Big Cat Rescue doesn’t believe big cats should be bred for life in cages, but for those who had the misfortune of being bred in captivity, we offer the best habitats (or cat-a-tats as we like to call them) in the world. Our cat-a-tats are large (ranging from 1200 square feet to 2.5 acres) and full of natural foliage and man-made platforms and dens that were built to satisfy a curious cat’s every desire. Most of our enclosures are roofed and are built with curving walls that provide the structural strength so it can be hard, from a single vantage point, to see how large our enclosures really are. All of our tigers have pools that are kept fresh via our spring fed lake.
19 of our enclosures front on Tiger Lake. Intern housing at far left and 8 cages along the bank under the arrow.
Our cats are also rotated for “vacations” in larger areas like the Vacation Rotation and FunCation.
Each enclosure consists of two or more sections that are connected by a guillotine door that is left open unless we have to lock a cat out of an area to go in and clean. Each section will have a lockout for feeding and water, a den, and a place where the cat can perch. Each enclosure has a safety entrance that consists of a double door system and keyed padlocks on both the inner and outer doors. All guillotine doors can be operated from outside. Our newer cages have been built with double galvanized, 5 gauge, 4×4 panels that do not require painting. Our earlier cages were built of galvanized, 6 gauge, 4×4 panels that do require painting every so often. The paint we use is Rustoleum, which is a rust brown colored paint, so close examination shows the cages to be in excellent condition, despite the color.
This video shows you how lions, tigers and cougars are moved to and from the 2.5 ac Vacation Rotation.
This video shows you how the cats easily navigate their mazes of connected enclosures and tunnels.
Here is another video showing the size of the smaller cats’ cages and how the cats easily go through the doors from cage to cage. This is Zucari running through part of his suite of cages to catch up with the keeper with treats.
This video shows how our open-air enclosures are built. All open air enclosures have roofed sections attached in case of high winds.
Big Cat Enclosures
No big cat belongs in a cage, but until we have better laws to protect exotic cats from being bred for lives of captivity and deprivation, we need to give them as much space and privacy as possible. In their wild their territories would measure in square miles, not square feet, so even at its best a cage is nothing more than a jail cell.
Since all exotic cats, no matter how early they are neutered or spayed, spray bucket loads of urine all day you will want to provide an outdoor cage. Because we have so many cats we have many varieties of cages depending on the cats’ needs. We will begin with our favorite cages and proceed down to our minimum cages. USDA only requires that the animal be able to stand up and turn around in the pen and that it be clean. Some states have minimum size standards but they, like the USDA’s standards, are nothing short of cruel and inhumane. In Florida, a 600 pound, twelve foot long Siberian Tiger may be kept in a 10 foot by twenty-four-foot pen, and too many people do. Different cats have different needs, but ALL cats need the room and inspiration to be cats.
To successfully cage a cat you should understand his natural behaviors to most closely provide what he needs and to most safely confine him. Although individuals of several species may prowl by day, exotic cats are typically nocturnal. Except for Cheetahs, Lions, and Tigers, the exotic feline is an exceptional climber. Servals and Caracals can climb well but need the incentive to do so. Margay, Ocelots and Leopards spend more time lounging in the trees than on the ground. Bobcats, Jungle Cats, Geoffrey Cats and all of the Lynxes are very active and are in and out of everything, all the time.
All cats swim if necessity demands it but Jaguars, Tigers, Servals, and Fishing Cats live for it. Fishing cats and Servals will dive underwater for their food and although Tigers will dive, they usually prefer to “dog paddle” or just splash around in the water. Water-loving cats will not be happy without a pool.
The behaviour of an exotic cat can be likened to that of the domestic cat on speed. All of this is said to prepare you to look around your home and envision the outdoor run as seen through the half-crazed eyes of the exotic of your choice. The “tamed” wild cat does not discern between a tree and a hanging plant, or between vines and curtain rods. Your bubble bath or the fish tank are just as suitable “swimming holes” as a lake or stream. Exotic Cats urinate in the water, so you won’t want to leave dishes in the sink.
If you are building an enclosure for a pet that you have raised and who now is spraying everything in sight, the best option for the cat is an outdoor one that is at least 1200 square feet in size. The fencing should be twelve feet tall and made of six gauge chain welded cattle panels and completely roofed.
In these yards should be kiddie toys including wading pools, plastic forts, igloos, balls, and safe shrubbery. Obviously, none of these plastic items are to be left unattended with the great cats. Except for the shrubbery, everything else must be cleaned and disinfected regularly (like daily). A pool is great fun but a lot of work. It MUST be changed daily. Even the dirt will need “cleaning” and by this, I mean that you will need to walk the yard daily and pick up feces, and on occasion, you may need to lock the cats in the house for a few days and dust the yard with lime. Don’t return the cats to the dusted yard until after it has been washed off of the grass and leaves and into the soil.
We used to treat the cat yards twice a month for fleas, alternating between Bio-Halt Flea Nematodes and Sevin Dust 10 percent. Since our cats have been on Advantage this has not been necessary. We don’t mow the yard very often because the cats seem to really enjoy the jungle effect. Your neighbors may not share your appreciation of a Congo styled lawn scape, and this is something to consider. Keeping your neighbors happy can be what keeps you happy and this usually requires that they not be able to see, hear or smell your cats. In most cases, you will be better off if they don’t even know about your cats. Having them for the purpose of showing off to your friends will probably mean that you will be asked to move or euthanize the pet one day.
For our Tigers, we have a three-acre pen that leads down into a spring fed lake. The fencing is 16 feet tall, six-gauge (sometimes 5 gauge), four by six-inch square welded wire. This pen has two eight foot square, concrete dens, and a safety pen for hurricanes, or so we can lock them up while cleaning their acreage. The safety pen is where we feed the cats so that they are accustomed to going inside. It is 900 square feet, with a top. When we clean the pen we coax them into the safety pen and shut them inside until we are finished. The safety pen must have a door that can be operated from outside. The safety pen and the safety gate are two separate enclosures. To include part of the lake in the Tiger pen we had to hire a dock and deck company to install the posts out in the water because it was fourteen feet deep in places. We hung the fence from the posts and attached shade cloth over that so that the cats would not swim out and hang on the wire. Inside the pen are stainless steel beer kegs, bowling balls (with the holes filled in) for toys and lots of shrubberies, initially… Palmettos are virtually indestructible and the yard was covered with them, but in just a few months they were trampled beyond recognition. We thought over an acre per Tiger would more than accommodate two yearling Tigers, but the foliage proves otherwise. The trees are all still standing but it was an established forest.
Most of our cages are 12 to 16 feet tall with a roof. They are built around trees so that the cats can get up into the lower branches. Their concrete den, which is eight feet by twelve feet, by 2 feet high and is covered with concrete to look like rock and earth for insulation so that they look like hills in each cage. Our Leopards have pens that are more than 1200 square feet per cat and twelve feet high.
We were fortunate enough to fall into a once in a lifetime deal in which we were able to purchase thirty-three acres of concrete platforms. These platforms stand two feet off the ground on their own legs and come in eight foot, ten foot and twelve-foot widths. They are all eight feet long and can be stacked side by side. These would not be cost effective to build, but many people pour concrete slabs on the ground with a slope to the outside and a gutter to guide wastewater to a septic system.
All of the pens have at trees, shelves or logs elevated for lounging on. We suspend natural cat-walks with chain from the top of the pen, at different levels, so that the feline has much more running space and to encourage exercising by jumping from one cat-walk to another. We also hang hammocks made of natural fibers for their lounging pleasure.
Each cage has a toy called the ” Nearly Indestructible Ball” in a size relevant to the size of the cat and a variety of large bleached cow bones. A cat can easily get stir crazy in a static environment, so it is important to always be offering something different to smell, taste or touch. Cats like having their own space and enjoy marking it and letting others know that it is theirs, but they also enjoy new things. Just like human children, they enjoy playing with the box the toy came in more than with the toy itself. Cut a few holes in the box and it’s good entertainment for a day or two. Oddly enough, the biggest thrill you can give most cats is a pile of cut branches. Check your poisonous plant list first and then your yard trimmings can provide hours of fun and exercise.
The entry door to the pen should be wide enough to accommodate your carriers or catch pens and tall enough for you to walk in without stooping. We use 4 snap hooks to keep them shut and a lock. You should also attach a safety gate to your entry gate. This is a small cage that you open the gate and walk into, and then shut the gate behind you before opening the gate to the pen. It should be large enough to accommodate two people and a large carrier or a wheelbarrow, without having both doors open. At any juncture where you will be handling a latch or accessing a food or water dish, we would recommend that you cover the adjoining area with small mesh wire. It can be very hard to fumble with a latch and keep your eyes on the cat at the same time. This is more necessary in the case where a cat has his claws. Even if the existing wire is too small for the entire paw to fit through, just one hook of their razor sharp claws could take off a finger.
We do not recommend adjoining cages that share a common wall. Often cats that like each other have been known to suffer a nasty bite for sticking their extremities through the wire. We saw a gorgeous black Leopard once whose tail had been so badly mauled that it had to be amputated.
Privacy can be as important as space. If at all possible provide lush foliage as a visual screen between animals. Space the cats as far apart as is practical. They are solitary creatures, except for the Lions, and really appreciate their own territory. Even most lions that you may end up caring for were probably single pets and will not want to be kept in cages with other lions.
Our cages are truly cat-a-tats, but because they are on the ground, the cats must be wormed monthly here and probably at least quarterly in colder climates.
For open-top pens we use a double row of hot wire that is powered by a solar unit that can withstand three days of total darkness, and this has proved successful in keeping lions and tigers in place.
Big Cat Enclosures at Big Cat Rescue
Below are the new cage designs Vernon Stairs implemented. They are constructed of 6 gauge, galvanized, welded wire panels, twelve feet high, with roofs and are all in excess of 900 square feet and most in excess of 1200 square feet and many in excess of 2400 square feet. They all have safety entrances and are designed to shut off one half of the cage at a time so that the volunteers can safely clean one side with the cat locked out and then shift the cat to the other side to clean the remainder.
They all incorporate feed boxes with built-in water dishes in which the cats can be shut to medicate, vaccinate or the whole unit can be removed as a transport cage to go to the vet or to evacuate in a hurricane. The water dishes are elevated to keep the cats from relieving themselves in the drinking water (as they will do).
Each cage has a sprinkler system and an underground, plastic den. The den is easy to clean and insulated against the elements. Each cage is heavily landscaped and has logs, trees, toys, and perches to give the cat’s a feeling of safety.
This is one of our leopard cages and it is over 2400 square feet of floor space and is over twenty feet high as it encircles this tree. (Notice the silhouette of the black leopard, Jumanji in the center branches) This cage is typical of our leopard and cougar cages and includes all of the features outlined above. You can see the wire in the distant background and the white door to his feeding area. This photo was taken from safely outside the cage, but due to the four by four openings the shot can look as though you were inside.
The cage at right is the Snow Leopard cage when it was being built and includes a freezer box den that is air-conditioned and cleverly disguised as snowy rock covered ledges. The cats can lay in the cool of their dens and look out at passersby. The curvature of the wire makes posts and support beam unnecessary once the cage is completed and enables the viewer to focus on the animal and not on the cage.
Across the top, you can see the wire supports used to bridge the 20 feet spanning the roofs. Note the full-size ladder in the background to get a feel for the size of the cage. The rock work is concrete over metal lathe. In some cages, the rock work has waterfalls, dripping down into fish-filled ponds.
Many of our Cat-A-Tats include ponds and waterfalls. Almost all of our tigers have pools, ponds, and waterfalls as did the Fishing Cats. Those who don’t still have access to swim when in the Vacation Rotation enclosure.
With a donation of $10,000.00, earmarked for cage construction, you can have a sign placed on the cage telling the world that you helped build the Cat-A-Tat. This is great advertising for your business or corporation and greatly helps these magnificent cats.
Here is where we get the only hog ring pliers that work: http://www.reddenmarine.com/pacific-mako-9000-wf-555-0-hog-ring-pliers.html
|By Species||State Requirements||Our Cages|
|Lions and Tigers||240 square feet||1200- 136,000 sf|
|Leopards, Jaguars, Cougars||200 square feet||1200-6000 square feet|
|Lesser cats (Lynx, etc.)||72 square feet||1200-2400 square feet|
|Small cats (hybrid cats, etc.)||36 square feet||1000 -2000 square feet|
USDA only requires that the cage be large enough for the animal to stand up and turnaround in and a lot of states use the USDA standard rather than set standards of their own.
When you visit the zoo and see those magnificent million dollar enclosures, what you don’t see are all the animals in tiny, off-exhibit cages. If animals must live in captivity, the least we can do is make them comfortable.
Cage Repairs and Renovations
With this many cages, there are always repairs and renovations to be made. The following was our most expensive renovation ever, as it was done underwater and requires stainless steel panels that cost over $200 each for sheets that were 4 feet by 8 feet. (we got a considerable discount)
I have seen several times where tigers and lions have made friends. Once even with a bear. Do jaguars, leopards, and cougars ever do the same?
Funnily enough I’m making a “big cat conservation” center in the game Planet Zoo and wanted to do some more research on what a healthy big cat enclosure would look like. I never expected to find this article and it’s absolutely fantastic as a jumping off point. Very concise and informative. I did find myself thinking “who in the world would own a pet wild cat” but then realized how grateful I am that you all are making sure that if someone does, they can find a resource to research how to make a PROPER enclosure, as well as be able to compare it to a professional facility. Thank you so much for everything you do and for the insight!