Do As I Say, Not As I Do in Ohio

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Caring for big cats can be too big a job

Friday, January 23, 2009 8:26 AM
By Josh Jarman



JOHNSTOWN, Ohio – Carol Bohning learned the hard way how to care for
big cats: She rescued one.

Now, more than a decade later, she and her husband, Craig, operate
Butternut Farm Wildcat Sanctuary & Education Center at their farm
near Johnstown in western Licking County. The Bohnings care for more
than 20 wild animals, including eight cougars, six bobcats, three
African servals, two Eurasian lynxes, a wolf and a fox.

But she's the first to tell people not to do as she has done.

Bohning said that lax state regulation and easy-to-buy wild
animals have left sanctuaries such as hers struggling to save big
cats from being euthanized. Although Bohning is fearful of a ban on
big cats, she said the state needs to do something to keep
irresponsible owners from mistreating animals.

Ohio law requires permits only to keep animals native to the
state. In Bohning's case, that's the bobcats and fox. She said people
buy much larger, and more dangerous, animals at in-state auctions and
via the Internet.

Exotic-animal regulation has repeatedly failed at the Statehouse
but is reintroduced after a wild animal escapes or mauls someone. As
a state representative, George L. Distel, D-Conneaut, pushed for such
legislation last year before leaving office to become director of the
Ohio Turnpike Commission.

Chris Law, a board member of F.A.I.R. 4 Ohio, a conservation group
that helped defeat the bill, said its provisions were unreasonable
and constituted a ban on responsible owners.

Dean Vickers, state director of the Humane Society of the United
States, disagrees. He said Distel's bill called for common-sense
registration, and he predicted a similar effort this year.

"As far as we're concerned, wild animals should be in the wild,"
he said.

As a past director of education for the national Feline
Conservation Federation, Bohning has taught hundreds of potential
owners the science of caring for big cats. She said mandating
education and limiting easy access to the animals makes more sense.

When people go to an auction and impulsively buy that cute $200
tiger cub, she said, they have no idea what they are getting into.

Ten years ago, she was the happy owner of a bobcat, Bob. Then she
saw a message on an online bulletin board about a cougar being
starved to death in Alabama. Bohning remembers standing on the
darkened town square in Elba, Ala., less than 24 hours later when a
man walked up and handed her a leash attached to a scrawny, 15-month-
old cougar named Mercury.

Since then, she's rescued cats that were abused, neglected or
simply unwanted. She uses the sanctuary to teach people the reality
of wild-cat ownership – hopefully before they buy.

The double-door, fenced-in enclosures on Bohning's property cost
thousands of dollars to build. The more than 50 pounds of meat
required to feed the animals each day costs $2,000 a month.

Despite the costs and the constant need for donations and
volunteers, Bohning said saving the animals from neglect is worth
it. "If they came from a bad situation, they show you their
gratitude," she said.

Dear Josh,

I appreciate your attempt as presenting some of the negative aspects of wild cat ownership, but hope as you learn more about the subject you will present the case in light of that increased understanding.

"Do as I say, and not as I do" is the mantra of those who promote animal abuse under the guise of being "responsible."

If you are posing for the camera playing with your lynx, or telling the media that educated owners can provide a proper home to exotic cats as pets, you are helping the breeders and dealers ply their trade and are not helping the animals.  The Bohning's own website says, "BFWS supports both conservation efforts in natural habitats and responsible captive ownership."  These people often claim to be breeding or condone captive breeding to save the animals from extinction, but there are no captive breeding programs for release back into the wild.  There never have been and there never could be because there is no habitat to return them to.  Cats breed very well (like rabbits one might say) and all they need is protection from poaching and habitat loss to rebound nicely.  If you care, I can expound on all of the reasons that captive breeding couldn't work for saving animals in the wild, but there is a book in that subject.  Briefly, cats are pure carnivores and have to learn to hunt from their mothers who take years to teach them over many square miles of territory, there are some instincts that are regional and none of the cats in private hands can trace their cats back to the wild, the human conflict is increased from having been cared for by humans and none of the cats in private hands have a pedigree to know if you are breeding cousins.

My own history includes being stupid and thinking that people could be trained to provide proper care for exotic cats, but I learned better a decade ago.  Now that I know better and have an overview of the situation from being a former member of the Feline Conservation Federation (fka the Long Island Ocelot Club) and now being a participant in international efforts to save cats in the wild, including the International Tiger Coalition, The Jaguar Trust and The Snow Leopard Trust, I can tell you that most of what you got from the Bohning's was bunk.

There are no resources to properly monitor the possession of wild animals.  A lot of places hide behind their USDA license, like it was a badge of honor, but I have been asked to make a presentation to the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition next month on the failure of USDA to provide any meaningful regulation and what would be necessary to revamp the system.  Currently anyone can fill out a 12 question form (name, address, phone, etc. are the hardest questions) and pay their 40.00 to be licensed by USDA.  Despite six consecutive years of non compliance, in many cases, USDA continues to renew the licensee.  You can see that it almost always takes 6 years of extreme abuse for a facility to lose their USDA license here:

The entire purpose of the Feline Conservation Federation is to promote captive cats and they rally their troops to defeat any sort of legislation that would require them to register their animals or be accountable for where they come from and where they go.  Their members will tell you, as this person did, "She said mandating education and limiting easy access to the animals makes more sense." That isn't true.  There is no legitimate reason for breeding wild animals for life in cages.  Even the smaller bobcats would roam 5 square miles of territory in the wild.  There is no cage that is big enough to provide them with the bare minimums they need for a happy, balanced life.  Tigers are designed to roam up to 400 square miles. 

I have spent more than 20 years caring for 16 species of wild cat and have learned that the toughest challenge we face is keeping them from being bored out of their minds.  Our smallest cage is 1200 square feet and our largest 3 acres, but this is far less than these animals need to be themselves.  Bottom line is that there is no excuse for breeding or enabling the breeding of exotic cats in captivity. 

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

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:

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