Big Cat Bailout
Our federal government allows the private sector to trade in big cats, but when times get tough and the owners can’t feed the cats, who eat 15 lb of meat a day, it isn’t the government bailing them out. When you hear the term, “too big to fail” they aren’t talking about 500 lb cats and too many of them, but maybe they should be. All over America there are back yard cages, full of starving lions, tigers and leopards.
How did they get there?
Little to no oversight allows just about anyone to breed and discard big cats. They are only profitable as cubs when they are used for photo ops, petting sessions and stupid pet tricks. Places that advertise you can have your picture made with a lion or tiger will help you feel good about something you know is wrong by telling you that you are helping save the tigers by doing so.
Where do the big cats go?
Once they are a few months old they are too hard to handle and are discarded to unwitting pet owners, shot in canned hunts, cut up for their parts or relegated to tiny back yard, or “off exhibit” cages. Because of the lack of oversight and no requirement to report the death or disposal of these endangered species, they quietly disappear.
A few lucky ones end up at Big Cat Rescue. In December 2008 when the airwaves were all a-chatter about the government bailouts, Big Cat Rescue was bailing out a failed sanctuary formerly known as Cougar Haven. Driving away from the abandoned house, with its row upon row of now empty cages, ended a chapter in the 12 year history of David Mallory’s dream to be a big cat rescuer. Once lauded as a hero and now disgraced as a quitter, Mallory’s story is repeated frequently across the nation. It happens so often; that it barely makes the news any more and that alone is noteworthy.
In 1996 a big cat collector by the name of Catherine Gordon Twiss, who was convicted on 73 counts of cruelty, ended up with her 86 lions, tigers and bears selling at bankruptcy auction. Twiss had changed names and had fled from Indiana, to Arkansas, to Texas and finally to Mississippi. In each case Twiss would partner with some local who wanted a zoo or collection, but she would soon be thrown out for the wretched conditions in which she kept the animals. For example, an adult cougar was confined to a feces filled oil drum with barely enough room to turn around. (USDA standards only require the cage be big enough for the animal to stand up and turn around) As cubs continued to be born for fundraising purposes, like the photo ops mentioned above, the adults were crammed into tighter and tighter quarters. Lions and tigers were kept in small, urine soaked muddy cages with putrid buckets of drinking water. Many of her cats bore facial scars from fighting for their lives in these unnatural groupings of animals that are hard wired to be solitary. In Defense of Animals tried to help rescue some of the cats and, with the help of Mallory and a generous benefactor named Dr. Jim Cook, set up Cougar Haven in the backyard of a house at 39 Dobbs Road in Gore Springs, MS.
At its peak Cougar Haven was home to 38 big cats but there was never much local support for the sanctuary. It was seen as an eccentric’s private collection as a tunnel was built through the house so that guests could sit in the living room and watch cougars pace through. The open topped chain link cages were less than 8 feet high and as you can see in the photo, the cats could nearly reach the top. The owner reported that there had been escapes and people had been chased by loose tigers. Mallory was in the lumber business and things were good during the housing boom, but when that came to a screeching halt in 2007 conditions for the cats began to worsen. When the benefactor Dr. Cook died, his wife Rhonda cut off all income to the rescue and things really got bad.
The food was cut to just the cheapest chicken cuts and just often enough to keep them alive. The vet could no longer be employed. Cats began to die. By 2008 there were only 14 cats left and they were dying fast. One cougar bled for 12 days with no medical attention before suffering a cruel death. Mallory bought a topless bar 70 miles away and moved to be near it, leaving the remaining dozen big cats unsupervised most of the time. With no locks on the perimeter fence, neighborhood children could walk right in and stick their arms into the cages of lions and tigers. He quit paying Rita Montgomery, the cats’ caretaker, in May but she loved the cats too much to just walk away and leave them to die. Sometimes Mallory would send food, but when he didn’t, Montgomery did her best to scavenge what she could for the cats.
Rita called Doll Stanley who put out a desperate plea to Vernon Weir of the American Sanctuary Association in search of someone who could rescue these remaining cats. (The Mississippi Wildlife and Fisheries had ignored the call for help.) ASA member Tammy Quist, contacted Lynn Cuny of the Association of Sanctuaries (now called the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries) and Lynn rescued the two lions in October of 2008. By the time Big Cat Rescue heard about the situation all but three of the remaining cats had died. Nine had passed away in just the past year. The last cats to remain were Freckles a 15 year old liger, Cookie a 14 year old tigress and Alex a 12 year old tiger. Freckles had a hole in her jaw that had gone untreated for a long time. It is not known if this is an abscess or cancer. All of her canine teeth were broken off from chewing at the chain link of her enclosure. Now, at Big Cat Rescue, she is finally getting the vet care she had been denied. They may not have much time left, but their last days will be their best days ever.
Big Cat Rescuers drove all night, through a fog as thick as pea soup, and arrived at Cougar Haven the morning of Dec. 18th. Scott Lope, Cathy Neumann, Chris Poole and Carole Baskin met up with Don & Rita Montgomery to assess the layout and prepare for the move. The cats’ vet, Dr. Abernathy, donated his services to issue the health certificates and to bring the tranquilization drugs in case the cats could not be coaxed into the transport cages. The transport team, Mike and Jamie, drove the Humane Train owned by Animal Sanctuary of the United States and arrived around 4 PM. Doll Stanley and Eric Phelps from In Defense of Animals came to see the cats off to their new home. Doll provided these photos and commiserated that, “People think that when they call a rescue group we can somehow just wave a magic wand and fix the problem.”
With only an hour to work before dark the team quickly secured the transport to the first gate and tried to coax Alex in with a piece of meat. He was hungry and within minutes had leaped into the cage to grab the meat, but when he spun to leave he leaped up and hit his head on the top of the wagon. Between hitting his head and the noise of trying to shut the transport door, which had jammed, Alex freaked out and ran from the cage. We would try again later, but you only get one chance to trap a cat. They learn quick and starving or not, they don’t want to be confined to a small area.
We moved the transport over to the front door housing Freckles the liger. The flimsy dog kennel styled door on her cage was barely containing her as mudslides had washed away a hole at the bottom large enough for her to stick her head under to try and bite the feet of anyone walking by. She had just watched Alex and was wary of the situation, but in true cat style seemed to believe she too could grab the meat and get out of there. To paraphrase Ginger Rogers, Freckles implied “If Alex can do it, I can do it backwards and in heels.” Unseen to Big Cat Rescuers, David Mallory entered Freckles cage from the rear and as she was considering her big move, he nudged her forward and we shut the door. We know that entering a cage with a big cat is just an accident waiting to happen. People get away with it for years and then one day they get killed. We were horrified by Mallory’s reckless action but this was his yard and his rules.
We turned our attention in the waning light to secure Cookie the tigress. The transport had been rolled almost into place when Mallory opened the door of her cage and body blocked the charging tigress. I nearly dropped the camera as Mallory was now the only thing between an adult tiger and all of us. He moved aside and then pushed Cookie the last few inches into the transport. You can believe that door was shut quickly as it was now the only thing separating Cookie from the 12 human course dinner that she could have had. We stood there in stunned silence, shocked at the stupidity and thankful that the cat had not chosen to take advantage of it. By the time her transport was rolled up the hill to stand in line next to Freckles it was nearly dark and we still had to load Alex.
Several fruitless attempts were made to coax Alex into the wagon. We knew that there was very little chance of succeeding, but we had to try. Cats often respond very badly to sedation. It can kill them and it builds up in their system, taxing their kidneys, and is a big contributor to why zoo cats often only live half as long as our cats do. Most of our medical care can be done using operant conditioning, where the cat will let us draw blood or give shots while getting treats. This takes a lot more time and patience, but pays off in longer, healthier lives.
Another distressing factor was that the cages were deep with mud and pools of bone chillingly cold water. If Alex dropped in the water he could drown before we could get to him. There was a section of the cage in the back that was drier than the rest, so Alex was solicited into this area and then sedated. The challenge to this smaller area was that we could not get the transport anywhere near the door and if the door was opened and Alex wasn’t completely asleep he would be in immediate contact with all of us. Unlike the shows you watch on TV it takes about 20 minutes for a big cat to pass out and they frequently come to rather unexpectedly. In this half dazed state they are even more dangerous because they lash out even when it is their nature to be easy going.
Shaking in the cold, the flash lights were the only illumination. We couldn’t see our own hands in front of our faces. Scenes flashed through my head of headlines that read, “Dozen Die in Big Cat Killing Spree” or “Tiger Flees Rescue and Attacks Kids at Bus Stop.” I kept trying to picture all three living their new life at Big Cat Rescue, but the scary headlines kept whizzing through as well. Then, as now, I am angry that there is even an opportunity for such awful consequences. If our government would take responsibility, as the U.K. has done, and ban the private possession of big cats, we wouldn’t be risking our lives and others while bailing out failed facilities.
Once we were certain that Alex was sleeping we loaded him onto a human stretcher and carried him around the back and side of the enclosures to the front yard where we slid him into the transport wagon. When we first arrived we thought that rolling the transports up the slimy slope to the road where the Humane Train was parked would be the hard part. After what we had just gone through that was the easy part.
The cages were all rolled up into the modified car carrier and plywood was placed between them for privacy. Before hitting the road we had to wait for Alex to wake up enough to know that he wasn’t going to die from the drugs. The vet forgot to bring the reversal agent and it was 2 hours before he was able to return to his clinic and back. We cannot legally transport these drugs across state lines so we are dependant upon local vets to help. The reversal worked and Alex was awake enough to travel by 9PM. Not only was he awake, but he was mad. Really mad. The madder he got, the more he scared Cookie and Freckles with the sound of his roars of displeasure. It was so sad to see big cats experiencing fear. These animals are at the top of the food chain and should never have to experience a single day of human induced fear.
Seeing us off, Rita said, “I will miss them, but I am so happy they will finally go someplace where they will get the care they need!” A truck pulled up along side us as we were closing the doors and said that he would miss their morning roars but that his wife, who had spent days in the hospital after being bitten by one of the cats, probably wasn’t going to miss them. We report on big cat attacks that make the news, but there is no way to know how many such maulings go unreported in the press.
The crew decided to forego sleep and drive straight through the night back to Big Cat Rescue. Mike and Jamie drove the Humane Train carrying the cats and Big Cat Rescuers followed in two cars. We made good time until we pulled off for gas in Cottendale, FL (near Marianna) where the Humane Train broke down. Prepared for the worse, Jamie and Mike hired a wrecker, at four in the morning, to tow the trailer to a motel where the generators kept the cats comfortable. They had the truck towed to the nearest Ford dealer. Knowing that the dealer wouldn’t even be open until much later in the morning we opted to get a little shuteye so we could hit the road as soon as the truck was repaired.
Coaxing the mechanics off their butts turned out to be harder than coaxing the three big cats into boxes. It was their last day of work before Christmas. By noon we gave up and began looking for a truck that could pull a 40 foot goose neck trailer. In a town that only has 881 residents, there aren’t a lot of options. We were pulling away from our last chance, a gas station that had a couple of unventilated box trucks to rent, when we were chased down by the owner with an afterthought. Turned out the proprietor had just remembered the name of a man in nearby Marianna who hauled horses that might be able to help. We had called horse haulers from Tampa to Gainesville and one of our Green level Keepers, Susan Mitchell was already enroute from Tampa, but that would add seven hours to the cats’ time on the road, so we looked up Greg Scott and plead for help.
Much to our amazement Mr. Scott was on the scene within an hour and we quickly hooked up the trailer and were back on the road. By the time we reached Tampa it was dark again. It just wasn’t worth the risk to life and limb to try and unload the cats in the dark given that our entire crew had been awake for two days straight with only the cat nap in Cottendale. We all got some sleep so that we would be fresh for the move from trailer to Cat-a-tats at the first light of dawn. Scott slept on a picnic bench in the parking lot so that he could listen for any trouble in the trailer. I guess after being kept in a box in the middle of a wild pride of lions, in Lion Feeding Frenzy on Discovery channel, Scott is sensitive to what it is like to feel trapped and surrounded by unknown wild animals.
The unloading went about the same as the loading, but without the crazy aspect of someone risking everyone’s lives by coming into contact with a big cat. Dr. Wynn, our vet, and Jarrod took off from work to come out early and help us unload. Freckles, the liger, was first off and couldn’t wait to step out into her big new enclosure. She settled down behind a log to watch her friends as they were wheeled in.
Cookie was next and she chuffed nervously the entire wagon ride from the parking lot to “tiger row.” She immediately took to her new surroundings and has been right at home from the first minute off the truck. Her neighbor, India the circus tiger, chuffed her welcome to Cookie. Of the group Cookie was the first to start eating, the first to start hanging out with keepers as they cleaned and has proven to have a wonderful disposition.
Alex was still mad and was determined to rip his way out of the transport wagon if we dared come near him. That wasn’t a possibility but he could break off teeth in the process and we decided the only way to keep him from inflicting severe injury to himself would be to sedate him for the move. It would give our vet, Dr. Liz Wynn, a chance to see if he had done any harm to himself during the move. We wheeled the transport and sleeping tiger up to the gate but had to lift him into his new home. He surprised us all by raising his head during the move but we tossed a blanket over his head and he quickly fell back into slumber. We took the opportunity to give him IV fluids and a physical exam before reversing the sedation. He woke up quickly and sauntered over to his new den.
Alex and Freckles spent their first few days evaluating their new home from the safety of their big rock caves. Their dens are larger than a lot of cages that lions and tigers live their entire lives in elsewhere. From this dark, cool spot they can watch both ends of their enclosures. By the third day Alex was hanging half in and half out of the den to watch everything around him. He would chuff as keepers came up to talk to him, but wasn’t quite ready to expose his entire body. Alex and Freckles would only come out at dinner and after dark at first, but each day gave them a little more assurance. The tour routes have been roped off so that they are only dealing with a few keepers in the area. We won’t expose them to tours until they are happy being around people.
Cookie would have been ready to meet her adoring fans that day, but since she is living right next to Alex and Freckles, she will have to wait. All three are adjusting to their new and improved diets and have had the experience of getting whole prey for possibly the first time in their lives. The whole rats and rabbits are fed dead, but the new “wrappers” are as much fun as the new food is nutritious and tasty. Thursday mornings are always the hardest days to clean as the prey fur is plucked and scattered all over 40 acres here. Many of us are card carrying “bunny huggers” too so it is hard to witness the aftermath of whole prey night, but the benefit to the cats is worth the damage to our psyches.
Rescuing Freckles, Alex and Cookie gives us and our supporters the instant gratification of knowing that we saved lives. It gives our lives meaning to know that we spend our time and resources so that cats like these can experience compassion for once in their lives. It makes our hearts well up with pride, but it is just a small drop in the bucket. In 2008 we had to turn away 85 big cats and there are so few decent sanctuaries out there who can take big cats that we know most of them ended up dying or in horrible, overcrowded conditions where they will be allowed to “accidentally” breed more and more cubs. Pseudo sanctuaries almost always have cubs to use as photo props or pay to play schemes, and yet they ask you to believe that they were the result of “accidental” matings year after year after year.
The people who make money from cubs and full grown big cats want to dump them when they are no longer useful and just keep breeding and abusing. We do not accept animals from places that are just continuing to breed, sell, trade and exploit big cats. Many places do, because they rely on the new rescues to keep donations coming in. If the breeders and dealers were shut down, there would be no big cats to rescue and thus no reason for them to exist. Very few sanctuaries are trying to end the problem at its source and will say that they don’t like to get involved in politics or that they cannot because they are a non profit but that just isn’t true. Laws to end the trade in big cats are the most effective means to end the suffering.
With just food, medicine and cage maintenance costing $5000/year per big cat, if these cats live to age 20 the total cost will be $95,000! Your support is critical to each of our cats, but it also goes a long way in helping us solve the problem of so many discarded big cats. Even people who cannot afford to donate much in the way of money can still be a huge part of the solution by educating others. By telling others about the plight of captive big cats, writing your lawmakers, and sending letters to the editor when you read about big cats in the news you are saving thousands of big cats from being born into lives of confinement and deprivation. Our goal is a world where all big cats live free and with your help we can do it.
Sources: Animal Underworld by Alan Green
Doll Stanley at In Defense of Animals
Rita & Don Montgomery