Big Cat Rescue Captive Wildlife Critical Incident/Disaster Plan
Contact info: Big Cat Rescue 12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625 813.920.4130 fax 866.571.4523 Info@bigcatrescue.org
USDA 58-C-0814 FL ESB 578 ID# 402067429
Lat 28.061125 Long. -82.571387
Hurricane Evacuation Zone Category? NO Flood Zone? NO
Capture Equipment Kept on Site:
1 blowgun, 1 pole syringe, 1 dart pistol, 2 dart rifles, 1 12 gauge shotgun, 1 30/30 rifle and net gun. Several staff members are trained and well practiced in the use of these. Kept in locked cabinets in locked rooms of locked buildings.
Transport Cages and Vehicles:
5 rolling circus wagons, ‘2012 Toyota Tundra with A/C topper, 2019 Ford extended van with two large cages made to fit inside. ’05 Dodge Ram pick up truck 3/4 ton with Reese hitch, custom enclosed trailer that will haul two rolling circus wagons and other smaller cages in climate controlled space, assorted yard trucks, pallet jack, Kobelco tractor (lifts 3,000 lbs) with bucket attachment, dozens of carriers, wire transports and every cat’s cage is equipped with a lock out. ’98 Dodge Ram van.
For a site plan of the facility to see buildings, access points, gates and cage layout visit these links:
We conduct random drills to test our staff and volunteers in the event of personal injuries, such as heat stroke, escapes, maulings, fire and hurricanes. Although we cannot simulate a fire or hurricane we have often staged the other disasters so that most of the participants did not know it was a drill. We have been very pleased with the results.
For What Kind of Emergencies Are We Prepared?
Scientist tell us that global warming will continue to disrupt our weather patterns and that we can expect far more powerful hurricanes for many years to come. We have prepared in every way possible and are providing this page as a portal for those who are concerned about us and for those who are trying to find ways to protect their own sanctuaries.
Some disasters cannot be prevented, but others can. Read more about what we are doing to ensure the safety of our cats and the surrounding communities at Big Cat Rescue below.
How do you prepare a 67 acre sanctuary housing 50+ big cats for a Hurricane? Since 2004’s episode including 4 major hurricanes in 6 weeks we get asked that question a lot.
The answer isn’t something that can be said in a sound byte though, because it takes months of planning, preparing and training to make sure that when the winds quit howling, the cats don’t start howling from the wrong side of the fence.
It starts with the caging. Our cages are built from galvanized wire panels that are twice what the state standards require for strength. Vern builds them in rounded, peanut styled formations that utilize the strength of the curvature without the necessity of posts. Because there is nothing to catch the wind, which is the major factor in a hurricane, there is nothing to blow away. Almost all of our Cat-A-Tats (our word for cages) have roofs made of the same material so the animal is safely contained on the top, sides and bottom. The only major damage we have had to cages was in the non roofed enclosures.
Anticipating that, we had moved cats living in those enclosures into roofed cages to ride out the storms. As soon as the winds reach 30 MPH all cats in open air enclosures are shut into their smaller, roofed areas until the winds subside.
The non roofed areas all are equipped with two or three strands of hot wire that is solar powered, because in a hurricane, the first thing to go is the power. The solar units we use are very expensive but are reported to last 5 days in the dark. Fortunately we have never had to test that claim; losing only 3 days of power at any given time.
All of our cats have dens to escape the rain. Some of the small cats have igloo type dog houses that are shaped like tree stumps and barrels with one end half cut out up in the trees. Most of the cats have some form of concrete den that is built to accommodate their size. A cougar, for instance, has an underground area (which is actually elevated above the grade to prevent water from pooling inside) that is 8 feet by 12 feet by 2.5 feet high. Over that is a mountain of dirt, plants and grass that provides a cool area in the summer and warmth against the chilling winds in the winter. There isn’t a tree big enough to smash one of these 4 inch thick, rebar reinforced, concrete dens that are buried inside our man made hills.
Most of the other places in Florida housing exotic animals reported losing most of their trees during Charly, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne but we only lost a couple of dead pine trees. As we looked around, and thought about why, we concluded that the same thing that kept our cats from blowing away, kept our trees from toppling as well. Most of them are “caged”. We build our Cat-A-Tats around trees and Vern very cleverly encloses the top into the center of the boughs so that the cats have lots of opportunities to climb and to do the things they would in the wild, like sleep in the trees all day and wait for night. Because all of our best trees are part of enclosures this way, they were anchored to the ground by 1200 square foot cages. The wind just couldn’t get a good enough grip to pull them up from the soggy earth.
Hurricane preparedness has a lot to do with our people.
The chain of command is clear. There is always at least one staff member on property who has taken responsibility for the sanctuary that day. That person in usually the Operations manager, but if it is their day off, someone is always scheduled to be the person in charge in their absence. There are coordinators who have had years of training who then manage all of the 100 or so volunteers. All of the staff have smart phones and all of the volunteers and staff carry 2 way radios.
Long before the first cloud blows in off the bay they have been rehearsing for the worst possible situation. Thanks to the Volunteer Committee, regular drills are performed, documented and analyzed to see where we have come up short and what we can do to make sure that we are ready in the case of a real emergency such as a loose cat, an injured person or a fire. Our President, Jamie Veronica, is always checking the supplies in the Emergency Response Center and the Cat Hospital. These crucial supplies are always being checked, rechecked and restocked as they expire.
Classes are offered weekly to our members in such things as Animal Emergency, Human CPR and how to find the right tools and the right people in the most effective manner. Everyone knows the chain of command and who has access to dart guns, tranquilizers and the expertise to use them. All of our staff, volunteers and interns carry a two way radio with them at all times and do a radio check upon entering the property to be sure they can hear and be heard.
Our people are taught from day one that they have to lay eyes on every cat they care for and to report anything amiss with the animal and to report any threat to the cage that may compromise its ability to contain its inhabitant. Those observations are all logged digitally in a daily record and the Operations Manager, double checks the entries and the cause each day. Her actions are then logged on Big Cat Rescue’s intranet site and reviewed at the weekly staff meetings. All maintenance and preventative maintenance is done immediately.
Gale, Honey, Rebecca, Alyssa, Devin, Lauren, MC and a dozen or more interns live on site and the perimeter fence is walked throughout the day and night daily to inspect for threats to its integrity. During inclement weather all of these processes are stepped up. Thanks to our involvement with Hillsborough County’s Emergency Operations Center we get up to the minute reports on all tropical storms and hurricanes via e-mail, complete with radar photos, tracking projections and information on what is being done across the state to prepare.
The cats are prepared for emergencies as well. Thanks to an awesome Operant Conditioning Program the cats are trained to come into “lockout” on command. Most of our cages are built in at least two sections so that the cat can be shut into one side or the other for cleaning or repair, but in the worst case scenario we are prepared to move the cat completely. The cats are also trained to come to a target if we need to move them from side to side and while we haven’t tried that outside their cage, we are prepared to with our new golf cart gear.
Despite all of the best planning, things go wrong. What if a big cat escapes his enclosure? Then what? Oddly, you can drive right up to a big cat and they don’t even think twice about it, but the minute you step out of the car, you are lunch or you are to be run from. Neither of those options is conducive to a successful recapture. There are some places on the property that you just can’t get to by car but you can access these areas by golf cart. Treats always come on golf carts and so do the Operant Conditioning people, so the cats LOVE golf carts. Vern designed a portable cage that can be dropped down over the frame of a golf cart in a matter of seconds that protects the driver and a “shooter” much like the notion of sending a person in a cage down into a tank of sharks. The golf cart can get within a couple feet of the cat in most cases and lure the cat back to a safe area by way of targeting as we do in Operant Conditioning, or the cat can be darted with a tranquilizer.
In the worst case, where escape from the property is eminent, the cat must be shot with a bullet. Our staff has been trained and practices regularly with dart guns, blow pipes, and rifles and shotguns if there is no other alternative. They have been mentally preparing for the day when they may have to shoot one of their “best friends” to keep the cat from being a danger to society, because avoiding an escape is critical to the continuance of the sanctuary for all of the good that we do for the rest of the animals.
Sheltering in Place
There is no place safer than Big Cat Rescue for the 70 or so big cats who live here. In the event of just about any kind of emergency we are prepared to “shelter in place.” Since we have 10-20 volunteers and staff living on site, there are plenty of people on hand to care for the cats. If we had to move an animal or animals we have a climate controlled trailer, with remote cameras, that is designed to carry our biggest cats in a rolling beast wagon, or crates of our smaller cats.
Most of our cats are micro chipped and if we have to sedate a cat for any reason, we always micro chip them, if they have not been already. All of our cats are in a census with their name, date of birth, date of arrival at the sanctuary, if they have been neutered or spayed, if they were declawed by their owners, and their photographs are all online. All of our documentation is both in paper and paperless forms, kept online and in back hard drives.
Other Types of Emergencies
Only one building on the property houses exotic cats and that is the West Boensch Cat Hospital. There is a working fire extinguisher in the building. The Cool Cat Cave and Intern Housing houses domestic cats and kittens who are being fostered for adoption. The office has an office cat. All of these buildings are equipped with fire and smoke detectors, an alarm system that notifies the Operations Manager, President and Founder / CEO in the event of an emergency. Working fire extinguishers are maintained in each building and there are regular inspections from the fire marshall.
Many of the cages are outfitted with PVC rain makers that can be turned on with the flip of the red levers that are at eye level. Portable generators are by the lake, with fire hoses attached, and can be employed for putting out fires. We are completely surrounded by commercial properties and homes. No wildfire is likely to make it past these highly populated areas to us. The fire department is 1.1 mile away (3 min.) https://goo.gl/maps/TFaLq
We have a propane powered generator that is capable of running our Cat Hospital and Food Prep during an extended power outage. The domestic cats that are housed in Intern housing can be shifted to other buildings that are not on the same power poles, if there is an outage in one area of the property. We have three, or more, portable generators that can be used in an emergency. We have our own fuel station on site.
Disruption in Clean Water or Food Supply
Our water supply comes from five wells on the property. These can be powered by the many portable generators we own. We can store 17,000 pounds of frozen raw meat and our freezers are positioned next to the huge, propane generator, which was purchased primarily for insuring that we do not lose our food source during the aftermath of a hurricane.
There are three roads into the sanctuary. We have chainsaws and people who know how to use them if trees were to block the roads. We have earth movers and a bucket truck.
Terrorist Attack on the Sanctuary
No one is allow unescorted on the property. All guests are led by a tour guide and a tour back up. The tour guide and tour back up both carry radios and will alert their coordinator if there is any trouble from a guest. The coordinator knows to call 911 if the guest poses a threat to the animals, others or themselves. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is .7 miles away (3 minutes) Map: https://goo.gl/maps/dBpBV
The only hazardous materials we have been subjected to since 1992 was during the fruit fly outbreak when USDA sprayed Malathion on us from airplanes. A number of animals died during and immediately after the spraying and USDA was notified that their claims of the spray being non lethal to pets was a lie. More information on what we do for poisoning here: https://bigcatrescue.org/poisoning/
None of Big Cat Rescue’s employees are paid to do animal care. We have more than 100 volunteers, who put in at least 4 hours per week, who are happy to make sure the cats are always fed, cleaned, given their meds and given enrichment and operant training. Our paid staff manage these volunteers and do administrative work, so even if all of the 10+ employees were to walk out at the same time, the volunteers would make sure the animals were well cared for.
Death of Founder
Big Cat Rescue is unique in that the death of the Founder and CEO would have very little impact on the sustainability of the sanctuary. The sanctuary has policies, protocols and a set of checks and balances that ensure the long term viability of the sanctuary.
Failure of Heating / Cooling in Cat Hospital
The Cat Hospital is the only building where extremely elderly or sickly cats are brought inside during extreme weather. The cats are monitored on web cams to insure that they are comfortable and the web cams are available to hundreds of our AdvoCats who live all around the world. These people watch diligently for any sign of the cats being stressed or uncomfortable and have the ability to contact the Operations Manager by cell phone. We have generators that can be used if the electricity is out. We used Air O Force to do regular maintenance of our A/C’s and heat pumps.
Escapes are the obvious emergency crisis for which we are prepared. More here: https://bigcatrescue.org/escapes/
Animal Disease Outbreak
All of our cats are vaccinated regularly for the typical feline diseases, but some diseases are jumping boundaries between species, such as Canine Parvo and Canine Distemper showing up in cats. In our situation, the likely carriers of these diseases would be native raccoons and foxes. We do not allow dogs on property. We set humane traps daily for vermin to remove them immediately and take precautions to stake wire under fences and trim back trees to prevent intrusion.
Thanks to the diligence of our volunteers and the daily observation logs on the intranet site, we have been able to diagnose and quarantine cats who show signs of being ill so quickly that there has not been a spread of disease. When a cat is in quarantine we use foot baths going into the areas around their cages, and designate a separate set of cleaning tools, and a designated, certified quarantine trained volunteer for their care.
Drugs and supportive therapy is administered as prescribed by our vets and we have had excellent success in nursing cats back from situations that could easily have claimed their lives.
The generators and fire hoses can pump down areas that flood, into ditches that carry the excess water off to Rocky Creek and out to Tampa Bay.
We haven’t had one yet, but our cages are built in a unique design that is anchored to the ground by the many trees inside them and the foliage that grows up the sides. There is nothing to fall on the cages that would damage them.
All of the same work that we do to prepare for hurricanes would apply to tornadoes. The difference is that a tornado can do a lot more damage, without as much warning. If a cage, or cages, were rendered unsafe, we have 2-3 times as much cage space, if we shut guillotine doors between sections. This gives us plenty of built in caging to use while repairing any tornado damage.
The rain maker PVC systems that we installed for fires can be used just for cooling the cats off, if there were some freakish weather. It’s Florida and it is often hot and humid. Our cats have plenty of natural shade, dens that are 4 inches of reinforced concreate covered in earth and ferns for cooling, access to fresh water at all times and breezes that come up off the lake. Our volunteers note on the observation log and let their coordinators know if they see any signs of heat stress.
All of the lions and tigers and some of the other cats have access to spring fed pools that are recirculated constantly. We have portable pools that could be offered to cats who do not have permanent pools, if they needed to cool off more than their environment would allow. These portable pools have always been used as a form of enrichment rather than for emergency use.
Human First Aid
If you are injured, seek professional, medical help.