Lions and tigers … and kids: Trick or treating goes well with the big cats
By Brian D. Bridgeford – News Republic
ROCK SPRINGS — It was an odd mix of things, kids and adults dressed as princesses, superheroes and cowboys parading past real lions, tigers and leopards seeking to fill bags full of candy, but somehow everyone seemed to have a good time for the second trick or treat with the big cats.
Saturday afternoon Pine Street in Rock Springs was packed as a large crowd of visitors rolled toward the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue & Educational Center on the north edge of the village. It is the home to 27 felines given a refuge by founder Jeff Kozlowski when their previous homes were unsuitable or lacked space for them.
Rescue staff and volunteers had outfitted the cats’ compound for Halloween, with pumpkins, huge spiders and bats at the front gate and a sound track of screams and frightening noises being played over loud speakers. Visitors in costume strolled along a path past the animals’ enclosures while rescue supporters handed out candy.
Near the front entrance was the refuge’s newest resident, a 5-month-old white tiger named Maya. While she was much bigger than an adult domestic cat, Maya still behaved like a kitten, rolling on her back, dancing her paws in the air, sometimes propping herself up on the wire mesh enclosure to look at the crowd around her.
Among her adoring fans, Baraboo resident Harlie Kolek, 11, stood wearing a bunny suit and tried to attract Maya’s attention. Her mom, Trish Kolek, joined her fascination with Maya.
“So cool,” she said. “You just want to cuddle them.”
Further along the path a handsome jet black leopard, 2-year-old Dozer, paced around his cage seemingly on alert with all the people present.
In contrast Beemer, a 12-year-old Atlas lion, a type originally native to North Africa, lounged calmly atop a concrete pipe put in his cage for him to play on. With his dark, wide mane he looked regal and gave the occasional yawn to show he was unperturbed by the hubbub.
Young Reedsburg resident Shane Kowalke who was dressed as a fireman received candy from Bear Valley resident Sherri DeSimone, who was helping out at Beemer’s enclosure.
Shane was a little shy and didn’t have much to say. But his parents, Doug and Renae Kowalke of Reedsburg said it was their first time at the refuge and they were impressed. They have been to zoos, but had never seen so many big cats in one place before.
“It’s really nice,’ Renae Kowalke said.
At an enclosure where 8-year-old female Atlas lions Krisco and Keesha lived children cried out in excitement when one of them bounded atop a large tractor tire than leapt across to the top of a concrete pipe.
Volunteer Taryn Howard, 11, of North Freedom, was passing out candy while wearing fairy wings at the enclosure housing two 14-month-old tigers, O.J. an orange Bengal tiger, and his brother, Memphis, a white Bengal tiger.
“I think they’re just very interesting animals,” Howard said. “They’re like any normal cat, but there’s something about them that makes me like them.”
While visitors to the big cat rescue got candy, each of the enclosures had a little box with a message appealing for trick-or-treat participants to help feed the feline residents. Periodically children would put some coins in one of the boxes and adults sometimes stuffed in bills to help cover the costs of keeping the cats.
Kozlowski said when they held the first trick or treat with the big cats in 2008 it was to help the children of Rock Springs after 21 village homes were destroyed during summer flooding.
“We figured we’ve got 27 big cats, so if kids got candy from each of the big cats it makes up for the 21 houses that were lost in the flood,” he said.
Trick or treating with the big cats is a chance to see them with free admission. But Kozlowski said the refuge benefits from the donations.
“It’s going real good,” he said. “We’ve had about twice the number of people we had last year, (last year) we had about 600.”
Kozlowski said the refuge is home to 19 tigers, six lions and two leopards.
Maya arrived after a zoo in North Carolina had to re-organize under new management when its original operator had problems and was forced to shut down, he said.
“(The new manager) She didn’t need any more mouths to feed, because she actually did have some more cubs,” Kozlowski said. “I was going to take one of them, because that’s all I could take.
“I didn’t need any more mouths to feed either.”
While many big cats come from warm places, some tigers naturally live in very cold climates and other cats adapt to Wisconsin’s weather with a little help, he said.
“The big cats can all adapt to pretty much anything,” Kozlowski said. “You don’t see the lions out as much in the winter, but we put a lot of straw in their hutches so they stay pretty warm.”
Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue & Educational Center will remain open to the public until large snows makes it impractical to remain open, Kozlowski said. In spring he said they might hold an Easter egg hunt at the refuge.
Pictures of the rescue’s big cats, information about them and about Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue can be found online — http://www.wisconsinbigcats.org.
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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://wbigcatrescue.org