Big Cat Rescue in The Star

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Big cats find sanctuary in Tampa

Just the facts

Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St, is open every day but Sunday. Ninety-minute guided tours begin at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays; 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The 9:30 tour is the only one open to kids younger than 10. Cost is $25. Night tours can be arranged for $50.

WestJet and Air Canada have daily non-stop service between Toronto and Tampa.

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Sep 20, 2008 04:30 AM


TAMPA, Fla.—In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion pees tonight. And you’d better not be within range.

“Move back a bit,” says Scott Lope. “Cameron’s just about to go and he’s pointing this way. He can get you from there.”

Survival in the wild means more than knowing how not to be eaten; you have to know how far a big cat can spray. It’s easily a couple of metres.

Of course, in the jungle, the mighty jungle, you don’t often get lions called Cameron. Savage as Cameron is capable of being, he’s never seen nature red in tooth and claw. He was liberated from a roadside zoo and lives now at Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit sanctuary for exotic cats that have been abused or abandoned.

It’s not a zoo. Visitors are offered two or three 90-minute guided tours a day and that’s it. Big Cat Rescue depends on the $25 admission fee to help meet its $1 million animal budget but the animals are there for their own benefit, not for entertainment. The centre does host weddings from time to time but all in the interest of fund-raising. The animals do not play an active role.

Lope, 40, is director of operations and, though he’d just as soon you didn’t tell him he’s living on Easy St. with his cats — including his own tabby, Fleas — he knows you probably will.

“Everybody does,” he says.

Big Cat Rescue was started, at 12802 Easy St., about 15 years ago by Carole Baskin, a former real-estate broker.

Easy St. doesn’t live up to its name. It’s a dirt road that’s easy to miss, even if you have GPS. Trust the robot lady when she tells you to turn. She knows where she’s taking you.

“Carole came across a baby bobcat at an animal auction,” says Lope. “A man had bought it as a gift for his wife. But his wife didn’t want it.

“It just went on from there. Carole wound up with more than 50 bobcats and lynx. People started to think of her as this kind of crazy cat lady. They’d call and say, ‘Will you take my lion?’

“Take my lion? Who has a lion for a pet?”

More people than you might expect, he says. Tigers, too.

“It’s estimated that Florida and Texas have more tigers in captivity than exist in the wild. We’ve seen lions and tigers kept in basements.”

His own special lion friend, Nikki, for instance, was confiscated by the police from a drug dealer. She’d been fed on canned dog food and was more than 40 kilograms underweight.

“Now she’s one of the biggest female lions you’ll ever see,” says Lope. Nikki obligingly gets up on her hind legs and paws affectionately through the wire fence at him. She’s big all right.

“You don’t pick a cat like this as a friend,” he says. “They pick you. They tend to bond to one person. Everyone else they want to kill. But you can never forget what they are. If you come one day and you’re sick or you trip and fall or you’re limping ….. you’re prey.”

The 45-acre site is beautifully landscaped and thick with trees. It’s often hard to see the animals. They have big enclosures, lush and green. A black leopard appears out of nowhere, moving fast. If the fence wasn’t there, you wouldn’t have a chance.

The shelter, run by five staffers and 120 trained volunteers, is at capacity, with 140 animals. They range from two Canadian lynx, rescued from a fur farm, to a Bengal tiger that’s a retired circus performer.

“We don’t have them do tricks, even if they can,” Lope says. “But this one will roll over or stand up so the vet can see his paws and belly. That’s a help.”

Among regular visitors, he says, was hockey star Andre Roy, when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup-winning side. Roy particularly liked the mountain lions, with their curious cawing cry.

“He loved them. He’d say, ‘Who’s your favourite hockey player?’ And they’d go, ‘Wah.’- “
Lope knows all about Ontario’s notorious roadside zoos, some of which take advantage of inadequate legislation to shamefully mistreat their animals.

“We have them here, too,” he says. “But roadside zoos are starting to go away in the States. People aren’t so keen any more to take their kids to see an animal in a cage.”

There are all kinds of ironies at play. Florida’s climate is ideal for exotic animals, Lope says. “That’s a good thing for us but also ….. not so good. It encourages people to keep them. And these cats live far longer in captivity. A tiger, say, might live nine or 10 years in the wild. In captivity, they may live 20 years. So they develop ailments and muscle degeneration. Renal failure is a big problem.”

The sanctuary has memorial garden with a plaque for every animal that has died there, he says. “Animals that were born in captivity and died without ever seeing the wild.”

And then there are the animals that, contrary to popular belief, have never existed in the wild — white tigers.

“They were bred, like a breed of dog, from a single cub in Ohio,” Lope says. “It had a genetic defect. A white tiger in the wild couldn’t hunt; it would have no camouflage. It couldn’t survive.”

Cameron the lion shares a huge enclosure with a white tiger called Zabu. It’s not a pairing you’d expect to see but the two were raised together at a roadside zoo.

“I think maybe the hope there had been that they’d mate and produce a white ‘liger,’- ” says Lope.

“That, thank heavens, never happened.”

The two play rough, lurking in the long grass and charging through the trees at one another. But that’s allit is — play.

Until Cameron takes a bathroom break. Zabu, every beautiful inch a lady, goes off to play ball. Alone.

Bill Taylor is a Toronto-based freelance writer. His trip was subsidized by Visit Florida.

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

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