Keeper Walkabout at Big Cat Rescue Jan 2009
Jarred and a new intern were smiling and talking in an animated fashion as they exited the Volunteer Check Point. It made me smile to see these people, who give up all their free time for the cats, doing so with such a cheerful attitude. I usually start my rounds by checking the Observation books there to see if there are any reports of cats who are off their food, or exhibiting any signs that all is not right in their world. It is the combined effort of dozens of eyes every day and gives me a great overview of the general health of the cats and the enclosures.
I am giving a Founder Tour to a group of about 8 people today and Lauren the intern is my back up. The group is the most quiet and attentive that I have ever toured. It kind of reminds me of Forrest Gump’s take on things being like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. They particularly liked Sabre and Cheetaro the leopards. We cross tours with Matt as we reach TJ the tiger so I go quiet so that my tour can hear what Matt is telling his tour about tigers. The tour goes well and now I can get out and check on some of the cats who didn’t come up for the tour, or who were not on the tour route.
I watch Rich cleaning the cougars Cody and Missouri and I notice that they seem particularly at ease with him. They give most of us a wide berth, except Cathy, who they love, so it is noteworthy to me that Missouri is walking along with Rich and Cody is sitting nearby.
Aquarius the Fishing Cat is another cat who has changed dramatically thanks to operant conditioning with Susan and Gale. Her cage with its dueling waterfalls and pools is a spectacular sight, but unless it was dinner time you would never see the shy little occupant. With two underground caves that measure 8 feet by 10 feet and all of the lush foliage she was usually invisible. Now she sits right up front as people come by. Amazing!
Purrsistance the ocelot has been moved so that his cage can be cleaned, painted and added to one of the servals for extra space. Purrsi, as he is often called, has been moved next to his sister, Purrfection in a much larger cage than he had before. I am not sure who will be the benefactor of his old cage. Probably Shasta or Lucky since they are the servals nearest by who could use a little more space. I can tell from the work done to the cage that this must have been the work of quite a few volunteers.
As the 3 o’clock tour passes by the Jungle cats, Tarzan, Shaniqua, Crystal, Rambo and Cha Cha, I doubt that they know just what a rare thing it is to see any of these small cats, much less all of them at one time. I am too far from the tour guide, Bill, to know if he has pointed this out to them. They are looking in that direction, but Hallelujah the cougar is poised majestically on top of his den, so he may be their focal point. Bill always stops his tours to introduce them to me, with an introduction that causes the crowd to applaud. I find that embarrassing, because all of us work just as hard out here, so I disappear behind some cages before he spots me. I ask Jumanji and Sundari the leopards not to give me away.
Slinking back around by Chloe the Snow Leopard I see only her tail. She has picked up the bad habit of stalking me, because she sees Hercules do it, and now she thinks she is hidden behind a log, but that long, plush tail gives her away. I ignore her in an attempt to curb her fun loving, but ultimately bad habit. Hercules is sleeping on his cool rock wall, so I move by as quickly and quietly as possible to keep him from rousing.
When I ran into Lisa she updated me on some tedious but critical work she is doing behind the scenes to help us rescue Tony the truck stop tiger. I apologized for failing to recognize her work on this at the volunteer meeting on Sunday when I was thanking Kathryn and Susan for going with me to Louisiana, but she said she is doing it for the cat and didn’t need the pat on the back. (Here it is anyway)
I had read on the chart that Shatia the Canada lynx was not eating well, so I dropped in to see her. She has lived a lot longer than anyone every expected. She is 15 years old now, but was never expected to live as a kitten due to a cardiomyopathy and her frail little body. Unlike nature, where it is survival of the fittest, the cats who are bred in captivity are usually bred to be docile, or smaller for pet use, or un natural colors. That means that the sickest cats are used and often inbred or line bred for other traits, like a white coat. Each successive generation is then less healthy than the former. Only improvements in vet care and food has increased their life spans. I’m sure Barbara will miss her as much as I will when she is gone.
The new rescues are off limits to tours and most of the volunteers until they feel comfortable in their new surroundings. I don’t look Freckles the liger in the face as a I walk up and I keep my voice low and comforting as I tell her how happy we are to have her here. She makes a half hearted attempt at a growl, but decides I am no threat and lays her head back on her paws. Scott has planted the donated Christmas trees strategically around her enclosure to give her places to hide. They are so thick I can barely see Alex the tiger, but he is out of his den and laying in the grass. He chuffs a “hello” but doesn’t get up. Cookie the tigress bounds over, chuffing wildly and rubbing up and down the cage wall. She was the first of the cats that I had seen in the waning light in Mississippi and had greeted me in much the same way, but on her back feet. Where she came from the cage was barely tall enough to contain her, so she had certainly taken my breath away. Now, in her fully roofed cage, I could just be delighted by her affection.
By the time I got to Joseph’s pride the sun had set. The burnt orange sky at the horizon, behind the silhouette of trees, truly gave the impression of being out on the plains of Africa as Cameron and Joseph, the lions, rallied roars back and forth across the lake. Sasha the lioness seemed blissful and reveled in the serenade. Bengali and his brother SARMOTI, the ex circus tigers were up on top of their hills watching their lion neighbors with amused interest.
Nala the tigress was craning her neck to watch from down the road, but Trucha and Modnic the sister tigers were taking their after dinner baths and seemed oblivious to the chorus. Flavio the ex circus tiger moaned his greeting and rubbed his huge head against the wall of the cage as I checked in on him and King his former performing tiger friend next door.
I quickened my pace as I retraced by step back around the lake to the cemetery. Since Mia the house cat passed on, the cemetery is a lonelier place. She brought life to this area that is such a sad reminder of our brief existence on this planet. The marble headstones did not work out as the photos etched into them faded, so they were replaced with a harder stone. So many of my old friends are cast in granite here that there is always a sense of sadness and yet urgency to end the trade in exotic cats. It is a promise I made to them and to the living cats at Big Cat Rescue. I may not be able to give them the freedom that was their birthright, but I would do everything in my power to stop the practice of breeding wild cats for life in prison.
Nirvana came over growling her ocelot version of a greeting. It sounds like a BIG dog growling, but that is just the happy noise that ocelots make. If I could touch her, and I can’t because we don’t allow it here, I would feel her purring as she make this awful sound. She is back from the vet, Dr. Wynn, and her two day stay in our cat hospital for a bad tooth. She is thrilled to be home, and loves all the new bedding in her cave, but wants me to know that she is peeved about all the weed whacking that cleaned out the floor of her overgrown haven. I assure her it will grow back and point out that the tree is still dense with leaves and she can hide up there if she wants to.
Coming around to Tonga the white serval I notice the moonlight on a tree next to him reflects a swath of white in its bark that I had never noticed. I often walk these grounds in the dark and could do so with my eyes closed as I know every inch of the 45 acres. Somehow, I have never noticed this strange mirroring of a white serval and the white tree. None of the other trees are white. How strange. There is probably a lesson here, but it isn’t apparent at the moment. In any event, the way this cat stands out in the dark it validates the point we make on our tours that white cats cannot survive in the wild. They would never be able to sneak up on prey. People often assume it would help them in the snow, but the cats who have been artificially bred to be white don’t live where it snows.
The moonlit path back to the front gate is easy enough to follow. I know that I will see Jessica, still at her desk when I drop in to pick up my mail before leaving. As always, Becky will be the last one out the gate. I think of her as the night shift as she is always still busy when I leave. Jen is also here after dark as she offers classes on Wednesday night to volunteers who are making enrichment and doing all kinds of special projects. The moon light cascades across the lake which is so still that it looks like an enormous mirror. The swans are on the far side, but their white feathers give them away. This place is magical by day and by night, but the real magic will be in saving big cats in the wild and ending the trade in captive cats.
As I am typing this up Scott calls in with an urgent message about a bobcat who has been hit by a car and is laying at a school bus stop. More on that later…