Lions and tigers get treated with unsold Christmas trees
By Thomasi McDonald
Posted on Sun, Jan. 04, 2009
The folks at the Conservators’ Center, a refuge for rescued lions and tigers near Mebane, promised on Saturday an unusual annual Christmas-tree recycling ritual.
The big cats – 12 tigers and 19 lions weighing up to 500 pounds with three-inch claws – were going to go crazy while tearing the limbs off recycled trees provided by the Cranberry Tree Farm in Alleghany County.
Doug Evans and Mindy Stinner, the centers co-founders, partnered with Cranberry Farms about five years ago for the novel recycling project.
“We bring what we have left from five [Christmas tree] lots every year,” said Greg Cima, with Cranberry farms.
Nearly 50 volunteers and others showed up just before 10 a.m. at the 45-acre sanctuary in anticipation of watching the powerful cats snarl, growl and play tug of war while wrestling the white pines and Fraser firs, tearing the trees up and then using them as scratching posts. Soon a truck pulled in through the gates of the refuge, carrying about 100 trees that did not sell last month from lots in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
The volunteers unloaded the trees and distributed them in most of the 16 big cat cages and other enclosures that held wolves, servals (a smaller African wildcat) and Papua New Guinea singing dogs.
“The big cats are fanatical about the white pines,” Cima said excitedly while getting the trees ready.
As part of the prep, volunteers sprayed the trees with cinnamon and peppermint to help stimulate the lions and tigers, who had not yet eaten their usual breakfast: a whole, unplucked, dead chicken.
“One chomp and they’re to the bone,” said Mandy Matson, a Center volunteer. “The feathers give them nutrition that they need.”
About 10:30 a.m., it was time to open the gates and let the first group of cats – a fearsome mix of lions and tigers – have a go at the doomed holiday trees.
Co-founder Evans, a dead ringer for country singer Willie Nelson, counted down before a volunteer pulled down the chain that lifted up the gate. “One. Two. Three!”
The cats trotted in not like beasts of prey, but more like cool cats stepping into a jazz club.
No urgency with this bunch. A tiger sniffed a white pine before rolling against it for a back rub. Another tiger hopped up on a platform and started playing with the evergreen like a tabby playing with a ball of yarn. One female tiger ignored the trees altogether and hopped into a tub of water for her morning bath.
That was the scene at cage after cage. In one enclosure lived the tigers Jacob, who sports a sagging belly, and Solida, who is also getting a little thick around the waistline.
Jacob sniffed and marked one tree with urine, while Solida paced around, looking annoyed and paying little attention to her mate. They looked like an old married couple.
“All right guys,” Evans said. “You’re anti-climactic.”
Buffy on the other hand, a tiger whose mate Willie died recently, was a little more animated, rolling in one of the trees while opening her mouth wide and using her superior sense of smell to “taste” the scent of the evergreen.
The group finally arrived at the cage that held a group of young, golden-brown lions with shaggy, dark-brown manes.
The lions – Thomas, Ra, Hanson, Gryffindor and Pacino, also known as The Five Boys – were viewed with awe by the primates gathered outside the fence to admire their youthful power and majesty.
Moments before the volunteer opened the gate, the singing dogs, who hadn’t uttered a note all day, began to blow their tune: “Hoooooooooooooooo.”
The wolves joined. Several big cats, most notably Tonka the tiger, began a growl that sounded like an old Chevy pickup in first gear.
Despite the impressive musical interlude, The Five Boys all ambled over to a white pine and one by one, the kings of the jungle plopped down on it for back rubs. It was all so less-than-ferocious.
“Everybody is so subdued,” said Matson, puzzled. “I’ve never seen them this subdued.”