Maybe the best way to start out is to talk about
How NOT to Rescue a Big Cat
About once a month some film producer calls me and makes some variation on this pitch:
"We want to find cases where we can bust down the door, like Dog The Bounty Hunter, and save these animals from their current situations. We'd like to find enough cases to sustain several episodes."
It just doesn't work that way.
Our response is typically,
"The only time animals can be seized by USDA is usually at the end of a 6 + year long legal process. States have a patchwork of rules and in 30 years of rescuing exotic cats, I can't think of a single time when there was a "bust down the door like Dog The Bounty Hunter" moment. It just doesn't happen. The state processes are like those of the federal government and require years of court battles before the person eventually gives the animal up.
Even then, they usually won't allow cameras and when they do, it is not an explosive situation, if the person rescuing the animals has any concern for the animals. The best way to move any exotic cat is through patience, quiet and working with the existing owner to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.
The only accredited sanctuaries are listed at SanctuaryFederation.org Any place else you send a wild animal could very well end up in trouble again not too far down the line. That wouldn't reflect very well on you. Accredited sanctuaries do not buy, breed, sell, allow public contact nor take animals off site for exhibition. People who run accredited sanctuaries aren't going to act stupid on film for you and do things that would jeopardize the animal or public's safety.
Good luck with your project though because it can only help for people to see what happens to all of the cute little cubs when they are no longer cute...and profitable."
How To Safely Rescue and Transport a Big Cat
Every situation is different, but the following is a step by step guide that Big Cat Rescue uses when rescuing an exotic cat.
1. Gather information
We try to gather as much information as possible on the cat and the situation. Rescue logistics are almost always tricky and you can't be prepared for every possible snafu unless you have asked the right questions and listened to the answers. There are the obvious questions, such as species, name, age, claws or not, neutered or not, bottle raised or not, health, temperament and the size and complete description of the existing cage. Getting a cat out of a tiny cage is not too hard because they are usually more than glad to escape into any other contraption to get out of their confinement, but if they have space to hide, or avoid capture, they will use it.
Write it all down, as soon as you find out, because different people will tell you different things and you'll probably have to extrapolate the actual situation based upon a lot of faulty input. Ask someone who is there to send photos, video or sketches of the cage, the surrounding terrain, roads for your vehicle and the distance you will be carrying some 400 lb cat by hand to get to the road. Assess weather norms for the area and a forecast close to travel time. You can almost count on the fact that it will be raining, snowing and sleeting in a lightning storm, during an eclipse, regardless of your best laid plans.
Unless it is a government seizure, or an abandoned cat, we require that owners contract with us to never own another exotic cat. Most people who are unloading lions and tigers on others are using them for profit while they are young and then discarding them when they are no longer making money for the owner, or when they are too big to play with any more. We believe that it just enables this bad behavior when sanctuaries allow exotic owners to use them as a dumping ground, because the owner will often go out and buy another cub or kitten to use.
If you want to send your exotic cat to Big Cat Rescue you will have to sign a contract that says we will take your cat, at no charge to you, but if you obtain another exotic cat, or even pose with one after the date of the contract, then you owe us whatever it would cost to take care of your abandoned cat for the rest of their life (which can be more than 20 years.) This contract is usually the deal killer and the irresponsible owner will just find some roadside zoo, breeder or pseudo sanctuary who won't hold them responsible for their acts.
To bring a cat into Florida we have to get a Health Certificate, from a veterinarian who is licensed in the state where the cat is, stating that the cat is healthy enough to travel. No shots, blood tests or any other kinds of tests are required and every vet's office has these three part forms, which are typically used for moving dogs and cats across state lines. That means that the exotic owner, who has probably never provided vet care, now has to get their cat to a vet, or get the vet to their home, to do this Health Certificate, which will be good for 30 days.
When dealing with exotic pet owners, we know how flaky they usually are, so we don't even apply for an import permit until they have signed the Surrender Contract, in front of a notary, and have obtained the Health Certificate from a vet and faxed both to us. There is no sense in tying up our Florida Wildlife Commission staff in issuing an import permit when most exotic pet owners will fail to comply. If they do comply, then we fill out a form and submit it to the Florida Wildlife Commission and ask that they allow us to import the cat. They will contact the owner and the wildlife department of the state where the cat lives, in order to make sure that no laws are being broken. It can take 2 days or 2 weeks to get this permit issued and it is good for 30 days.
The clock is ticking down from 30 days on the Health Certificate so all of the other arrangements have to fall into place before it expires. Here are examples of the paperwork. Health Certificate FL Import Permit Contract For Surrender USDA Transfer Form
See how that is even more complicated for Foreign Rescues of Big Cats.
3. Reducing Stress for the Cat
If possible, we like to give the cat time to feel comfortable in the transport carrier. If it is a small cat, an airline kennel works well, but for cougars on up, it has to be substantially bigger and heavy duty enough to prevent an escape. The exotic pet owner is almost never equipped and/or willing to build something for the cat to use. They just want the cat gone and don't usually care how that happens. This often means that we have to send someone up, ahead of the rescue team, to build a transport cage on site and install it so that the cat gets used to eating and sleeping in this new crate.
If you were to play this video in reverse, you would get an idea of how we hook the transport up to the side wall of the existing cage to get the cat used to using it.
It at all the possible the cat should be allowed to come and go freely from the small transport cage while eating and for sleeping, so that when moving day comes they feel safe in that small space. You will notice that we cover the cage, so that it looks like a nice, safe den.
4. Prepare for the worst
We make every possible attempt to safely capture the cat without sedating them. Exotic cats often die from simple procedures because of hyperthermia caused by the drugs used to anesthetize them. Even if the sedation doesn't kill them right away, it is a toxin that their kidneys can't fully flush out and over time can result in renal failure. If you take your time, prepare in advance, and watch the cat for cues, you can often manage to crate them for transport without using drugs.
Nonetheless, we have to prepare for the worst; ie: the cat just won't go, or the cat escapes because of the rickety enclosure where they have been housed. Even if our vet goes along on the rescue, they cannot transport drugs across state lines, so we can bring the "jab" stick, the blow pipe, and the dart guns, but we have to find a vet where the cat lives who will meet us at the scene with the appropriate cocktail of drugs to sedate the cat and a willingness to be in a situation that is usually fraught with danger. That is a pretty special vet and can be hard to find. We often spend hours on the phone trying to find just one who will help.
If the cat were a cougar or larger and managed to escape during the rescue attempt we have to be prepared to shoot to kill because sedation drugs take 20-30 minutes to take effect and often do not work at all if the cat has enough adrenalin pumping through their veins. Being free for the first time in their life is usually enough that there is no drug that will bring them down. Even if it did, they are 30 minutes down the road and could be drowning or stumbling out into traffic.
5. Send enough of the right people
Everyone at the sanctuary wants to go on a rescue. It's exciting! But, the people you need on the rescue mission are the most experienced, the most calm, and depending on how far you are traveling, they have to be expendable from the daily work of the sanctuary. You may be able stop for food and overnight resting on the way up, but not on the way back. No one is going to let you rent a room and haul your circus wagon with a tiger in it into the motel for the night. You can't leave the cat in the trailer because they make noises that attract ignorant people who will do stupid things to see what is inside.
You will have to have a crew that can take shifts driving if you are coming across country with a big cat. Nothing spells disaster for good working relations like traveling 3 days straight, eating junk food, listening to static on the radio and smelling cat urine for hundreds of miles.
6. Be ready to receive the new cat
The people left behind are usually trying to raise the funds for the rescue, building or modifying a cage, making arrangements with the media and then wrangling the press on the day the cat arrives. The media can be a sanctuary's life blood because a good story, along with thrilling photos and video, will raise awareness about the plight of these cats in captivity but you have to keep the press from getting in the way or scaring the animals. They often want snarling photos and roaring cat sounds, but our mission is to make the transition as smooth and peaceful for the cat as possible. To do that you have to have the media area staked out and enough people to keep them far enough from the cats that they cannot spook them. Giving the press a great spokesperson to answer all of their questions is a great way to make the most of the situation and insure that they understand why it is so important to put the cat's needs first.
7. Follow up
Even if the exotic cat owner was a jerk, we let them know that the cat arrived safely and encourage them to follow us on Facebook and YouTube for updates about their cat. We follow up with the press to give them updates, although it is rare that the media will report anything after the initial rescue. Whatever money you raised before the rescue is all you are going to raise, for the same reason. Before the rescue the public is on pins and needles, following you through every step that you will share with them and helping as much as they can. After the cat is at the sanctuary, most member of the public are off looking for the next "feel good" story where they can be involved in another rescue.
The cat you rescue today could live another 20 years, so it is vital that you have planned for that long term care. I have never seen a rescue effort raise more money than the first years' cost of the cat. All too often "sanctuaries" continue to rescue animal after animal because of the funds they can get from the initial rescue, but it is never enough for life time care and eventually the places implode and the animals are all shifted around the country again.
Don't be THAT place!
See some of Big Cat Rescue's rescues above.