Options few for captive big cats
I am looking into a tiger’s eye. Searching, finding — something, but not understanding.
In the amber depths is an otherness, wildness beyond human knowledge. Here is an animal who could kill me with a swipe of her paw.
She chuffles — a sound at once like a purr and a growl. I reciprocate as best I can. This is our moment, what feels like a connection.
Then she turns away, and I find my understanding. She has seen too much of this human world. Our relationship must be on her terms.
Here, finally, it will be.
This is Samantha. She is a tiger. And she lives just around the bend in Caswell County at a place called CCI that smells like mud and straw and decaying chicken. This is the best sort of home humankind can offer her.
And she’s one of the lucky ones.
A powerful need
Conservators’ Center Inc., a conservation breeding facility and sanctuary for endangered carnivores, turned away almost 300 big cats like Samantha last year.
Someone thinks a tiger cub would make a sweet, playful pet. It grows into several hundred pounds of solid muscle with teeth, claws and a serious appetite.
A breeding facility that sells cubs is shut down, and the government needs to find a home for a couple of small prides of lions and a handful of tigers — fast.
The government seizes a pair of leopards in, of all places, New York.
What was really supposed to be the secondary mission of CCI, where I am a new volunteer, has become the dominant job: the care of about 80 animals, many of them large, dangerous and hungry.
These rescue animals were born into captivity as commodities. They can never live in the wild; releasing them would amount to a death sentence.
If they’re lucky, a sanctuary such as CCI is the end of the line for them. Euthanasia is often the only other option.
"We never wanted our refuge work to be more than 50 percent of what we do," says Mindy Stinner, 38, who founded the nonprofit organization with partner Douglas Evans, 50. "But there are animals that are special, at-risk animals that we feel an obligation to take on."
Such as Tigra, a sweet, small female tiger whose occasionally fierce temper was shaped by beatings with a shovel and life in a glorified dog kennel with a concrete floor that made her paws bleed.
And Samantha, an older female tiger with a debilitating declaw job who was standing guard over a neglected, diseased companion when CCI volunteers first met her. She was at a facility where the only cat worth its salt was one that could produce cubs for sale.
Evans and Stinner started working with animals in the early 1990s at Carnivore Preservation Trust, which was then an endangered-carnivore breeding facility in Pittsboro. First as volunteers, then as staff members, they trained under geneticist Michael Bleyman, founder of the trust and a passionate conservationist. CPT is now a refuge.
CCI’s threefold mission is the breeding of a few key species, education and rescue work. A nimals are bred only if reputable homes such as zoos are arranged in advance, and babies are never sold.
Rescue animals, such as CCI’s tigers, are just that. They will never be bred unless their genes are needed because the captive-animal world is flooded with big, popular animals such as lions and tigers who serve as pets, performers and display animals.
But animals such as New Guinea singing dogs, binturongs, caracals, servals and genets are much more rare in captivity, and gene pools are often small.
These are the animals whose species CCI hopes to ensure are represented in sufficient numbers and genetic diversity in captivity to create a sustainable population — possibly for reintroduction to their native habitats if they’re needed.
And they may be needed.
Animals like these compete with humans for space, food and other resources, often in developing countries where the sale of their body parts can support entire families. Most of CCI’s animals represent critically endangered species.
Stinner and Evans say they hope the donations their rescue work draws will help support their conservation efforts, which include working with conservationists in the animals’ native countries to help preserve the species in the wild.
"We believe in conservation at the source," Stinner says. "The end goal should be to provide a safe whole habitat, an ecosystem. We wanted to make sure whatever we did was tied with that."
Putting animals first
Crammed into a 12-foot-by-20-foot uninsulated shed with three lice-infested stray dogs and a sick serval, most people could be forgiven for bailing on their dream.
Evans was a plumber and Stinner was an English teacher when they first started working with animals. The avocation became a profession.
The reason was simple.
"We fell in love with the animals," Stinner says.
She and Evans had spent years finding the right spot, starting construction and getting their nonprofit on its feet, but the early days of CCI were not easy for them.
They’re not easy now. Seven years after incorporating, CCI has just hired its first two paid employees: animal keepers — one full-time, one part-time — funded by a grant.
Evans and Stinner are not among that number. Even now, they are collectively paid only $500 a month — not salary, but the beginnings of repayments on the more than $70,000 they poured into CCI to get it started.
That — their sole income — isn’t even enough to cover the medications they need to treat the injuries that come with years of hard physical labor.
Stinner is steely strong when she talks about the animals she cares for, but her pale blue eyes fill with tears as she looks inward, absently rubbing the holes in her worn pants.
"We end up being more reliant on people than we realize," she says. "We’ve eaten cow that we’ve butchered for these animals, but we’ve also had people show up with groceries."
The charisma and devotion she and Evans share is much of what inspires their most dedicated volunteers.
"They would rather spend money on feeding their animals than themselves," says Steve Simmons, 51, of Raleigh, a longtime board member, volunteer and donor. "I can’t comprehend that level of dedication, but I admire the hell out of it."
It doesn’t come without regrets, Evans says.
"We may be poor, overrun, have no privacy. We have left this site twice since 1999 … for a total of I would say eight days for something other than business. Yes, we would like to have a vacation like normal people," Evans says, emotion building in his voice. "But I am living a life that very few people obtain. I am following my dreams."
The reward is living every day with caracals, jungle cats and binturongs, waking with the oof-oof sounds of lions at dawn, being lulled to sleep by the clear, gentle call of the singing dogs.
It’s not easy to put into words what is so compelling about this place that leaves your back sore, your shoulders sunburned and your clothes stinking.
"Everybody comes here looking for something different," Stinner says. "These animals are able to fill most everybody’s needs."
Still, the work isn’t for the faint of heart.
I see this one day as I find myself clutching half a bloody buffalo’s lung in a gloved hand. My husband has the other lobe. Evans, hands bare, is slicing down the center with a dripping knife.
But the people who spend days stringing together fences, shoveling the mess out of leopard cages, building walkways for binturongs or sorting the edible chickens from the rotten ones see their time among the animals as a gift.
"There’s nothing I want in return," says Tom Dreyer of Mebane, a sponsor and board member whose office at Mebtel, where he is president, is adorned with no fewer than 12 lion photos and figurines. "You can have a relationship with these animals. That’s the reward."
That’s what drew volunteer Jim Stay to Caswell County — especially the bond he shared with a cub named Nia. The white tiger stole his heart and then left it broken when she died of complications after surgery to repair her cleft palate.
Egregiously inbred, genetic problems run rampant in white tiger lineages. Nia was no exception.
"The week before the surgery, we took her over to the pond, and that was an amazing day," Stay says. "Doug and Mindy both got into the pond, and she went out and played and played."
A week later, she was dead.
"I’ve never bonded with an animal like I did with Nia," Stay says, tears slipping down his tanned cheeks, remembering her sweet chuffles and the feel of her furry legs wrapping around him in a tiger-cub hug.
"It’s not a one-way relationship. It’s not me and the cat; it’s me and Nia."
He swore after she died that he’d never get so close to an animal again. But his commitment didn’t die with Nia.
Stay, who was looking to move out of the city anyway, sold his Raleigh business and moved to Caswell County, just a couple of miles from the compound.
"I come here because the animals refresh me," he says. "What I get is so much more than I give."
The morning light
There are few reasons I’ll rise before dawn. On this morning at CCI, I have found the most profound.
As the light creeps across the land, the animals begin to stir. This morning, the singing dogs greet the day first, with their clear, pure song. The wolves join with their haunting calls. And, finally, the lions transport me to Africa, their primal roar echoing across the compound.
They greet the day here as they would on the plains of Africa, or anywhere.
I feel it in my spine.
As I walk in, I sense something nearby but see nothing.
Even among the verdant spring growth, she is perfectly camouflaged in orange and black.
It’s Samantha. She is finally in her new, spacious enclosure. It’s been under construction all of my first four months at CCI.
She has mostly been lounging, Evans and Stinner say, enjoying her space, her many trees, and eyeing the male next door.
It’s safe for Samantha, and the people who love her have filled it with all kinds of interesting things to sniff and play with.
But this isn’t a tiger’s world.
Samantha should be a stalker, a killer, a mother and a mate. Her stripes should help her melt into the jungle. Her teeth should close hungrily on the spines of deer and delicately on the scruffs of her cubs’ necks.
Instead, she sits docile in her pen, watching me with mild interest.
Our paths never should have crossed with most of these animals, but they weren’t given a choice. They were born into our world. Now, they are lucky to have a den box with a blanket and the promise of chicken every day for the rest of their lives.
Evans and Stinner see little choice, too. It often comes down to this for such animals: here or nowhere.
Evans and Stinner choose here.
Contact Melissa Turner at 373-7092 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Carole’s letter to Melissa Turner:
I loved the story you wrote about CCI. I could feel the passion in your words and know you felt that these animal’s stories should be heard and you are right. What is wrong with this picture is what is wrong with the vast majority of places that call themselves sanctuaries are breeding and dealing in the very animals they are rescuing. I know. I have been there, done that and wrote the book on why that is an ignorant thing to do.
It was just that…ignorance. When you first are drawn into the exotic animal world most of the people you meet are breeders and dealers and they sell you on the idea that you are preserving animals for future generations. As you pointed out, there is no reason why our paths should cross with these animals. It is heartbreaking that we are losing them in the wild, but unconscionable that we would breed them for lives of confinement and deprivation. CCI is not a part of any sanctioned species survival plan. Those are the internationally recognized programs designed by accredited zoos to keep a gene pool of viable breeding stock alive. There is nothing that brings in the paying public like a baby animal so the zoos breed their own. They would never accept a baby serval, caracal, binturong or big cat of any kind from a back yard breeder or sanctuary. They have to be able to document the animal’s lineage back to the wild to be able to use them for any sort of conservation breeding and the private sector cannot do that.
The babies mentioned above bring from 1000. to 2000. as kittens and that is why places like this usually breed them. It is ridiculous to think they would be breeding and giving away animals that could bring in so much money, under the table for them. We stopped breeding in 1997 and had 4 accidents in the following couple of years, but have since managed to get all of our 142 cats separated or sterilized to prevent breeding. We are very well supported because we are putting an end to this sort of unnecessary breeding and suffering that is being done in the name of conservation. Letting your viewers know the whole truth is what will really help these animals in the long run.
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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