Big Cats Get a New Home
Lynx and bobcat now in care of Henry County Conservation Board.
By KILEY MILLER
MOUNT PLEASANT — The morning sun pushed through naked trees as Cari Burnstedt settled down on the ground outside the corn–crib cage.
"There’s my boy," she purred enticingly, a triangle of light falling on her camouflage jacket and glinting off her glasses. "How’s my boy."
On the other side of the wire, a bobcat paced forward. He moved like living silk, wrapping one leg around another to press his paws down in a near–perfect line.
"How’s my boy. Did you miss me?"
The bobcat pushed his nose through the fence, stretching forward like a barnyard tom aching for a good scratch.
"We’re you getting jealous? Was that it?"
And then the bobcat hissed. Burnstedt recoiled and the bobcat dropped back, growling in his chest.
A moment later, Burnstedt stepped out of the fenced–in run surrounding the cage.
"That’s the part that breaks my heart," she said. "He can’t decide if he’s a lap cat or a wild animal."
Burnstedt prefers wild animals. A naturalist for the Henry County Conservation Board, she took over last month as mom to the 14–year–old bobcat and his bigger, sexier companion, a 12–year–old female Canadian lynx.
The two cats belonged to a woman in Lee County who raised them from kittens. When the woman became ill and could no longer care for them, Burnstedt and her bosses on the conservation board stepped in to save the animals from being euthanized.
"I can use these animals to teach about endangered species," Burnstedt said. "They can be used to explain extirpated species, mammals in general, cats, predators. There’s all kinds of lessons beside the obvious."
The "obvious," in Burnstedt’s judgment, is that wild animals should not be kept as pets.
In the wild, male bobcats can range 50 miles, hunting through the night for rabbits, rodents and even wounded deer. A female lynx might travel even further.
But the two animals in the cage outside the Oakland Mills Nature Center measure their territory in feet, not miles. Their habitat includes a log pole for climbing and an igloo–shaped hut to shield them from the rain.
"In my heart–of–hearts, I hate to see a wild animal in a cage like this," Burnstedt said. "They can’t hunt. They don’t have a chance to find a mate and raise a family. They don’t run. So, no, they don’t have it made."
The adoption was Burnstedt’s idea, and care of the cats falls squarely on her shoulders. She feeds them every other day, serving up meals of rabbit, venison and beaver meat. And she talks to them daily, getting them used to her voice and beating back their biggest enemy — boredom.
Carole Baskin was just a naive animal lover when she bought a bobcat from a fur farm 13 years ago. Now the Tampa, Fla. woman runs Big Cat Rescue, the world’s largest sanctuary for lions and tigers and their smaller cousins.
"The best thing they could do," Baskin said, referring to the conservation board, "is to build the largest enclosure they possibly can and give them lots of things to do."
Each of the 142 animals at Big Cat Rescue have 1,200 square feet to roam. A traffic jam of critters running through the cages — birds, lizards and rodents mostly — keeps the cats entertained. And Baskin helps out by mixing fun into feeding time.
One of her favorite tricks is to wrap a frozen rabbit in banana leaves and stuff it in a box. The more layers for the cat to go through, she said, "the better."
"If the cats get bored," Baskin explained, "they’ll start ripping out their hair, fighting with each other, howling all the time, pacing all the time.
"A bobcat will travel more than 20 miles for a meal. Imagine all the things he sees over 20 miles. Then imagine what it would be like to be locked in your house all the time."
While Burnstedt feared setting a bad example for the public by keeping a wild animal, Baskin shared another concern. As soon as she opened her sanctuary, exasperated big cat owners started calling, trying to pawn off their pets. Occasionally when she refused, they simply dumped the animals on her doorstep.
"They (the conservation board) may be opening themselves up to that kind of behavior," she said.
Big Cat Rescue now turns away over 100 animals a year.
Burnstedt knows there are risks, and they aren’t likely to disappear soon. Based on their typical life expectancies, the bobcat and lynx could "die tomorrow." Or they could live to be 20 years old.
But there have also been rewards. After just three weeks under her care, the cats are showing more natural behavior. That includes burying their scat in the bark and pea gravel covering the floor of their cage. Before coming to the nature center, they lived on concrete.
Burnstedt plans to cover the huts with brush and add lofts in the cage to simulate nature still further.
"My dream is for them to act like wild cats," she said.
Not long after the bobcat hissed at her, the naturalist ended her morning visit.
The lynx sat on her haunches and watched her keeper walk away. The tufts of hair on her ears and the thick beard at her neck made it easy to name her species. But it was her paws that suggested she was born for more than a cage. Wide and round, with cotton–white fur between the claws, they were made for running over snow.
"By having these animals here," Burnstedt said, "if I can teach a kid what not to do — not to own an exotic pet — then it will be worth it."
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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