Rescuing the Big Cats
By Karen Hamlin
With their soft fur and big eyes, they are so adorable; they just melt your heart. So you bring one home to love, cuddle and play with. However, little Tigger* eats and grows at an alarming rate. He requires 10 pounds of meat per day and Tigger still thinks he's a little cub who wants to play, but realistically he's 100-pound tiger whose one-paw swipe during play can knock a man flying. Tigger is a victim of the pet trade. When no longer cute and cuddly, he is neglected, starved, abused and/or abandoned and unable to fend for himself. Where can you find these cute cats?
According to Michelle Thew of the Animal Protection Institute, there are actually more tigers in private hands in the United States than there are in India. The television show "20/20" obtained footage of bear wrestling in Ohio nightclubs and at county fairs and photos showing a young baby with an adult tiger inside a cage.
If lucky, Tigger will find his way to Big Cat Rescue, the world's largest accredited exotic cat sanctuary that is devoted entirely to big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, bob cats, jaguars, cougars and more. Big cats that are abandoned, abused, retired from the circus or entertainment are rescued and rehabilitated here.
We arrived at Big Cat Rescue (BCR) at 3pm ready for a tour. Carole Baskin, the founder of BCR, greets us in a long black flowing robe covering a zebra-patterned jumpsuit. With her long platinum hair and handsome features, she could have been a model. Instead, she has devoted her life to the immediate goal of rescuing cats and the long-term goal of educating the public so that her work is no longer necessary.
Carole never intended to operate a rescue sanctuary for big cats: It just happened. She and her late husband attended an animal auction to purchase a few llamas. A man brought in a bobcat that his wife no longer wanted so Carole adopted her. They called her Windsong and she bonded with Carole, but not her husband. So they located a bobcat farm in Minnesota and found disgusting conditions on this fur farm with a pile of skinned cats on the floor. There were 56 kittens that would either be sold as pets or slaughtered for their fur; that was an intolerable choice. They purchased all 56 kittens and drove them back to Florida. Little did they know how big their family would grow.
We met many of the 150 big cats in their cat-a-tats (cages as large as three acres) on the 42-acre premises. At 4:30,we went on the Feeding Tour and watched the big cats enjoy dinner. They seemed to have an inner clock that told them it was dinnertime because without banging their silverware they let it be known they were ready to eat. As we dropped by each cat-a-tat, the keeper flung a nice hunk of raw beef from a pole hook onto their dinner slab.
A photography tour is offered that equates to an African jungle photo safari. Instead of spending years waiting for a glimpse of these exotic cats in the tropical jungles, the perfect shot is right here. A 3-acre tiger pen was constructed on a lake so visitors can shoot tigers swimming and playing.
The Wild Eyes At Night Tour promised glowing eyes, pouncing cats and roars of the big cats. But that night, I guess these nocturnal animals just weren't in the mood.
Meet the Big Cats:
Auroara was born in Feb. 1996 and was said to be a descendant of the Exxon Tiger. She is a Siberian/Bengal hybrid. She was the runt to Bombay and Sunny and was cross-eyed and lame in the hips so she was not wanted for commercials. She loves to swim and has a one acre Cat-A-Tat where she can swim and play and talk to the big Tigers. She loves people and can really "work" a crowd from her vantage point along the main path.
Nikita-Many of the cats have sad histories, such as Nikita, a lanky lioness. During a drug bust in Tennessee, Nikita was discovered chained to the wall at the crack house. Skinny and malnourished, poor Nikita also had sores on her elbows. Big Cat Rescue was called to save her and Nikta has thrived since November 30, 2001 when she arrived.
Shere Khan, a male Bengal/Siberian Tiger born 12/20/94 stole our hearts on 3/12/95. His birth was a result of the demand for White Tigers by a public that is fascinated by oddities. A White Tiger is not an "endangered" species. It is a color mutation that happens infrequently in the wild and usually is not passed along because white animals in a forest environment would not live long due to their inability to hide and sneak up on prey. Shere Khan had been sold as a cub, but because he was born "the wrong color" the purchaser kept putting off his delivery date, until he finally canceled the sale at four months. The breeder's then had a four-month-old cub on their hands for which they had no other facilities than a small carrier that he was quickly outgrowing. He was up to his belly in feces and decaying food in a pet taxi that seemed to just bust at the seams with tiger fur.
Snorkle, a male Siberian Bengal Tiger was born in 1996 to a breeder who used them to have their pictures taken with tourists. What's wrong with taking pictures? The uninformed public doesn't realize that the owners of these cats starve them and deprive them of bone building calcium so they stay small because they are only profitable if they look like cubs. Florida law mandates that the public cannot touch the cubs once they reach 45 pounds. At 6 months, Snorkel had outgrown his usefulness and ended up at a small family-operated circus. Neglected and ill fed, he was stunted and bigger cats would attack him.
The list goes on and on. So many of these big cats never played in the grass or a pool until they arrived here. Big Cat Rescue now has 150 exotic cats of 16 different species and has the largest and most diversified acquisition of exotic cats in the world.
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud's (The Bear) movie Two Brothers depicts the trials and tribulations of many big cats. It is the touching and dramatic story of two tiger brothers and I highly recommend it. There are only handful of rescue homes for big cats in the US, and so many times some big cats have to be turned away because of limited space.
Only when people realize and respect the fact that big cats are wild animals, (not toys, pets or circus tricks) that need protection; only then, can Big Cat Rescue close its doors.
For further information about these magnificent animals, go to www.BigCatRescue.org
*Tigger is a fictitious cat used as an example.
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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