More Than 150 Felines Make Their Home at Tampa Refuge
By Bill Dean
The fully grown spotted leopard scaled a tree so lightning fast that the throng of onlookers felt they had seen Superman outpace a train.
"Did you see how quietly and stealthily that was?" guide Sharon Marszal asked.
Minutes later, the same group saw Bengali, a fully grown bengal tiger, saunter right up to the fence that divided cat from humans, as if communing with the 15 visitors now standing just a few feet away.
And they heard a full-tilt roar from a lion that would have sent chills down their collective spines had they been on an African veldt rather than in a Tampa sanctuary.
But that’s the thing about touring the Big Cat Rescue in west Hillsborough County: Like Forrest Gump wolfing through a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to encounter on a 90-minute guided tour of this 45-acre home to big cats of all stripes.
The sight of three cougar cubs — orphaned in Idaho when their mother was shot by a hunter — brought tender smiles and bright eyes to the visitors.
Seeing Bengali leap from a puddle to splash a keeper, or watching the white tiger Zabu race to the front of her enclosure from a rock 50 yards away in just seconds, brought surprise and awe to the group.
As its name suggests, Big Cat Rescue is a sanctuary for wild felines of all stripes; a refuge for leopards, lions, tigers and many others, whether they’ve been abused, retired, orphaned or simply given up by those who had attempted to keep them as pets.
Begun in 1992 by a couple who adopted a bobcat that needed a home, the sanctuary has grown and evolved over the years to become a non-profit refuge for big cats.
Nestled in a wooded area near the Veterans Expressway in Tampa, the sanctuary is home to 150 cats, from lions, tigers and leopards to smaller species like servals, ocelots and bobcats, that live in large, natural enclosures.
A coterie of 25 volunteers provide guided tours twice a day, giving visitors a chance to see as many as 20 to 30 cats from vantage points that are far closer than one would see in a regular zoo or circus.
The tour is also educational: Information like the fact that white tigers are a breeding aberration and only occur in captivity, or that all big cats except lions live solitary lives in the wild, fill the air like the occasional roar of a cat.
A constant message from Big Cat guides and officials, however, is that the facility is not a typical zoo. No physical contact of any sort is allowed between guest and cat, and visitors can only see the grounds during closely supervised tours of small groups.
The emphasis is on the cats, which can do whatever they want, says General Manager Scott Slope.
"Our animals are out there; they’re active. It’s not like when you go to the zoo . . . where they’re hiding because they never get any privacy," he says.
"Here, we have our two tours a day, so they know when the people are here. But they have their privacy; they’ve got their territory. And they can hide if they want to."
Visitors on a recent morning tour of Big Cat Rescue liked what they saw.
"You get the up-close feeling of seeing them more than you do in a zoo," says Sylvia Albritton, 71, who left her home in Orlando at 6:15 to make the 9 a.m. tour.
"And they don’t pressure them to do anything. If they don’t want to come out, they don’t come out."
Shannon Huskins, a veterinary technician on vacation from Marietta, Ga. (where she works at The Cat Clinic of Cobb County), described the tour as "fantastic.
"Every cat has an amazing story here. And that’s the one thing you learn about individual cats, how cruel people can be outside these walls."
Bill Dean can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7527.
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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