Big Cats Big Hearts

By Justin Brownlee

For the first time in its 12-year existence, the Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida, met its yearly quota in 2004. The success is attributed many volunteers and interns who spend all their time keeping a difficult dream alive.

“Our long term-goal is to not have to exist, said Scott Lope in a phone interview. Lope is the Big Cat Rescue operations manager and lives on the 42-acre sanctuary. “We hope to get legislation to pass a law that will prohibit people from owning exotic cats and keeping them as pets.”

Lope started as a volunteer at the BCR. After BCR founder Carole Baskin recognized his importance she asked him to leave his high-paying medical job to become a full-time manager and live on site. He is one of only three persons who are paid for their services. Everyone who is on payroll gets paid through Baskin’s real estate company.

Carole Baskin founded the non-profit organization in 1992. Baskin and her late husband went on a trip to Minnesota to buy a bobcat for a pet. When the Baskins arrived in Minnesota , they discovered that their cat breeders were fur farmers.

Fur farms raise animals strictly for their fur. The farm in Minnesota was just removing the belly fur and then disposing of the cats.

“The cats were in cages that were several inches deep with layers of fur and feces.” Baskin wrote about her trip to Minnesota in an article she wrote for the sanctuary’s web-site. “The flies were so thick in the metal shed that we had to put hankies over our faces just to breathe without inhaling them.”

On that day the Baskins bought the remaining 56 kittens that the fur farm had and made their way back to Florida . The number of volunteers and the exotic cats at the sanctuary has been growing ever since.

Lope estimated that about 160 cats are living on the sanctuary. BCR is home to 23 of the world’s 38 different species of exotic cats. The BCR has 50 volunteers and eight interns who help as much as possible.

Lianne Gibson is a volunteer who came from Scotland . Gibson found the BCR on the Internet when she was searching for more information on some endangered exotic cats. Gibson interned for three months over the summer and recently returned to Tampa to visit for two weeks.

“Working here was a real humble experience.  I came back for two weeks just because I love the place so much,” Gibson said in a phone interview. “I have traveled a long way to come here, and it’s worth it.”

Trevor Gerlach has been an intern for the BCR since last summer, but classes at the University of Florida have prevented him from full-time duties. He was with Lope and all the cats when three hurricanes hit the area last summer.

“We had our dart guns loaded but we didn’t have to use them; a couple of trees were uprooted and several cats had to be relocated,” Gerlach recalled.

The BCR has had many ups and downs in the past 12 years. At year’s end they usually have found themselves in debt by more than a few thousand dollars. In 2004, the BCR topped its quota thanks to many local supporters. They have received local support Winn-Dixie and the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

The BCR’s support is not just locally; it has obtained national and global recognition from wildlife photography and television shows like the Jack Hannah Show. It has also accepted donations from individuals from all over the world. Gerlach said the BCR owes all its success to the donations it has received over the years.

Some of the greatest success stories at the BCR involve retired tigers once owned by the Ringling Bros. circus act. The BCR started to accept the tigers from the Ringling Bros. after both sides agreed to the Cradle to the Grave arrangement.

“We take in Ringling’s retired cats for free, and they agree not to breed anymore cats. When they need new cats, they buy from a selected breeder that doesn’t inbreed their cats,” Gerlach said. “It is really a good deal for us because they provide cages and equipment that would cost us a lot.”

All the exotic cats live a luxurious lifestyle in large cages that simulate an actual habitat. One may wonder if the cats even know the difference.

“Our short-term goal is to provide the best life in captivity as possible,” Lope said. “It’s a thought to have the cats back in the wild, but it’s an impossible dream that can’t happen.”

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