, many tigers have been persecuted and killed simply because of the color of their skin. Shere Khan almost faced such a horrific death – at the hands of man. Like many of his ancestors, he was bred to be a white tiger because zoos will pay as much as $30,000.00 to have one of these rare animals to help attract the paying public. Unfortunately though, bearing a white tiger is a genetic fluke. Therefore, hundreds of unwanted golden colored cubs are born and then discarded in order to produce that one valuable white cub. Many of the little golden cubs are destroyed or sold to exotic pet owners. They often end up being abused, abandoned, killed for their fur, or cruelly hunted and slain for fun at big game ranches.
After having the misfortune of being born the wrong color, things went from bad to worse for Shere Khan. Unwanted and uncared for at only four months old, he was living full time in a tiny pet carrier. Soon, his growing body was almost bulging out the sides. Denied a decent diet, Shere Khan’s teeth and bones became so brittle, he could not walk more than a few steps without having to sit down. Over time, his teeth actually rotted through his skull causing huge weeping sores on his face and chin.
Luckily, Shere Khan was discovered and saved by Big Cat Rescue. They were able to get him early enough to save his adult teeth and restore his bone strength. Given new life, Shere Khan has grown into a mighty 800-pound tiger. He has become one of the most enamored cats on the premises, as he endears visitors by roaming around his 3-acre Cat-A-Tat, playing with his 75-pound medicine ball, or swimming in the lake.
You can take a tour of Big Cat Rescue’s accredited non-profit educational rescue facility and see Shere Khan face to face. It’s the only place where you can actually get within three feet of these powerful predators. Here, you can view over 100 big cats representing 16 different species, which make up the largest and most diverse collection of exotic cats in the world. Any donation you can make is tax deductible and will help Big Cat Rescue continue to shelter, feed and care for the cats.
Sentenced to death by electrocution just for wearing a fur coat.
That’s the cruel fate that awaited Raindance, as she lay imprisoned in a cage in a filthy, cold, metal shed on a Minnesota fur farm. Sadly, her only crime was being born with a beautiful fur coat. This cute, cuddly, healthy Northern bobcat was going to be electrocuted and her soft spotted belly cut out to make trim for coats. Worse yet, she was just one of hundreds of bobcats, Canadian Lynx and Siberian Lynx who faced the same death sentence if they weren’t sold to a pet home before they reached one year of age.
Thankfully, Big Cat Rescue saved Raindance and 55 other kittens from that slaughter house. And life has never been the same. All these cats were under four weeks old and many had to be fed every two hours. Big Cat Rescue employed family, friends, and anyone who could hold a bottle to keep them all fed and clean.
Raindance and these kittens were lucky. Many others, however, have not been so fortunate. Today, thanks to Big Cat Rescue, Raindance is a healthy, full-grown adult bobcat with a gorgeous spotted coat that is the envy of everyone. She is one of the most popular cats at the Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary. She gets fan mail and holiday cards from around the world. She has been painted, photographed and made the subject of countless school reports, poems and letters because she is such a loving creature who immediately engages visitors with her playful personality. And to think how many people would have never experience the feeling of connecting with the wild, if she had been slaughtered on that cold, dreary day.
You can take a tour of Big Cat Rescue and personally meet Raindance. As an accredited non-profit educational rescue facility, Big Cat Rescue houses over 100 exotic cats representing 16 different species. They make up the largest and most diverse collection of big cats in the world. Get closer than you ever imagined — within 3 feet of these amazing creatures. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Any donation you can make is tax deductible and will help Big Cat Rescue continue to feed and care for these exotic cats.
Nakoma was purposely starved, deprived of vitamins and calcium, and kept in a small concrete space. Hardly conditions fit for a king.
That’s when Big Cat Rescue stepped in and purchased young Nakoma at a livestock auction. Imagine that, the “king of beasts” being auctioned off . Nakoma was so crippled in the hind legs and so malnourished that no one wanted him and he was sold for only $200.
Only a year earlier this little lion cub was the picture of health and vitality. His owner made money by selling people the opportunity to have their photograph taken with the cute and cuddly lion cub. In the state of Florida, however, it is against the law to allow contact with a big cat over 40 pounds. So Nakoma’s former owner purposely starved him and deprived him of vitamins to keep him under the weight limit. As a result of this deficiency, Nakoma developed paralysis in his hind legs. Crippled, unwanted and abused, he was found with gaping gashes in his body that had become infested with maggots. Yet despite all this, he was still a very lovable, talkative cub.
Big Cat Rescue took Nakoma into their care. But after a year and a half of proper nutrition and supplements, he was still having an increasingly hard time moving his back legs. It took him two hours just to walk across his pen by dragging himself with his front paws. X-rays, a spinal tap and MRI all came out negative, meaning that Nakoma’s paralysis had most likely been caused by the thiamin deficiency he endured.
On July 12, 1998, during his MRI, Nakoma tragically stopped breathing and died. His quiet passing may have been a blessing in disguise since nothing could be done for his crippled body. In fact, the vets said his condition would have continued to deteriorate until he could not move at all.
Today, Nakoma’s body rests in a grave on the site, adorned with his proud picture. This brave little king will never be forgotten and everybody can take solace in that Big Cat Rescue was at least able to make his last years a little better.
You’re invited to tour the facility and see Nakoma’s tomb, as well as view over 100 big cats from 16 different species who thanks to Big Cat Rescue are alive and well today. As an accredited non-profit educational rescue facility, Big Cat Rescue has the largest and most diverse collection of exotic cats in the world. Here you can actually get within three feet of these magnificent creatures. What’s more, you can personally sponsor any cat on the premises. Any donation is tax deductible and will help Big Cat Rescue continue to provide food, shelter, vet care and daily enrichment for the cats.
Female South American Cougar Date of Birth 4/1/95
Her owner wasn’t all Cleo outgrew. Over the years, her tiny harness had become so embedded in her skin, it was actually crushing her rib cage.
Cleo was once a cute, cuddly cub. But like many exotic cats owned by people, it wasn’t long before this South American Puma began growing and reverting to her wild nature. As she grew stronger, her former owner could not handle her enough to get the tiny harness off – and as the years passed it became completely embedded in Cleo’s skin. Painful as it sounds, the only way to free her was to cut the harness and the skin away with a razor. Worse yet, when Big Cat Rescue discovered Cleo, she was so malnourished that to anesthetize her for its removal would have surely killed her.
So, Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue, spent three days gently cutting away the nylon harness with a razor blade – from outside the cage. While the process was obviously painful to Cleo, as her skin would rip away with the harness, she held herself tightly against the fence to allow the cutting. Since Carole could not enter the cage with Cleo, she depended solely on the cat’s desire to be freed of the harness to bring her to the side of the cage. Cleo would growl and hiss in agonizing pain, but never turned to bite the helping hands.
Until 2006 Cleo’s skin had fully healed and she was a happy, healthy cat. She enjoyed a 1200 sq. ft. Cat-A-Tat with an underground den that rivals the inner chamber of the great pyramids. You could always find her playing and entertaining guests with her engaging personality. Today, Cleo’s body rests in the grave and she is finally free. This tiny little cougar will never be forgotten and everybody can take solace in that Big Cat Rescue was at least able to make her last years a whole lot better.
Nikita African Lioness D.O.B. 02/03/01 Arrived at Big Cat Rescue on 11/30/01
Nikita was found chained to the wall in a crack house during a drug bust in Tennessee. Because she had been confined to a concrete floor, she had huge swellings on her elbows that took months to heal. She was so thin you could carry her under one arm and she would only eat white rabbits, so she had a plethora of nutritional issues to deal with as well. The authorities took her to the Nashville Zoo at Grasmere, but she had been declawed and could not live with the zoo’s other lions, so they had to find a new home for her. Big Cat Rescue agreed to take her as well as three Bobcats who needed a home. Nikita had never seen other lions before she moved to Easy Street, but she has grown to love her new neighbors. Lions are social animals so we are gradually trying to introduce Nikita to Sarabi in hopes that one day they can be together. This photo was taken at the zoo before her arrival at Big Cat Rescue where she now has a 1/4 acre Cat-A-Tat full of trees and grass.
Willow Female Siberian Lynx
At only 4 weeks old, Willow was forced to learn how to swim…
In her own knee-deep urine and feces.
Fortunately, Willow was one of the lucky Siberian Lynx kittens who were discovered by Big Cat Rescue before it was too late.
Confined and shipped in a wire crate that was so small she couldn’t move, Willow was found swimming in urine up to her belly. Soiled, starving, sick and stressed, Willow was nursed back to health by the caring group at Big Cat Rescue. Today, Willow lives comfortably in a large den at the Big Cat Rescue Sanctuary.
Willow is one of the skinniest and willowiest of the group of Siberian Lynx and fits her name perfectly. She is one of the friendliest, most playful cats here and loves visitors. Willow’s survival story has a happy ending. However, she is just one of several hundred unwanted exotic cats who have been saved by Big Cat Rescue and now permanently reside at the Sanctuary. Unfortunately though, many other big cats may not be so lucky without the continued efforts of Big Cat Rescue and the support of compassionate people like you.
As an accredited non-profit educational sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue invites you to tour the facility and see Willow – upclose and personal. While here, you can view over 100 big cats representing 16 different species. They make up the largest and most diverse collection of exotic cats in the world. Get closer than you ever imagined — within 3 feet of these majestic creatures, who live in dens that have been designed to mimic their natural habitat. Any small donation you can make will help Big Cat Rescue continue to feed and care for these exotic cats. In return, we promise you’ll connect with the wild like never before.
Male Jungle Cat
Date of Birth: 2/2/99
Rambo came to Easy Street on 12/5/99. He was bred for the pet trade. People hybridize wild cats and domestic cats to feed the egos of people who want to own something unique. These hybrids suffer a myriad of health and emotional problems and are frequently unwanted by the time they are a year old. Rambo’s owner had sent him to live with her daughter who died unexpectedly and his primary caregiver became the 12 year old grand daughter. She and her relatives agreed that they did not want to see Rambo exploited as part of a hybridization breeding plan for profit and asked if he could come live on Easy Street. Here he has a 900 square foot Cat-A-Tat with tunnels, grasses, hills, bushes, trees and flowers. He is very talkative and loves to talk to guests.
Victory for the big cats!!!!
Just one week after the tragic death of a 10-year old North Carolina boy who was mauled by his aunt’s 400-pound pet tiger, President George W. Bush on December 19 signed into law the Captive Wildlife Safety Act.
This landmark legislation will increase protection for the public by banning the interstate trade in big cats for the pet trade. We hope that the enactment of this legislation marks a first decisive step in our larger campaign to halt the private ownership of big cats and other dangerous wild animals as pets.
California Representatives Buck McKeon (R-CA) and George Miller (D-CA) introduced the bill in the House; Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) and Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced companion legislation in the Senate. The new law prohibits the interstate sale and transportation of lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars and other dangerous exotic animals destined for the pet trade.
The new act will not prevent the continued in-state breeding and sale of big cats. The HSUS estimates that up to 15,000 big cats are living in the United States—kept as pets in small cages, basements, and barns; displayed outside gas stations and convenience stores to attract customers; used as guard animals by drug dealers; and held in squalid, unaccredited roadside zoos. Tigers kept as pets or held in roadside zoos suffer from abuse, poor diet, lack of veterinary care, and painful physical ailments from random inbreeding. A few lucky ones end up in accredited sanctuaries. Most are dumped into pseudo-shelters that operate like puppy mills. They breed the big cats to churn out cubs for sale on the Internet or at exotic animal auctions. They cost as little as $300—the price of a pure-bred puppy.
Many tigers end up being dumped in animal shelters or sanctuaries that are ill-equipped to care for them. Humane officers report a catalogue of misery suffered by the animals, from untreatable ailments requiring euthanasia to cats mutilated and crippled by ignorant owners who tried to declaw their pets with garden shears.
A total of 19 states have a flat ban on the private ownership of dangerous exotic animals; the remaining 31 states need to adopt similar prohibitions if the public is to be protected and wild animals are to be banished from squalid backyard pens. Public policy should not be driven by tragic circumstances, but by common-sense principles.
The states that already have bans are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming. All other states still allow exotic big cats as pets. If you live in one of the 31 states without a ban, I urge you to contact your legislators and encourage them to introduce a bill.
THE CAPTIVE WILDLIFE SAFETY ACT
SUMMARY OF PROVISIONS
This bill addresses dangers to public safety posed by private ownership of wild and exotic animals and combats the inhumane treatment of these animals.
The legislation amends the Lacey Act to ban the interstate movement of lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, cheetahs, and bears for private use as “pets.” Accredited sanctuaries, zoos, circuses, humane societies, and other operations licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are exempt.
Thousands of lions, tigers, cougars and other big cats, as well as bears, are kept in backyards, garages, and even in homes. Many states do not restrict private ownership of these powerful carnivores that can never be domesticated. The result is a patchwork of laws and a thriving commercial trade in exotics by breeders touting these dangerous animals as “good pets.” They are easily obtained through newspaper ads, the Internet, and directly from breeders. Naïve and unsuspecting private owners who purchase them, often as adorable and seeming harmless cubs, soon rue the decision. There are innumerable reports of such “pets” that have maimed or killed their owners or members of the public, often children.
Big cats and bears cannot be humanely maintained by individuals without the resources or knowledge to care for them. They have very specific physical, behavioral, and nutritional needs that few laypersons know how to meet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states, “Large wild and exotic cats…are dangerous animals. Because of these animals’ potential to kill or severely injure…an untrained person should not keep them as pets. Doing so poses serious risks to family, friends, neighbors, and the general public.”
All groups that are knowledgeable about exotic animals, including the The American Sanctuary Association, The Global Federation of Sanctuaries, Humane Society, ASPCA, the Fund for Animals, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the Animal Protection Institute, and the American Veterinary Medical Association, and Big Cat Rescue oppose private ownership of big cats and bears as pets and support S. 269 and H.R. 1006.
Asian tigers at risk from domestic dog distemper virus
10 June 2013 Last updated at 02:45 ET By Mark Kinver Environment reporter, BBC News
Canine distemper virus has been confirmed in a number of Amur tigers
Some of the world’s rarest big cat species are facing a potentially deadly threat from a virus carried by domestic dogs, a wildlife expert has warned.
John Lewis, director of Wildlife Vets International, said there was evidence that Indonesian tigers were at risk.
Canine distemper virus has evolved in recent decades from infecting only dogs to affecting other animal groups.
Dr Lewis plans to work with Indonesian vets to develop a strategy to protect the nation’s tigers from the virus.
A close relative of measles, Canine distemper virus (CDV) was first described at the beginning of the 20th Century and has been cited as contributing to the demise of the thylacine (commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger as a result of the black stripes on its back).
“If you wind the clock back about 30 or 40 years, it was a dog disease – it was a canine virus and only affected dogs,” Dr Lewis explained.
“But in the intervening years, the virus has evolved and has changed its pattern of animals it can infect to include marine mammals (such as seals) and big cats.”
He told BBC News that CDV needed a reservoir, like a population of dogs, to remain effective as a pathogen.
These conditions were present when the first case of the disease affecting wild big cats was documented, he recalled.
“In the mid-1990s, in the Serengeti, Africa, about 30% of the lions died from CDV, which came from dogs in surrounding villages.
“It has also been recognised in the Asian big cat populations,” he added.
“Since 2000, in the Russian Far East, there have been a few cats reported as behaving strangely and coming into villages, apparently not showing much fear towards people.
“In the past few years, tissue from at least a couple of those cats have now been confirmed as showing the presence of CDV infection.
“There have not been too many cases at the moment, we think about three or four, but we think there could have been more that have gone undiagnosed.”
While some tigers appear as if they are able to build up a reasonable immunity response, most of the animals do succumb to the disease if they are exposed to the virus.
Dr Lewis explained that symptoms manifested themselves in a number of ways:
“Some will die as a result of respiratory problems, such as pneumonia for example.
“Some will have neurological problems, such as losing the fear of people or having seizures.”
But, he added: “We do not have enough information on CDV in tigers to know what percentage go on to die; we just have a little bit of data from zoos and a little bit of data from the wild.
“There are a lot of cases of distemper in the region and tigers are partial to eating dogs.
“For a tiger to take a dog on the periphery of a village is not usual at all, so you do have the circumstances that would bring tigers into contact with CDV.”
Although it was assumed the cause of CDV infection in tigers was a result of coming into contact with dogs carrying the virus, Dr Lewis said that a research project was under way to look at the source of CDV in Amur tigers (also known as Siberian tigers) in the Russian Far East.
The behaviour change in tigers was particularly worrying, Dr Lewis observed.
“This puts them at big risk because they lose their fear of poachers or they bring themselves in situations of conflict, such as playing with traffic.”
On a recent visit to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, he said conversations with local wildlife vets seemed to indicate that CDV could already be present in the population of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.
They told him that they had seen strange behaviour displays by tigers, such as the big cats coming into villages and losing their fear of people.
“To me, that suggests that distemper is already beginning to have an impact on tigers in Sumatra,” he warned.
“But before you say ‘yes, that is definitely the result of CDV’, you need diagnostic testing of brain tissue.
“The big threats facing tigers are habitat loss and degradation and poaching, but I think the third big threat now is likely to be disease, particularly one like CDV.”
The Sumatran tiger is only found on the island and population estimates suggest that there are fewer than 700 left in the wild, of which only 40% are viable mature individuals.
Dr Lewis is returning to Sumatra in September to bring together all the vets from all the different areas that come into contact with tigers.
“The goal is to thrash out a very simple way of deciding what samples need to be taken from all tigers that are handled by humans throughout Sumatra, in order to help us with diagnostics,” he explained.
“We also need to thrash out what samples need to be taken from domestic dog populations.
“We need to work out where we can send these samples for laboratory testing. We need to work out how we are going to store and move these samples.
“Once we have got that nailed down then we start work and try to design some sort of mitigation strategy, and that won’t be easy.”