Media Prior to 2003

Big Cat Rescue News Prior to 2003

The following are just a few of the stories printed about Big Cat Rescue.  For hundreds more visit:

New Gate

They say first impressions say so much. If that is true, then we are glad our newest addition tells a tale of how much we value the appearance of our sanctuary, the safety and well-being of our big cats and guests as well as have the support of generous donors like you. 8 feet of wrought iron and about a 15k price tag raised from the Catter-Wall project fund has come together to create a stunning new entrance gate. We have struggled for years with a flimsy,slow, and unreliable chain link fence as our entry way. Now, we have a secure, beautiful, and strong gate. We also plan to beautify the entrance by erecting two gorgeous lion statues that were donated to us.  We still need a builder to set our lions on pillars just outside the gate and sponsorship of the gate is available. Please help us with both these remaining projects by spreading the word.



As I carry my overnight bag into the cabin at dusk, the nearby lake reflects the lights over the Veterans Expressway. To the north, the mall in Citrus Park glows beyond the oaks.

Fifteen feet from my cabin door, a leopard crouches in the tall grass, then makes a 10-foot pounce and eyes me the way my house cats eye a careless mockingbird.

Luckily for me, the big cat is inside a heavy-duty wire fence enclosure. On these 40 acres in the middle of the exploding suburbs of northwest Hillsborough County, 170 wild cats are permanent guests of Big Cat Rescue.

I’m here for the night, for the animal sanctuary’s decidedly out- of-the-ordinary bed and breakfast. Don’t expect the usual gourmet frittatas and adorable antique furniture; here you make your own Maxwell House and feed raw meat to a tiger.

Big Cat Rescue is a poetic name and a literal one: Easy Street is a dirt road off Gunn Highway, across the six-lane highway from Westfield Shoppingtown Citrus Park.

“We’re not really open to the public in the usual sense,” says Scott Lope, the general manager of Big Cat Rescue. Tours are given by reservation only, and visitors must be accompanied by a guide at all times and be at least 10 years old.

Big Cat Rescue is not primarily a zoo or a tourist attraction. Tours, ranging from a couple of hours to the overnight Expedition Easy Street, help raise money to support a sanctuary for about 200 animals, 170 of them cats small and large, from sand cats no bigger than a domestic tabby to cougars, lions and tigers.

Some came from circuses, roadside zoos and fur farms, but most are former pets, bought as cuddly kittens by people who woke up a few months later to find themselves living with a big, expensive, destructive predator capable of cheerfully eating them for lunch.

Such cats can’t survive in the wild. Zoos don’t need them, and circuses breed their own. Many of them end up euthanized or sold to canned hunt operations, where they’re often shot in cages. It’s too risky to hunt them; it could damage their trophy heads and pelts.

If they’re lucky, they end up someplace like Easy Street.

Talk to the tiger

About a dozen people are signed up for the 3 p.m. tour, and Lope is laying down the rules. Stay at least 3 feet away from the enclosures at all times. Don’t reach across the knee-high fences there to remind you: “A lot of these animals are really good at getting you close enough to pull you in.” No running, no teasing or feeding the animals. Break the rules and, Lope says, “we have no problem booting people off the tour.”

And who’s going to argue with a man who can order tigers around?

The group heads across a lawn to meet our first cat, Shere Khan, a male Bengal-Siberian cross tiger. He came to the sanctuary as a 4- month-old with severe nutritional deficiencies, which are common among pet tigers.

“His bones were so weak,” Lope says, “the first time we fed him chicken, he broke his jaw.”

At 8 years old, Shere Khan is the biggest cat in residence, at about 800 pounds. He and China Doll, a female Bengal, share a 3- acre, heavily wooded enclosure with a lake they can swim in.

Shere Khan’s striped disguise is working; it’s hard to see him lounging in the dappled shade until Lope calls him. He saunters over, making a grunting noise called “chuffing” that is a tiger’s greeting.

Standing 3 feet from an 800-pound tiger is an interesting experience. On one level, I’m stunned by how beautiful he is and charmed by his friendly manner. He rubs his cheek against the fence and yawns like my cats at home.

But some primal corner of my brain stem is telling me that, fence or no, it remembers when creatures like Shere Khan ate creatures like me. A thrum of fear underlines the admiration.

The close encounter underlines another reason that wild cats don’t make good pets. “They pee on everything, even each other,” Lope says. China Doll proves it by ambling over and doing just that to Shere Khan. He yawns.

Soon, the aroma of all those predators marking their territory envelops us. Imagine a tomcat spraying your sofa, then multiply it by about a thousand. The scent is in the brush, the sand, the air. Even if none of the cats marks you – and if you stand too close, they might – the odor will go with you.

But our guide’s stories about the cats are interesting enough to distract visitors from the pungent air. Lope, a 35-year-old Gulf War veteran, has worked at Big Cat Rescue for six years. He began as a volunteer. “I was working in a pathology lab at night and working here all day, and finally it just made more sense to be here full time.”

Now he oversees about 30 volunteers and works 12-hour days, “and we don’t even count the time we spend on research.” But the cats are his passion, and he likes the “peaceful vibe of the place.”

The sanctuary has lakes and sandy flats shaded by live oaks, slash pines and palm trees. Houses dot the property (Lope and several other staffers live onsite), and ducks, peacocks and house cats wander everywhere.

The wild cats live in big, sturdy enclosures of heavy-duty welded fencing, built by volunteers at an average cost of $5,000 each. Enclosure size varies according to the type of animal, but most large cats have 1,000 square feet or more.

Water-loving cats such as tigers have small pools with waterfalls; some cougars and leopards have trees. The snow leopards have air-conditioned dens. All the cats have shade, brush to hide in and dens to get out of the weather.

We stroll past cougars and tigers as well as dozens of smaller cats such as lynxes, servals, caracals and ocelots. The cats’ reactions to visitors vary. Many were raised by people and still respond by approaching them.

“Cougars are the biggest cats that purr,” Lope says, and Sylvester, a South American cougar, demonstrates with a rumble that sounds like a Harley’s.

Other cats have been abused or haven’t been socialized. The ones who suffered the worst treatment are kept away from visitors, Lope says. “We just don’t want to expose them.”

We finish the tour with “interaction,” which means we go inside a cage with a bobcat. Raindance is a 10-year-old Northern bobcat, bought as a kitten from a fur farm, as were several other bobcats and lynxes.

Their cages bear signs: “Someone thought I’d make a nice fur coat. It takes 20 dumb animals to make a fur coat. It only takes one to wear it.”

“I blame it on J.Lo,” Lope says. “She’s always got to be wearing that lynx coat.”

“And not much else,” one man on the tour chimes in.

Raindance stands still for our wary stroking, avoiding our eyes. She’s three times the size of my biggest couch-potato house cat. Her tawny fur springs with life under my hand.

Fifty-six kittens

It was a bobcat that started the whole thing. Carole Lewis bought a kitten named Windsong 11 years ago.

A few months later, she and her husband, Don, went to a Minnesota breeder who sold bobcat kittens. When they arrived, they discovered that the breeder ran a fur farm. Kittens not sold as pets were “harvested” for their pelts the next year. He had 56 kittens.

“We bought all 56 of them,” Lewis said, and brought them back to Florida.

From that beginning grew Big Cat Rescue. For several years, Lewis and her husband, a millionaire real estate investor, paid most of the sanctuary’s expenses. In 1997, Don Lewis disappeared. Police found his van parked at a Pasco County airport. Despite their investigation, he has not been found. A court declared him dead last year.

When he vanished, Lewis says, “it was like half of the backbone of the place being lost. And the financial aspects were horrific.” Suddenly, with Don Lewis’ estate in limbo, she had to become a fundraiser.

But the sanctuary survived. Lewis’ daughter, Jamie Veronica, is president. Lewis has “no official presence” at the sanctuary.

Although she began as a pet owner and sometimes bred wild cats, she now works to pass laws against the sale of wild animals as pets. “The ultimate goal would be to have no need for places like this,” she says.

Wakeup roar

As the day tourists depart, a couple of other cabin guests and I head for the next adventure: feeding the cats.

Anissa Camp, 29, the sanctuary’s education director, is our guide. She has worked at Big Cat Rescue for five years, first as a volunteer, then as one of the three paid staff members.

She loads a cart with big metal bowls of raw chicken legs, chunks of beef and something called ground zoo mix, which has lots of internal organs.

The first meal is for Shere Khan. No need to call him this time; he’s striding along the fence looking hungry. We step inside the 3- foot fence but keep our distance from the inner one.

Camp shows us how to use long-handled metal tongs to grasp a chicken leg. “Choose a square in the fence and put it through the square. Don’t worry about putting it in his mouth; he’ll find it.”

The tiger takes the chicken with a little growl, kind of like Homer Simpson with a doughnut, crouches over the small concrete pad used for feeding and with three loud crunches demolishes his food, bones and all. Then he puts out a huge pink tongue and carefully licks every bit of juice off the concrete.

Next we feed a cougar. “They’re the most aggressive about food,” Camp says, and with a snarl and a chomp, the cougar proves her right. The muscle behind the bite vibrates right through the tongs.

Our final customer is a black leopard, which we learn is not really black. Instead of an orange coat, these cats have one that is such a deep shade of coffee-bean brown, their black spots show only in bright light.

“They’re the pickiest eaters,” Camp says. The leopard sniffs the chicken leg, curls his lip and looks away, then gingerly takes the meat, dropping it on the concrete to sniff it over before eating it.

The guest cabins are in one building, a big green prefab barn on a southeast corner of the property, some distance from most of the animals. Each half of the building holds two guest bedrooms that share a bath, kitchenette and sitting area.

My room, dubbed the Kenya, has a leopard and lion motif, a queen- size bed and a huge TV. The kitchenette has a coffeemaker and a supply of muffins. Overnight guests observe additional rules: They must be at least 18, no alcohol is allowed on the property, and everyone must stay indoors after 10 p.m.

The three cats housed next to the cabins are recent arrivals, retired from the circus which has paid for retirement quarters for 20 big cats.

The new guys are Reno, a leopard whose circus specialty was riding in a chariot, and two tigers, Sabre and Flavio.

As I head out to get something to eat, Reno is shimmying through the brush and pouncing across his big pen, over and over.

After dinner, I drive back slowly along the dirt lane. As I creep between the lake’s edge and the lion pens, my headlights fall on Sarabi rolling a 3-foot-wide, 125-pound play ball around as if it’s weightless. Nikita, who came to the sanctuary after police in Tennessee found her chained to a wall in a crack house, stalks my Volkswagen along her fence.

I can see the two tigers as I near the cabins, but Reno is invisible. I know that he’s in his enclosure, but as I fumble for the keyhole in the dark, the skin on my back shivers.

Safely inside, I’m looking out a window when suddenly I hear a low, too-close growl. It sounds as if it’s below the window ledge. My knees go boneless.

Then I realize what’s growling: my stomach. That will teach me to eat pad thai at the mall.

I do hear from Reno several times during the night. He keeps making a loud chugging noise, a series of grunts that last a minute or so and end in a little sigh. Lope says the next day, “That’s his looking-for-a-girlfriend noise.”

In between I hear a high-pitched cry that sounds like coyotes but is probably the little sand cats, whose pavilion is nearby. The peacocks let loose their ghost-in-the-woods wails once in a while. I read until late, a novel set in Havana in the ’50s with one character, a mysterious, beautiful dancer named the Panther.

I set the alarm for 6:30, but at 6, roaring wakes me. I make coffee, pull on my aromatic T-shirt and jeans from the day before and go out to say good morning to Sabre, who is pacing around and bellowing. Reno is sleeping late, one spotted haunch showing through the opening into his den.

Eye contact

Lope is waiting to take me on the rest of my tour. First we do operant conditioning, which means using food to get the animals to obey commands. This isn’t stupid pet tricks; Lope says that training the cats to stand up or lie down on command makes it easier for veterinarians and the staff to monitor their health.

I get a chunk of beef impaled on a long, sharpened stick and instructions to hold it outside the wire until Bengali the tiger does what I tell him.

“Bengali, up!” I say in my best dog-training voice. Bengali looks at me out of the corner of his eye and grumbles.

“He doesn’t want to get up. We don’t make them,” Lope says. As if I could. “Try down.”

Down he goes, and he gets the meat. I try again with his brother, Samonti, in the next cage.

“Samonti, up!” Whoosh. I’m 5 foot 8, and I’m looking at the tiger’s armpit. It’s a reach to get the treat up to his mouth.

Though some cats at Big Cat Rescue were bred in the past, that has stopped. Lope says, “A real sanctuary does not breed or sell animals.”

Why let people in at all? Some sanctuaries don’t, but Lope says that Big Cat Rescue allows visitors for two reasons. “The big one is it raises money. We have to fight for every dollar.” Lewis estimates that running the sanctuary costs about $430,000 a year.

“The other thing is education,” Lope says. “If people see these cats, make that eye contact, maybe they’ll think about it later.”

He hopes the tours will make it less likely that wild cats end up as pets and more likely that they survive in the wild.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’ve made it so nice for them here,’ ” Lope says. “No matter how nice we make it, for them it’s a prison cell.”

If you go

Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St., Tampa, is a nonprofit sanctuary accredited as an animal rescue facility by the Association of Sanctuaries. Tours are by reservation only, for ages 10 and older, at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday-Friday and at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday; $20 donation. Feeding tours at dusk Monday- Saturday, $25. Bed and breakfast cabin for one or two people (must be 18 or older), $175. (813) 920-4130;    Call for changes in prices and availability.

By:  Colette Bancroft  4/15/03 St. Pete Times

Cat Sanctuary Shares Story of Lion for Holiday Crowds by: Michael Hinman, Staff writer

Nakoma’s Family Day at Big Cat Rescue will raise money for an on-site animal hospital.

By the time he was finally brought to Big Cat Rescue, Nakoma was in bad shape. He was dangerously underweight and his back two legs were paralyzed. Over the next year, sanctuary volunteers nursed the lion back to an almost normal weight, but a series of tests showed he was suffering. He was allowed to quietly pass away during his final visit with the veterinarian.

Nakoma’s story is not unique. In fact, it’s a story that caretakers at the Citrus Park cat refuge hear all too often. State law allows promoters to use baby lions and tigers to pose in pictures with paying customers as long as the animals remain under 40 pounds. Nakoma’s owner, trying to stretch his investment, starve the lion cub to keep him under the legal limit. The consequences for Nakoma were devastating. “when Nakoma came here it was just too late for us to save him,” said Scott Lope, a spokesman for Big Cat Rescue. “He still grew up to be a full-grown, magnificent looking lion, but his back was half paralyzed, and he wasn’t able to walk or move around like a lion. Through all the hospital visits, MRI’s and CAT scans he had as he reached adulthood, we realized there was nothing we could do for his disability. We know he was probably suffering quite a bit.”

One thing that could have made things easier for Nakoma during his treatments might have been having an animal hospital right there at the sanctuary. Most of the exotic animals brought into Big Cat Rescue require regular visits with the vet. (Dr. Stacie Wadsworth and Dr. Jim Ray of Carrollwood Cats) Transporting large animals offsite is very difficult in most cases, and many times regular vets simply don’t have the equipment to adequately treat them. That will soon change with the completion of an animal hospital to open at the Easy Street facility, and Nakoma’s Family Day this Tuesday will help raise money to equip it.

“We already have a building that was donated to us out here (by Dr. John and Sherrod West) so what we have to do now is finish the interior with cages and a surgery suite to get it up and running” Lope said. “It will be great for the cats because treating them will be much easier. We can build everything to scale for them.”

This is the third year Big Cat Rescue has opened it’s gates to the general public on July 4 (this was in 2000) for Nakoma’s Family Day. Although the sanctuary grants guided tours for a nominal donation throughout the year, regular visitors to Easy Street can’t be any younger than 10. That rule is not enforced for the annual family day to allow children to have a chance to experience the cats in their true habitats. “This is the one chance out of the whole year that younger kids can come out here,” Lope said. “Families will be allowed to roam around the sanctuary, something we don’t allow any other time.”

Children will be given a card with pictures of different animals living at the sanctuary, and each time they find one of the cats on their tour, they receive a stamp which could earn them a prize at the end of the day. Families will also hear Nakoma’s story and learn more about the refuge. The even does more than just raise money to care for the animals of Big Cat Rescue, Lope said. It also creates awareness of the way exotic cats like Nakoma are treated by owners looking to make a quick buck, and they hope that this will make many people think twice before supporting shows that ultimately hurt the animals.

“Most people think it’s real cool to have their pictures taken with a lion cub or a tiger cub, but they don’t realize what they’re contributing to,” Lope said. “The people running these things are just in it to make money, and Nakoma’s story is just a perfect example of that.”

2001 Times:  Big Cat Rescue is located near Citrus Park Boulevard and Gunn Highway across from the Citrus Park Town center. The gates will be open from 4:00 to 6:00 PM July 7 for Nakoma’s Family Day.  Cost is $10 per person. 920-4130

AAA Going Places Magazine:  May/June 2000 issue Some of them have been abused, some are endangered, some have been rescued from shows and circuses, and now they have a place they can safely call home- but better yet- a place where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace and relaxation. They are cats- not ordinary household ones – but rare and unusual species collected from a variety of places and brought to Big Cat Rescue, a 40 acre compound in Tampa that is home to over 200 unwanted, abused or abandoned animals. You can visit these spectacular creatures up close (very close), for a few hours or a few days through programs offered by the nonprofit agency. Easy Street offers photo safaris, a bed and breakfast cabin, day tours and will schedule animal visits to schools or other venues. The compound houses over 140 bobcats, servals, caracals, ocelots, tigers, leopards and mountain lions. One of the most unusual guests is a rare snow leopard from Siberia that thrives in a large enclosure complete with an air-conditioned fiberglass “den”. The “retirement home” for cats is in a secluded area of Tampa and conducts regularly scheduled tours once a day during the week and three times on Saturday. Visitors must call ahead to book the tours. Other tour times are available only by appointment and require at least a week’s advance notice. Full tours take about two- and- one half hours. Bring a camera. A $10 donation helps provide care for these rare cats. Ongoing. Call (813) 920-4130 for more information or visit the website at

By:  Tom Wuckovich, sr. Editor  AAA’s Going Places Magazine

Halloween Frights and Fun  10/27/99 Town & Country News.

These local organizations offer an alternative to the typical haunted house.  By:  Heather Civil  Staff Writer

     This Halloween, horses, castles and big cats will accompany the traditional ghosts, goblins and witches.   The Event Factory, Big Cat Rescue and In the Breeze Ranch are three of many local businesses that will hold haunted events designed to thrill people in different ways…

     Big Cat Rescue will offer a haunted trail on the grounds of the wildlife sanctuary.  But, as luck would have it, the tour will go off the beaten path and an evil tour guide will take people on a wild trip through the woods.  Daniel Capiro, who works at the sanctuary, said that the organization wanted to offer something different to visitors this Halloween.   “It’s so people get a little more than ghosts and goblins,” he said.     The haunted trail will focus on environmental issues such as toxic waste and the mistreatment of circus animals, Capiro said.  “We’re here to protect these animals,” he said.  “We wanted to focus on the environment.”

     Big Cat Rescue is home to more than 100 cats including lions and tigers.  Capiro said that participants in the nighttime haunted trail will be able to hear the cats.  “At night these guys are real active and wanting attention,” he said.  “There are different sounds at night.”  All proceeds go directly to support the cats.   Big Cat Rescue’s Haunted Trail runs through October 30.  The kids tour is at 6:30 PM and the adult tour is at 8:30 PM.  For more information call the sanctuary at (813) 920-4130.

Big Cat Rescue dinner to raise funds for exotic animals

Visitors can tour the habitat and talk to tour guides while dining on shish kebab.


? St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 1999

CITRUS PARK — Take a walk on the wild side, dine with lions and tigers and give a whole new meaning to partying with the local wildlife.

It all happens at Big Cat Rescue at the refuge for exotic animals off Sheldon Road, where owner Carole Lewis will host a safari dinner Saturday from 4 to 9 p.m.

“It will be very organized, but people will be walking around on their own, with our volunteers positioned to talk about the animals,” said Judy Watson, education director at the refuge. “You can pick up a plate, keep walking and talking to volunteers. It should be a lot of fun.”

The 40-acre refuge is home to 144 exotic cats, including cougars, tigers, leopards, servals and lynxes. It also provides sanctuary to swans, llamas, goats, chickens and an array of domestic cats.

The $25 event includes a silent auction, a book-signing session by children’s author James Dowling and entertainment by a belly dancer and a jazz trio.

The Melting Pot restaurant will cater appetizers. Dinner includes raw vegetables, shish kebab and rice, dessert and coffee.

Lewis has hosted a number of events to raise money for the sanctuary after her husband, Don Lewis, turned up missing almost two years ago. The discovery of his van at a private airstrip in Pasco County and an unconfirmed sighting of the millionaire in Costa Rica compounded the mystery. In the meantime, his disappearance has muddled financial matters at the animal compound.

Another event aimed at raising money for the sanctuary is a summer camp to run June 7 through Aug. 19. Sessions run Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., for children ages 7 to 10.

Cost of the camp is $110 per week. Participants can register for as many weeks as they want.

“The programs are designed to instill enthusiasm for the protection of the earth’s biological diversity,” Watson said. Children will “learn to care for farm animals, chickens, goats, squirrels and swans.”

They also will learn about butterfly gardens and backyard habitats for wildlife, she said.

MRI showed no hope for crippled lion

St. Joseph’s Diagnostic Center technicians Bob Keck and Mimi Holleman position Nakoma, an Photo of lion.African lion, for a magnetic resonance imaging exam Sunday. Nakoma had been sick since he was a malnourished cub, and veterinarians hoped to use the tests to diagnose and treat him. Efforts failed, however, and the cat was ultimately euthanized. [Times photo: Joshua Dautoff]


? St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 1998

TAMPA — For three intense hours at St. Joseph’s Diagnostic Center on Sunday morning, lion owner Carole Lewis was clinging to one hope: that a magnetic resonance imaging scan could find out what was wrong with Nakoma, a crippled, 350-pound lion who was malnourished as a cub.

But going in to the procedure, veterinarian Stacie Wadsworth had a sinking feeling that her last hope for diagnosing why Nakoma couldn’t walk would not work. She feared the lion would have to be destroyed.

Just before 2 p.m. Sunday, her fears were confirmed. The MRI — which Wadsworth had hoped would show a bone problem that could be treated by surgery — showed there was nothing that could be treated. To make matters worse, Nakoma had trouble breathing while under anesthesia and had to be rushed to Wadsworth’s veterinary practice for artificial respiration. Wadsworth resuscitated Nakoma, but in those critical minutes afterward, they had to make a decision.

They decided to euthanize the 2-year-old male.

“It was very difficult,” said Wadsworth, a veterinarian at Carrollwood Cats who had been treating the lion for 1 1/2 years. “It was hard on everybody there, but that’s part of what we have to do. We have to think of their quality of life.”

Nakoma was bought for $200 at an auction in Bushnell 11/2 years ago. His previous owner tried to keep him lower than 40 pounds for as long as possible so tourists would pay to have their picture taken safely with him.

Lewis tried to nurse him back to health at Wild Life on Easy Street, a 40-acre exotic animal refuge off Sheldon Road, and he put on weight quickly enough. But when Nakoma started plumping up, his hind legs could no longer support the extra weight. An MRI, Wadsworth thought, could determine whether there were problems with his spinal cord. St. Joseph’s donated the MRI exam.

Ultimately, however, “There was nothing we could do,” Wadsworth said.


Published on 10/07/99,

ODESSA – All eyes were on a young male bobcat about to make a new home on nearly 3,500 acres off State Road 54.

The 2-year-old bobcat was released Wednesday at Flatwoods Adventures, located at Jay B. Starkey’s Anclote River Ranch, after spending nearly five months recuperating from a broken pelvis at Big Cat Rescue in the Citrus Park area of Hillsborough County.


Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *