“These people come from all over the world, working six days a week,” said Big Cat founder Carole Baskin. “We just had our biggest summer ever — 16 interns.” With the proposed addition of 10 adjoining acres for a 50-bed dormitory, “We’ll be able to really ramp our intern program up,” she said.


Interns now are housed in two doublewide mobile homes, a small trailer and a two-story structure nicknamed “The Barn,” all within the sanctuary. The new acreage is large enough to accommodate other improvements, including a 6-acre tiger enclosure to include an existing pond where the cats “can swim and chase fish,” Baskin said.

“My favorite thing about the internship program is they come to learn about the animals,” including the cats’ individual personalities, said Baskin, who began rescuing exotic cats in 1992. Today the local organization is the world’s largest accredited sanctuary dedicated entirely to helping abused and abandoned big cats.


Chelsea Feeny, who manages the intern program, was first a Big Cat Rescue visitor, then an intern.


The Iowa native with a degree in neurology research said she became disillusioned with the medical field and shifted gears, serving with Sierra Club, AmeriCorps and other nonprofits before turning to Big Cat Rescue, which she had visited five years earlier. “For some reason that really stuck in my head,” she said of her visit to the sanctuary at 12802 Easy St.


Feeny, who interviews and screens applicants, said interns range from age 18 into their 40s and come from Brazil, the Netherlands, Mexico, Canada and other foreign countries, as well as from throughout the United States. Most interns learn of the organization through its web site, www.BigCatRescue.org.


“It’s a great opportunity,” said Nicole Cashman on the final day of her 12-week internship. Back home in Wales, the 19-year-old plans to give presentations to fellow college students to encourage their participation. “Back in the U.K., there’s nothing like this,” said Cashman, who has worked with livestock on farms and at a respected agricultural college in her native land.


She already is making plans to return to Big Cat Rescue in December for the middle phase of athree-tiered internship, when experience would allow her to help with cougars and smaller cats. June 2013 is penciled in for her final internship, helping with the big cats, the lions and tigers.
But this initial internship has been an epiphany. “I knew I wanted to work with big cats” before applying for the internship, Cashman said. Sometime after her June 19{+t} arrival, “I made up my mind what I want to do … I want to become a tiger specialist,” tracking the animals in the wild and educating the public about the endangered species, she said.


gwilkens@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7124