Four Hurricanes in Six Weeks!

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Four Hurricanes in Six Weeks!


Four Hurricanes in six weeks leave their scars on Big Cat Rescue

Six months after four hurricanes crashed through Big Cat Rescue we are still struggling to rebuild.

We were blessed in that none of our residents, four footed or otherwise, were injured in the storms. Big Cat Rescue has policies, procedures and planning in place that enabled us to do the most important thing in an emergency which was to protect our animals and the community.

Many of our open air Cat-a-tats are the best ones because they offer so much space for their inhabitants, but they are also the most difficult to secure in hurricane force winds. Our roofed cage structures, designed and built by master craftsman, Vernon Stairs, proved to be impervious to the gale force winds and flying trees. In cases where trees landed on them the cages were not breached and the animals inside were never in jeopardy of escape. Due to the concrete bunker style dens, all of the cats had safe places to escape the blowing rain and flying debris.

Because it was anticipated that a tree down against the wall of an open air cage would provide an escape ramp, Scott Lope had insured that all of the cats in these more vulnerable cages were moved to roofed cages during the storms. An emergency cage had to be built for Shere Khan and China Doll as they were too claustrophobic to be held in their lock down area for the duration of a storm.

In the aftermath of the storm we assessed the open air cat-a-tats and the degree of damage and have concluded that the only answer is to re configure these enclosures so that they too can be roofed. In many ways this is more time consuming and costly than building a new cage because all of the existing structure has to be removed or re shaped. There are several of these enclosures that must sit empty until they can be re vamped. Until then, the cats who used to enjoy them are confined to smaller cages and they are eager for us to get these done. Please help by making a tax deductible donation now:

Hurricane Jeanne

Hurricane Charley

Hurricane Jeanne Roars Into Big Cat Rescue

September 26, 2004 11:30 am.

The media is now calling us “storm weary Floridians”. Four hurricanes in six weeks will do that to you. The last hurricane took out our main computer so I am writing this on a battery powered laptop from the sanctuary. Howie commented that we are probably the only people in the state who left the security of a hurricane reinforced home to ride out a hurricane in the $1500.00 trailer at Big Cat Rescue. My vision of the parking area is obscured by a tree that has fallen on our E-Center which is the hub of our Education department, Entertainment center and Event center (thus the E-Center). What I can see is the new addition made to Shere Khan and China Doll’s 3 acre enclosure. It is a 1200 square foot roofed section with a two door, semi circular den that had to be ridiculously large because Shere Khan is an 800 pound tiger with claustrophobia.

He spent the first four months of his life locked in a pet carrier and since his rescue has never been confined in a small area because his memories of that abuse cause him to completely flip out in lockouts like all of our other cats have. Vern built this special “safe-house” despite being under the gun to finish cat-a-tats for 8 more tigers that are due to arrive by mid November. During the last hurricane several trees fell in our open top cages including one in the 3 acre pen that fell against the wall of the cage. The wall held, but the tree created a ramp that could have created an escape route for the cats if they had any inclination to climb.

Although the tigers typically will choose to lie out in the open and watch all of the flying debris rather than holing up in their bunkers like the rest of the cats, Shere Khan is not happy about being confined in this new safe area. He is alternating laying there with his eyes shut, ears down and nose into the wind and pacing. I’ve gone out several times to let him know I am here and that I want him to just lay low and ride this out. He’s patient but like all of us is getting weary of hurricane after hurricane.

Scott just came in from making a patrolling round. The rain is blowing sideways and it feels like needles being thrust, thousands at a time, into your eyes. He reported that a tree fell in the Servals’ open yard. The good news is that the Servals had been moved earlier in the week to a roofed cat-a-tat. The bad news is that the tree crashed down across the wall of the empty cage and had smashed into the top of Lola’s enclosure. Lola is a fully clawed black leopard who doesn’t like people. She is one that is almost impossible to trap in a lock out and move.

Fortunately, as a result of the proceeds generated from last year’s Fur Ball, Lola was one of the cats who got a concrete bunker under a hill of earth as an 8 x 10 underground den and a huge room addition. The cages have been built in sections so that the cats can be locked in one section if we need to clean, repair or secure another section. Scott was able to lock her in the side with the bunker so that she cannot escape from the damaged side of her cage. These enclosures have taken a lot of abuse throughout the past three hurricanes and we have been relieved to see that the roofed cages can withstand the weight and force of huge trees crashing into them. They may buckle a bit, but once the trees have been cut away, the cages have popped back up into shape.

The danger with Lola’s cage is that it was impossible to see, because of all of the tree debris that fell on top, whether or not the cage wire was pulled away from the tree that is in the center of her cage that goes through the top. Thanks to Vern’s foresight we don’t have to worry about that until the storm passes because Lola is safe and dry on the other side of the guillotine door that was quickly and easily dropped into place.

Scott also reported that Cody and Missouri the Mountain Lions who share a roofed cat-a-tat with trees through the roof have had one of the trees snap off and fall onto their roof. Scott had to patch the hole caused by the vacancy of the tree from the roof, but again the tools, training and qualified people were all in place and working through the brunt of the hurricane to insure the safety of the cats and the surrounding neighborhood. People will often tell us how lucky we are to work with big cats, but they haven’t considered what is involved in risking our own lives to be sure that the cats are kept contained in an emergency situation. Consider the heroism involved in blocking the escape hatch on a cage that contains two frightened cougars with your own body while fastening a patch of cage wire in place. All of this done in blinding rain and gusts of wind that threaten to blow him off the top of these 12 foot enclosures. These people are not paid well enough for the work they do.

After Hurricane Frances we had 5 pine trees that were damaged to the point that they needed to be cut out of the cats’ cages. We had two that were lying on the cage walls causing us to evacuate the cats to roofed cages. We had one that fell beside Scott’s mobile home and one that was poised to fall on the home and the power lines leading to it. Because tree trimmers are the busiest people in the state right now we were only able to have the two most dangerous trees cut down. We are on a list a mile long for the rest of the tree work, but after today the winds may have brought down the rest of the damaged trees. I can only pray that more won’t be added to the list.

Vern spent the past week pumping all of the excess water dumped by Hurricane Ivan off our lake and was happy to report yesterday that he was able to drain off four inches of the flood waters that had accumulated from all of the surrounding development. The news is saying that we can expect up to six inches of rain from Hurricane Jeanne. The parking lot is quickly disappearing under water. We have parked the vehicles in the highest areas but there is no telling how deep it will get and how long it will take the waters to recede afterwards.

1:30 pm

Despite the damage done so far and the amount of rain that has already fallen, the newscasters say that it will be another 1 to 3 hours before the strong winds and rain arrive. There are 75 mile an hour gusts currently and the roar is deafening. Flooding is our biggest problem with all of the storms so Howie and I just got in from a survey of the 42 acres. The objective was to see which ways the water flows during the highest rainfall so that we can effectively trench ditches to carry the water away from the cats and foot paths. In addition to the watchfulness for water snakes and escaped cats we also found ourselves ducking for cover as the tops of trees snapped off and flew through the air around us. They look like toothpicks being snapped, but sound like a crack of thunder from lightening striking right next to you.

The Coatimundi cage has a tree down that has crushed one wall half way to the ground and the tree is now poised over the white Serval Tonga ‘s cage. To chase the coati around will surely send him over the wall, whereas for now he is staying warm and dry in his den, so we will wait until the wind and rain lets up to take a chainsaw to the remains of the pine tree. We saw the damage previously reported by Scott and saw that a tree that had partially fallen during Hurricane Frances causing damage to a Serval cage had now fallen completely and severely damaged the Caracal cage next to it. Fortunately the staff had already moved the Servals and Caracals to roofed enclosures before the storm.

Yesterday during VIP tours for guests to the Fur Ball I had noticed Jamie and Daniel were repairing Samantha, the Ocelot’s cage. During our survey just now we were stopped dead in our tracks to see an oak tree snapped off from the top of the Ocelot cage and a gaping hole in the roof. I couldn’t see Samantha in her den and Howie was calling to raise Scott on the radio for emergency repair and perhaps to help us recapture this tree dwelling cat. I saw that her cage had been shut in half by the drop gate and upon further investigation found Samantha to be safe and dry in her other underground den in the secured side of her cat-a-tat. Whew! What a sigh of relief!

Every walk through reveals more thousands of dollars of repair that will have to be done in the days to come. The trees that we rely so heavily on for shade will have to be stood back up and some sort of system installed to hold them in place until their roots can grow enough to anchor them better. Many of the trees are too large to stand back up and will have to be cut up and removed to reduce the fire hazard. In other cases the trees are too large or too dangerously positioned for our equipment. This means we will have to patiently wait our turn to have the experts come remove them and hope that we don’t have another hurricane blow through.

We had given our generator to another accredited rescue facility that had sustained damage during hurricane Charley. We bought another and had intended to buy two more so that there would be one for each of our freezers and one for one of the wells. We discovered that the size of generator that we could afford (7500 watts) could not handle even our smallest freezer. The type of generator needed to run just one of the freezers costs in excess of $15,000.00 and is the sort of expense that is hard to justify.

5:30 pm

Scott just popped back in to let us know that the gate had lost power and that he would be unhooking the chain and putting it back on manual. We losethe gate every time it rains and sometimes for no reason at all. I priced out a new one between 8,000. and 11,000. and may have to invest in one now. He said the winds are much worse now than before, but that the only new tree to fall went down between the bobcat trio and Faith the rehab bobcat without hitting either cage and without landing on the perimeter fence. The E-Center has shuddered violently and at times the roof sounded like there were a herd of cattle running over it. Over one million people are without power tonight and the storm surge is supposed to hit at 2:00 am. I guess we will know that the house is flooding when our feet start getting wet.

The morning after. September 27 update: When I arrived on the scene at 8:30 am the place was already buzzing. Most people who got the day off today would be home unboarding their windows, cleaning their yards of trees and (if they had power) restocking their refrigerators. Not Big Cat Rescue Volunteers! Their first priority of the day was to make sure the cats were safe and then to provide clean water and clean cages before jumping into the back breaking work of sawing and hauling logs, digging ditches and pushing fences back into place.

We have been clearing trees off the cages all day. The Coati stayed in his den long enough for us to secure his cage. All in all we were very fortunate that none of the cats were injured and none escaped. The clean up will take us a very long time and will be expensive but there is no price that could have been put on even one animal suffering.

La Wanna Jones, in Springfield, MO (the lady who helped with all of our great game pages) was able to get a chainsaw donated by Carpenter’s Saw Shop and the shipping donated to send it to us. See how two schools in Springfield, MO are helping the big cats with Penny Wars. A majo bank donated $1000.00 in shovels, rakes, yard tools and cash and sent a team of ten volunteers to help with digging ditches and repairing cages.  All of these little efforts add up in a big way! Thanks everyone!

Wish List

Big Cat Rescue needs your help to recover from 4 hurricanes in 6 weeks. We need the following items and services:

Professional Tree Cutters $700.00 per tree with 12 down

Chainsaws, commercial grade

Commercial grade wood chippers (these are trees, not brush)

Mobile Home Tie Down screws (to hold small trees in place until roots grow)

Shovels, rakes, pole saws, hand clippers, limb loppers

Electronic double swing gate with keypad and impact eye for front gate 8k-11k

Cash to replace damaged cage wire and pay for professional tree services

Hurricane Charley

What happens when 145 mph winds and a 12 foot storm surge pass through the world’s largest and most diverse big cat refuge? The newscasters say we will know in six hours. It will be dark by then.

Today, Friday the 13 th, Hurricane Charley is headed straight for Tampa. A mandatory evacuation has already sent homeowners in four counties scrambling for higher ground. The gas stations were sold out before noon. The home supply stores were sold out of emergency necessities. The grocery stores were sold out and boarded up. The power company is shutting down power to low lying areas because of the impending tidal surge. The emergency response networks are on the air waves saying that if you have not left the evacuation areas already, it is too late. They will take your call, but they won’t send anyone to help.

The city looks like a ghost town as windows have been boarded up and everything that might get caught in the storm has been brought inside. The only sounds are the wails of the sirens. At noon the skies are dark, but as still as death.

The eeriness is spread over this normally bustling town like a hot, humid blanket. The winds began to pick up and the first bands of rain have come pouring down. Storm waters began rising up from the manholes in the streets, flooding the roads. The crickets that had been raucous in their warnings are now silenced.

The cats know. They knew the day before. Appetites increased as they sensed the change in barometric pressure. This storm was going to be a bad one and nature had hardwired them to prepare in their own native way. Fill your bellies now and find a dry place to hole up until this blows through.

The cats of Big Cat Rescue had been watching their keepers prepare for this night. The perimeter fences had been shored up and secured in weak areas. Everything in the park had been put up or tied down. The cat’s dens had all been elevated so that even with the horrific rains that were expected and all of the flooding from poorly planned development around us, the cats would have a high and dry spot to ride out the storm. Almost all of the cats had concrete dens now. Even if trees came crashing down around them from the tornadoes that would spin out of the womb of this massive and powerful hurricane the cats had safe places to escape the storm’s fury.

Years of planning and preparedness would pay off. All of the dead trees had been cut down and ditches had been recently dug to be deeper and more efficient. The storm drains had been cleared and soft spots in the sanctuary roads had been filled and reinforced. The tranquilization drugs were in good supply and the staff had been practicing their marksmanship in the event of an escape. The perimeter walls were patrolled regularly every day, so the status of their effectiveness was already well known. The volunteers had been trained and drilled for this day. The cats had been trained with operant conditioning to respond in an emergency situation. The cages had been designed in sections that could be shut down if there were a breach in one portion. The lockouts, where the cats are fed, could be detached and the cats loaded into trucks if that became necessary.

Dual systems abound in case of first line failure. The keepers carry both walkie-talkies and cell phones. There are two freezers, two coolers, generator back ups and the gate operates on power, or manually. There is a pump to keep the lake from overflowing and drainage canals if the machinery should falter. There are safe, high and dry areas for the cats and a way to move them if those fail. There is barbed wire and hot wire, which is supported by solar powered battery back up boxes that are marketed to last five days in the dark. Everything that we could think of had been implemented and practiced for this sort of a crisis. We thought we were prepared. But were we?

Are you ever prepared for what it feels like to tell those you love that we are going to walk around in 145 mph winds, dodging projectiles, to be sure the cats are safely in their dens? How do you tell your family and your friends that to recapture a leopard or tiger means we are all put in harm’s way so that the cat does not escape and become a menace to the neighbors? When you have raised so many of these cats from cubs, or have seen them through miraculous recoveries from the abuse that brought them here, how do you instruct your staff and convince yourself that if the cat is going over the perimeter fence it must be killed?

Nothing prepares you for a day like today.

How Big Cat Rescue Helped Our Neighbor Sanctuary

Nine Big Cat Rescue volunteers spent August 19 helping the Peace River Refuge and Ranch in Zolfo Springs recover from Hurricane Charley.  Details below the photos.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

Update 8/20/04  The first Big Cat Rescuer, Vernon Stairs arrived on the scene at 9:00 am and began cutting up the fallen trees into firewood and brush that can be chipped or burned.  By 10:00 8 more Big Cat Rescuers (Founder: Carole, VP: Daniel, Green Level Keepers: Brian and Anissa and Interns: Stephen, Jonny, LeAnn and Kat) had signed in and received our directive from Peace River Refuge and Ranch’s founder Lisa; to clear the perimeter fence of the fallen trees and create a fire break around the wild animal portion.  With all of the fallen trees in the area we wanted to prevent any lightening spawned fires from reaching the animals.

The sanctuary is more than 90 acres, but the wild animals are contained on 30 acres behind an 8 foot tall fence.  Tree trunks the size of a man’s torso had fallen in both directions against the fence and in some cases the fence had been impaled by the force of pine trees flying like missiles through the air.  Most of this area had standing water from all of the rain so every ant on the property was riding the fallen branches to stay dry.  As we carried the limbs we were bitten constantly.  Some of us look like we have a rash from all the bites, but it is a little hard to see because we are all so badly sunburned, bloodied and bruised from the ordeal.   Imagine trees everywhere and not a bit of shade in 92 degree weather.  Even the trees left standing lost most of their leaves in the gale.

Many of the trees were precariously perched one upon another so that as we would start to cut them from where we could reach huge limbs would come crashing down.  The fence has a 3000 pound tensile strength and often as the thousands of pound trees that were crushing it out of shape were cut away the fence would spring back into place, taking with it any of us who couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough.  (A lot of years with big cats does prepare you for that though.)  Chainsaws are a dangerous matter as well because they tend to get stuck; propelling the person holding them in the opposite direction and there were enough of them blazing that we were all coughing up sawdust a day later.  I don’t know if any of us can see straight today after the combined assault on our eyes of sweat that poured like rain into them, the flying sawdust and debris and the burning effect from the sun.  Sunglasses offered little protection in this environment.

When we arrived Kurt and Lisa were still certain that the perimeter fence was beyond saving.  To replace it could easily cost in excess of $25,000.00.  By noon we had cleared the entire interior of the perimeter fence.  By 3PM we had entirely cleared the exterior of the perimeter and had cut up all of the trees and hauled them safely out of the fire break path.  By 3PM it was obvious that the perimeter fence was going to be just fine in all but one 6 foot expanse where a tree too large for our chainsaws was impaling the fence.  It felt good to know that we had helped save them so much money and had restored the integrity of their fencing for the safety of the animals and the surrounding neighbors.

The last hour and a half was spent in the parking area which is also fenced and around the pasture that barely contained several horses and a donkey.  Their shelter had been smashed and several of the trees had fallen onto this fence as well.  If a horse were to try and cross they were likely to break a leg in the tangle of wire and barbed wire.  Before we left we had removed all of the offending branches and had popped (rather unexpectedly, I might add) the fence back up into place.  The shelter still needs to be repaired.

Thanks to the Tampa Tribune’s coverage of this need, we were able to coordinate several more volunteers to help out, including Brad Rimbey who is donating and setting up a 10 x 20 canopy to shelter the remaining pieces of their coolers and freezers.  Sharon Greenleaf La Pierre, Ph.D. made a 300.00 donation of a generator after hearing about Peace River Refuge and Ranch’s plight from Frank Wendland who is accredited by The Association of Sanctuaries and who was the person to originally share it with our list serve.

The outpouring of help has been heart warming.  Despite all of the hardship involved in such a rescue effort there is nothing like the bonding that occurs when good people join together for a good cause.  We walked away feeling a whole lot better about ourselves and mankind in general after spending a day at Peace River.  Our next caravan of volunteers will be leaving Big Cat Rescue at 7:30 am on Sunday, August 22.  Come join us!

Aug. 23, 2004 Update:  Yesterday another van load of Big Cat Rescue Volunteers including operations manager Scott, volunteer coordinator Cathy, Becky, Kathryn and more went to Peace River Refuge and Ranch to help.  Maya, our lioness was in the throws of a seizure just as they were returning and we were so caught up in trying to help her that I didn’t get all of the names.  Scott and Cathy reported that they did a LOT of raking and yard clean up and that there was not much left that the average volunteer could do.

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