Are Captive Big Cats a Danger?
Sanctuary in Citra: “It’s not going to happen here”
|CITRA – Animals are being fed, cages are being cleaned and cat toys are being rotated at Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary in Citra.
In the wake of the fatal tiger attack Christmas Day at the San Francisco Zoo, some keepers of big cats are at least thinking about security – for both the animals and the people they might come in contact with. At EARS, that means business as usual.
As EARS co-founder Gail Bowen said on Thursday, while preparing food for the rescue center’s monkeys, “I know what a tiger can do, and it’s not going to happen here. You can take that to the bank.”
On Tuesday at the San Francisco Zoo, a Siberian tiger named Tatiana got out of her enclosure somehow, killing one visitor and injuring two others. The wall of the tiger’s compound was initially reported as 18 feet high, but subsequent reports put it at only 12 1/2 feet high.
Big Cat Rescue, headquartered in Tampa, tracks attacks on humans by captive exotic cats. Beginning in 1990, they have reports in this country of 20 fatal attacks, including the Christmas Day death, plus 174 nonfatal attacks.
In Central Florida, the most recent fatal attack by a big cat was July 31, 2001, when a volunteer was mauled by a Siberian tiger at the Savage Kingdom breeding facility in Sumter County. The facility has since closed.
Reflecting on the most recent incident, Bowen says “I cannot in my lifetime see a tiger jumping [out of that compound].”
Florida regulations state that tiger enclosures – outer enclosures, as opposed to the inner cages – must be a minimum of 12 feet tall if open on top, or 8 feet tall if enclosed.
At EARS, Bowen says that their open-top enclosures are 13-14 feet tall, and go four feet underground – not to keep the cats from digging out, but to keep the dogs from digging in.
“Getting out of those enclosures is just not going to happen,” Bowen says.
At the same time, conditions must be humane.
“These animals are put in jail for no more than being an animal. We have to treat them with the greatest care and respect,” she said.
On the subject of what to do if you’re unfortunate to be in range of a loose tiger, Bowen says “Get into a building or behind a barrier. Don’t run. Be quiet.”
EARS doesn’t just deal with exotic cats. There are a couple of bush babies (small primates), some Coati Mundi (members of the raccoon family), a Patagonian Cavy (10-pound rodent), and some other animals. Of the 60-70 animals at EARS, however, close to 40 are exotic cats, and many of them are big cats, the kind that require a Class 1 animal permit from the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The smaller members of the big cat family, such as bobcats and cougars, require a Class 2 license.
Donna Carpenter in the commission’s licensing and permitting office in Tallahassee, reports that in Marion County there are 15 holders of Class 1 animal permits. Thirteen of those are licensed to possess big cats, with one of the 13 licensed for big cats only.
Capt. John West, who is in Tallahassee, is with the enforcement division of the Commission. He says that the basics of obtaining a Class 1 animal license in the state is that the animals must be for sale or exhibit only (no personal pets), applicants must have a minimum of one year and 1,000 hours experience (supervised) in the care and handling of the animals, plus two letters of recommendation. Applicants must have a minimum of five acres for the proposed facility, and must meet all breed-specific requirements for the care of the animals they wish to possess.
Several of the animals at EARS have been placed there after seizure by the commission, either from individuals without the proper license, or else from licensed individuals who were not caring for the animals properly.