Cleo was once a cute, cuddly cub. Her owners put a harness on her to walk her. As she grew stronger, her former owner could not handle her enough to get the tiny harness off. As the years passed it became completely embedded in Cleo’s skin. Eventually as she grew the harness would have crushed her ribs. Because the owner did not know how to properly feed the cat, when she arrived at Big Cat Rescue she was so malnourished that to anesthetize her to remove the harness would likely have killed her. The cat seemed to know the dilemma. She repeatedly came to the fence and allowed Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin to carefully cut away the nylon harness and the skin that had grown around it with a razor blade. The cat would take as much as it could, then walk away, then return for more. She would growl and hiss in pain, but seemed to know it had to be done and never turned on the person causing the pain.

Ty is a Serval, a beautiful gold and spotted cat of about 30 pounds with huge ears that give it the best hearing of any cat. A breeder convinced a young couple that if they raised this kitten with their human infant they would bond and be friends for life. When mature wild cats hunt, rather than take on the strongest animal in a herd, they instinctively seek the young or infirm. At age three, Ty became an adult, and the three-year-old playmate became prey, and Ty attacked. The offending cat, who had done nothing but follow his natural instincts, was then driven for days during mid summer in a crab trap in the back of a pickup truck to Big Cat Rescue, and was almost dead on arrival from exposure and dehydration.

Tampa is home to the world’s largest sanctuary for abused, abandoned and retired exotic cats. The sanctuary houses well over 100 lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, bobcats, servals and others, 16 species in all. Most were former pets abandoned by their owners.

The narrow mission of Big Cat Rescue is to provide a good home for the limited number of cats that the sanctuary can afford to take in. But, we can only save a small percentage of those in need. The sanctuary must turn away over 100 cats each year. Because of this, the broader mission of the sanctuary is to reduce the number of cats that suffer the fate of abandonment and abuse by educating as many people as possible about the conditions that lead to the plight of these animals and how they can help.

There are two major sources of the abuse and abandonment. The first is the “pet trade”, the breeders who sell these wild animals to people as pets and the people who buy them. The second largest source of the animals is the “entertainment” or “edu-tainment” industry, a subject for another day.

Most of our cats come to us because people buy them as pets and then cannot handle them. Breeders lie and tell people that if the cat is fixed it will not spray so they can keep them inside. Not true. The spray is so acidic it eats through our galvanized cage wire over time. When they spray drywall, you do not clean it – you replace it.

Even kept outside, the cats usually make terrible pets. They are adorable cubs when purchased. Having these “cool” unusual pets, the owners get the attention from other people that humans tend to crave. But the cats live for 20 years if well cared for, and as they mature they become increasingly problematic as instinct takes over. Their “play” is rough because their skin is thick enough to withstand it. Ours is not, so even their affection can be deadly. It is pure instinct for them to attack children, other pets, or anyone whose back is turned. They do not typically seek or give affection the way we are used to from domestic animals. There is no kennel to take them when you travel, and whom do you ask to come feed your 150-pound carnivorous cougar? Many are abandoned because the owner’s personal circumstances change. We get them because people get married, get divorced, get sick, die, get bitten, or just get tired of the heavy burden of caring for them.

In addition to the bad experience pet owners have, most of the wild cats purchased as pets have a horrible existence. A large percentage die as tiny kittens because owners do not know how to bottle feed them. Of those that live, huge numbers suffer malnutrition due to owner ignorance of their nutritional needs. And most live a horrible life in cages that, while often legal, do not meet their physical or psychological needs.

There are countless reasons that non-domestic cats should not be pets, and no reasons other than human ego for allowing them to be pets. Individuals can help end this constant stream of abused, abandoned and destroyed animals by not purchasing them as pets and by supporting laws, regulations, and critically the enforcement of those laws and regulations to end pet ownership of exotic cats.

Author: Howard Baskin, Advisory Chairman of Big Cat Rescue 

High Res Photo of Cleo

High Res Photo of Ty

Photo credits to Jamie Veronica, President of Big Cat Rescue

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  1. That is so sad! I hate to hear that people have wild animals. They are beautiful but so unpredictable. We visited Big Cat rescue a few years ago when we were on vacation and I LOVED the place. I'm so glad there are places like this to let them live the rest of there lives out. Without places like this they would be lost or tortured.Thank You!

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