RESPONSE TO BAY NEWS 9 STORY
In 2007 Bay News 9 ran a story that creates the untrue impression that Big Cat Rescue has been intentionally misleading about the history of the sanctuary and about the histories of some of the cats in our care. The purpose of this document is to show in detail how the information used does not support the impression that the report seeks to create.
The sanctuary and its website have always been open about the fact that the sanctuary did not start out as what it is today. At the time the founder, Carole Baskin, and her then husband, Don Lewis, purchased 56 bobcat and lynx kittens from a “fur farm” in 1992 to keep them from being slaughtered to make fur coats, they were novices who had one bobcat as a pet. They were under the mistaken belief that these animals made suitable pets and believed those claiming that breeding them as pets served the purpose of “preserving the species.” They placed many of the original fur farm kittens as pets and bought, bred and sold a number of cats. They were part of what we now refer to as the “pet trade.”
But in the ensuing years Carole gradually found that cats she placed as kittens were ending up being returned, abandoned, or in horrible living conditions. And as she studied the issues facing the cats in the wild, she came to believe that there was no hope of returning any of these “preserved species” to the wild. She came to view the breeding of the cats as a selfish act by humans driven by enjoyment of having the cubs and satisfaction of other human desires.
From 1997 forward there was no intentional breeding at the sanctuary. At a time when our finances were limited we began building cages as fast as resources would allow to separate animals so they could not breed. A few animals were born between 1997 and 2001. Some were simply not separated quickly enough due to limited resources. A few births occurred when animals proved to be fertile who should not have been fertile either due to advanced age or being hybrids that normally cannot breed. None of these few births after 1997 were intentional. One cat was relinquished to a private owner after 1997 to honor an agreement made in 1997.
The report suggests that the reference in our mission to providing a home to “abused” and “abandoned” cats is somehow misleading because some cats were purchased or born at the facility. Aside from the fact that most of the cats who were purchased actually did come from circumstances that were abusive, if we were trying to mislead the public, why would our website openly talk about the early history, openly talk about the cats being purchased and born there, specifically note that the reference to “pet trade” included cats born at the sanctuary when it engaged in that trade, and in many of the descriptions of the cats specifically indicate that they were born at the sanctuary? The mission on the website accurately states the purpose for which the sanctuary has existed since the late 1990’s and the website openly acknowledges the history prior to that. We are baffled at how this can be viewed as misleading.
The report referred to statements on the website about not breeding after 1997 and then tried to imply that this was untruthful because a few births occurred after that. The statement about 1997 expresses the change in philosophy that occurred and that, as a result, no intentional breeding was done after that time. It does not state that no cats were born after 1997. Its intent is to state that sanctuary did not engage in being breeders. If that was not the intent, then why on the website and in other material would we openly talk about some of the small handful of animals born unintentionally after that year and the circumstances leading to their births? The report then showed a former volunteer, who is an exotic pet owner, voicing the opinion that a binturong was bred intentionally after 1997. He provides no basis for this “belief” and the report fails to note that the website explains that this unintentional birth occurred because the parents were too old to be expected to breed.
In recent years Carole has become an increasingly vocal opponent of private ownership of exotic animals, of breeding and selling the cats, and of displaying them for entertainment, all of which lead to large numbers of animals being kept in abusive situations. Recently she has been very visible in promoting legislation that would end much of these activities. This has drawn attacks from those who either make a living from the exotic pet trade or desire to be owners.
Many of the attacks come from members of one organization that exists to promote exotic pet ownership. Recently the Animal Protection Institute conducted an undercover investigation of exotic pet ownership by members of this group. It contains explicit admissions on tape of how they avoid the laws forbidding pet ownership, of the dangers of owning these animals as pets, and the inhumane conditions in which they are so often kept. This video can be viewed at http://www.api4animals.org/a3b_exotic_pets.php.
The individuals the reporter relied on for her information are people who have personal or financial incentives to provide misleading or incorrect information. Some are former volunteers who are exotic pet owners who oppose the legislation we support that would ban such ownership. One is a person in St. Petersburg who believes that it is appropriate to drive around with a tiger in the back of his pickup truck and engages in taking the animals out for display in ways that, even when complying with the current law, we oppose as inappropriate both from animal welfare and public safety concerns.
Other quotes in the report are from individuals from whom we obtained cats, particularly in those early years. If those people acknowledge the circumstances under which we found the cats, how does it make them look? For instance, the report quoted a pet shop owner as denying she had expressed concern about a serval biting children in the shop. In fact, the cat was being kept in a glass case with no top and the owner specifically described how at times the cat had been wandering around the shop and expressed her concern about children taunting it in its open case, particularly as the cat was growing. Why would we make that up? But if you were the pet store owner, would you acknowledge that today? And the fact that the cat was purchased is not inconsistent with our website or with her expressions of concern about the cats.
Another description cited as being “possibly misleading” involved Fluffy the serval. We describe her as coming from the “pet trade”. The report tries to imply that this is misleading because the owner “raised the serval on baby food and would only sell her to a good home.” Selling exotic animals to “homes” to be pets is, by definition, exactly what the “pet trade” is, so what is misleading about saying that is where this cat came from? As for only selling to a “good” home, she made no visit to see what conditions the cat she sold us would live in, so how truthful is that claim?
The report shows a home video made in 1995 when, as noted above, Carole believed in exotic pet ownership. The video was made in support of those incorrect beliefs and voices views that we cringe at hearing today, but are still held by the those who advocate exotic animals as pets. The video shows Shere Khan as a cub rising onto his hind feet in a tub of water and Carole stating that he was “bottle raised in a loving and nurturing home.”
The report alleges that this statement by Carole and the image of the cub rising up in the tub conflict with the description of his history on the website. Presented as is done in the report this appears inconsistent with the history of the cub that is found on the website. But this is not true when the video is viewed in the context of that time and when the actions and legs of the cat are viewed carefully.
Exotic animal owners typically believe they are giving the cats a “good home.” The API video referenced above shows the kinds of conditions these advocates of exotic pet ownership view as acceptable. They include small quarters, concrete floors, lack of anything to relieve the total boredom of sitting in a cage.
At the time Carole visited the facility that had Shere Khan, she had visited fur farms where cats were slaughtered to make coats and had seen far worse conditions than were kept by the breeder who had Shere Khan. The website explains the story the breeder told Carole. He said that Shere Khan had been pre-sold as a white tiger, but when he had turned out golden, the buyer repeatedly delayed delivery and finally, the buyer refused to take him. The breeder, thinking he was holding him temporarily and having no place to keep him, was keeping him in his mobile home in a dog carrier and said he had bottle fed him. The website describes the carrier as containing feces. The breeder took the cat out and played with him, explained that he was “bitey,” and emptied the carrier out of the excrement before returning him to it.
At the time, in the context of what they had seen other places, this breeder was able to come across to a fellow breeder as someone who cared for his cats but had kept the cub in a carrier thinking he was only holding him temporarily until the buyer came. The perception of this situation in hindsight years later is of course far different.
The video shows the cat moving up on his hind legs in the tub, moving around briefly and then lying down. The fact that his hind legs are far narrower and less developed than his front legs is clear in the video. The tub of water was specifically used to provide buoyancy as part of the therapeutic effort to build up his back legs. By the end of a week of that therapy he already would have been considerably more mobile than the day he arrived. When he arrived he could actually manage to get his hind legs under him and move a few steps before they gave out. While this hardly qualifies as being able to walk, in order to avoid further criticism of this description we have added “more than a few steps” to the comment on the website about his being unable to walk. The exotic animal owner quoted as saying “I see a normal tiger” ignored the spindly back legs that are clear in the video even after the week of exercise to build them up.
There is one statement in a 1998 newsletter mentioning a pregnant caracal that we are unable to locate records to confirm. But, like the other few pregnancies after 1997, it would not have been an intentional breeding and does not contradict our statement that intentional breeding stopped then.
This report does a great disservice to a person and an organization that are devoted to the welfare of exotic cats. Carole receives no financial benefit from the sanctuary and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars covering the expenses when there were shortfalls. Anyone who knows her is aware that she works tirelessly on behalf of the cats.
The report appears to have been generated by individuals who oppose legislation that would ban activities that lead to the inhumane conditions these animals endure as pets and in traveling exhibits. As described above, the “evidence” that the report claims support its innuendo that there is “more than meets the eye”, i.e. some kind of deception, in each case is presented in a manner that misleads the reader to an impression that the examples themselves do not support.
It is sad and painful to see the breeders, exotic animal owner groups and exhibitors who oppose legislation to protect these wonderful animals succeed in convincing a member of the media to be part of their efforts to disparage the sanctuary. The real story that fortunately is being told increasingly often, as in the API report, is about the horrible conditions that many of these animals end up in as pets and as animals used for traveling exhibits. Hopefully that story will continue to receive the attention it deserves and the growing public awareness and sympathy for how we treat these majestic animals will lead to stricter laws to protect them.