You hear a lot of backyard breeders saying that they are breeding Barbary Lions to save them from extinction, but it isn’t true. Many years ago, when the King of Morocco first came up with the idea of bringing the Barbary Lion (AKA Black Maned Lion or Asiatic Lion) back from the edge of extinction, he sent a group called Wildlink to the U.S. to look at 327 captive lions who were reported to have traits of the Barbary Lion.
Of the 327 likely candidates only three were considered pure enough representatives of the species to use for a captive breeding program. There were two males chosen and Sarabi, our lioness was the only female selected. She is a representative of 14 of the 17 Barbary traits, making her the closest living relative to the cat that is now extinct in the wild. Before the program ever got off the ground the King fell sick and his family had no interest in saving the cats who once were used by the Romans for entertainment in the coliseum.
We don’t believe in breeding cats for lives in cages so we never bred Sarabi, but because she may someday be called upon for her genes, we did not spay her. She would cycle in and out of heat and did so for many years. This last time didn’t seem any different than before until she came out of heat and wasn’t hungry.
She was started on antibiotics but two days later was not improving. After an emergency consultation with three vets it was decided that we would open her up to spay her and see if there was anything else going on, such as an impaction, that was causing her to act nauseous. It was after dark before Dr. Stacie Wadsworth, DVM and Dr. Elizabeth Wynn, DVM could wrap up their day work to come to the sanctuary. The wind had begun to howl. The next morning we would discover that 14 people in central Florida had been killed in the squalls and tornadoes that spun out of those raging winds.
Thanks to Dr. John West and Richard and Debbie Boensch we have a small cat hospital on site. Since Sarabi was too big to transport into the clinics of either of our vets (394 lbs) we were fortunate to have our own safe place for surgery and recovery that had been built with huge doors that would allow the rolling transport to roll right inside. Scott and Cathy saw to it that the hospital was fully stocked with all that we would need and made sure that everything was clean. Jamie and Justin rounded up flashlights, radios and emergency gear to make the big move from Sarabi’s half acre enclosure on the other side of the lake to the cat hospital.
I sat with Sarabi and tried to assess her condition. She kept giving me the image of “poison” but insisted that she hadn’t eaten poison. She acted like she just couldn’t get comfortable. Sometimes she would dry heave, but only briefly, and then she would lay as close as she could get to me, with only the wall of her cage separating us. She rolled her belly up to me as if to say that this was where the pain was, and I could feel the heat, but did not touch her for fear of inflicting more pain. (Not to mention the fact that having my arm inside the fence would have been a really stupid thing to do.)
Scott did an expert job of anesthetizing and I was amazed at how well trained our staff has become in emergencies like this. On radio command they all emerged from the darkness: The transport truck backed up to her cage, the golf carts surrounded it, she was lifted onto a blanket and hoisted into the transport by half a dozen volunteers, while some held lights and others carried the drugs and tools. In no time she was being brought into the bright lights of the cat hospital and placed on a table that we had designed just for this very purpose.
This emergency crew had worked together before everyone knew what to do. Cathy began shaving the belly while Justin, Jess and others began restraining her legs. Scott held her mouth open while Dr. Stacie fitted her with tracheal pipe for gas. Dr. Wynn made a makeshift mouth piece for Sarabi by using two regular, full size gas masks, as caps over her canines so that she wouldn’t bite her tongue or cut off the air supply in her sleep. Barbara and Becky filled syringes with fluids and an IV drip was installed. Brian filmed the scene to share with other big cat vets and students. Sarabi was sleeping like a kitten. Everyone had watched The Secret recently and was reminding each other to only think happy thoughts.
Palpitation of her abdomen revealed a hard mass, the size of a loaf of bread. It was apparent that this was the source of the problem, but what was it? Surgery revealed a huge area of necrotic (dead) tissue and that could be one of two things. It could be an enormously invasive cancer or the result of a snake bite. It would be days before a lab could verify the cause of the affliction, so a hard decision had to be made: Cut out the tumor and have a huge gaping hole in her belly for her to contend with or install three drains and pray that it was a snake bite.
If we were to find out the next week that it was cancer, we would have to euthanize her and her last week would have been one of misery after such invasive surgery and then the issue of trying to close up such a huge wound. If we were to find out it was a snake bite, then the tissue will slough off anyway and cutting away at it tonight was not going to speed up the recovery any. There were no fang marks, but I was told that if the bite had been a few days ago, the holes would not be apparent now. The vets asked me what I wanted to do, but I told them that they were the experts and that I trusted their judgment. We opted for drains.
Scott took the first watch with her and was relieved later by Jamie and Justin. I took the watch the following day. All doped up to feel no pain, Sarabi drifts in and out of sleep. I feel each breath she takes as she exhales on my skin. I drift back in time and think of all we have been through together…
She arrived in 1995 as a tiny, two week old cub. The people who bred her claimed to be running a sanctuary but were selling her and Mufasa at an exotic animal auction for 150.00. They were so strung out on drugs that they were trying force feed her curdled milk and Sarabi was resisting mightily. It was never our intention to rescue big cats, but my late husband couldn’t leave her in the hands of such incompetence and brought them home to me. We would learn later that you can’t buy a cat out of even the worst situation because it just continues to fuel the breeding and selling, but 12 years ago we didn’t see the big picture.
We had a house full of rescued bobcats and lynx who had come from the last fur farm rescue we did in 1995. More than 20 youngsters had the run of the house. Lions being the pride animals they are were more than happy to be adopted by these older, yet smaller furballs. The bobcats would all pile up on the bed into a purring heap of fur and the smaller ones had to be pulled out of the stack periodically for fear of them being crushed by the weight. The little lions were too small to jump up onto the bed and would pace, frantically screaming, for me to lift them up into the pile with the others. They were more than happy to be on the bottom of the stack and would dive right in. I don’t think I will ever forget what it felt like to see Sarabi and Mufasa so happy in their makeshift family pride of bobcats and lynx.
Once one bobcat was awake, the whole group would spring to life and go racing through the halls and out into the fenced yard via a pet door. The little lions would again be screaming to be put down on the floor to join them and every where the bobcats went the toddling lions were right behind them. The lions were floor bound where the bobcats were leaping off door jambs, furniture and window sills. Sometimes I would see Mufasa and Sarabi pause by the mirrored closet doors to talk with their reflections. When the bobcats were just too aloof, the reflections always wanted to talk with them.
Weaning the bobcats from the bottle to meat was a pretty quick process that ended up with a couple of days of feeding a warm mush of meat and milk from my hand to their lips. Once they got the idea they would lap it up from a plate and within a week the milk was no longer needed. Lions, on the other hand, were a much messier process. It became such an ordeal that I would put on a swimsuit and sit in the bath tub with them. By the end of each meal we all had to shower off in the tub. Doing that four times a day got old in a hurry for me, but the cubs just loved it.
In time the lions weighed more than I did and sleeping on the bed with the bobcats was not a viable option for the bobcats. I remember the first cage that we built for them. All of the reference books said that lions don’t like the water, so we build a cage that was an acre in size and consisted of three sides and the lake as the fourth side. Sarabi and Mufasa were too big to move in carriers and back then we didn’t have the transport wagons so we decided to walk them on leashes from their backyard area to their new cage. They wouldn’t go anywhere without each other, so one person had to walk both of them or they would get so freaked out at the prospect of being separated that they would only hang onto each other. I had both of them leashed and as soon as the gate was open it was like skiing behind a twin engine boat.
As we bolted across 20 acres and into the new enclosure, I released the collars and watched them both go flying across the cage… and into the lake. Dang! I guess all of that weaning in the bath tub had imprinted on them that water is great fun and the books just didn’t apply to them. Perplexed we had to round them up before they hit the other side of the lake and the only things available were a Jon boat and a canoe. Floating bathtubs looked like even more fun. The rowdy pair began trying to climb up into the boats and it was all we could do to keep them upright while herding the cats back into their enclosure. By this time you can imagine how tired I was, but had to leash them back up and ski back to their backyard home, until we could build a fourth wall on their new enclosure.
We went through some sad times too. When Mufasa died under anesthesia for a simple X-ray so many years ago, I thought it would kill Sarabi too. She wailed for weeks and moped for months. Nothing could console her. She hugged my neck so tightly every time I saw her, as if she feared that I would disappear from her life like he had, if she ever let go. I used to love her hugs but these were just heart breaking. In time I learned that no matter how much I may love her, it was reckless to indulge my need for contact and risk her life and that of every cat in the sanctuary if I should be killed. Each of us had lost our life’s mates, but we had each other and eventually we both pulled through.
In time we both learned to love again, but in time it was Sarabi who relived the pain of losing the one she adored. We had been boarding a lion who belonged to a woman who lived in a condo, but when she took him away, Sarabi felt the sting of loss once more. Now her friends are a silly young lioness named Nikita, next door and the tigers from the circus. At night Sarabi leads them all in a multi racial choir of roars that echo across the lake.
The most important lesson that I learned from Sarabi is that she and her kind do not belong in cages. They have their own agenda and amusing us wouldn’t be a part of it if they were free to make their own homes, choose their own mates and raise their own families. They have a precious life to live and a legacy to leave and our job is to make sure that we don’t destroy the planet that is their birthright too.
TRIBUTES FOR SARABI
“Sarabi was a love. She used to make me laugh when I was walking by or cleaning her cage because she would charge over and then throw herself down, roll over and grab her toes. Then, she would just look at me to see what my reaction was. I would tell her what a beautiful girl she was and she would just rock gently back and forth. I also remember when I would feed her, after I raised her lockout door, instead of charging over to the food tray, she would come over to me, bump the fence, then rub her head up and down on the fence right next to me making little noises. Then she would go eat. She too was special and will leave a big hole in my heart”….Susan, Senior Volunteer Keeper
“The big, beautiful, girl with the Elvis/Billy Idol lip curl! I never will have the honor to work with her but I loved how she could look so cute, adorable and cuddly to the tours. But, we at BCR knew oh so much better. To stand in her presence when she roared was a scary and magical experience – my bones vibrated and the roar seemed to resonate in my body for moments after she was done”…..Lisa, Volunteer Keeper
“We were spoiled into thinking she would always be with us. We took for granted that we’d be able to enjoy watching her stand proudly on her mound roaring across the sanctuary to announce her presence. We thought we’d always be able to see her run with abandon towards Scott’s outstretched arms. We looked forward to the day that maybe, just maybe, she and Niki would be able to share a cat-a-tat after laying next to each other soaking up the sun with only a bit of wire separating them. To watch this gigantic lioness roll on her back and sleep so peacefully with all 4 paws up in the air was such a treat. How could it be that we won’t be able to enjoy that sight anymore? Was it only a couple of months ago that she enjoyed tearing apart a life size paper mache lion we made just for her?
I’ve been struck with the pain of learning that sometimes there isn’t any more. No more special moments to celebrate together. Sometimes, what we care about the most goes away…never to return before we can say ‘you’ve changed my life,’ ‘I love you,’ or even ‘goodbye.’ Sarabi taught me a valuable lesson. Everyday, while we have them, it’s best we love them, care for them, and spend time with them. It truly could be our last day together, so we must treasure these moments. Sarabi was, and will always be, the true spirit of Big Cat Rescue….Julie, Senior Volunteer Keeper
In Memory of Sarabi
If It Should Be
– -Author Unknown
If it should be that I grow frail and weak
And pain should keep me from my sleep.
Then you must do what must be done
For this last battle can’t be won.
You will be sad, I understand
Don’t let your grief stay your hand.
For this day, more than all the rest
Your love and friendship stands the test.
We’ve had so many happy years
What is to come can hold no fears.
Would you want me to suffer so?
When that time comes please let me go.
Take me where my needs they’ll tend,
But stay beside me to the end.
And hold me firm and speak to me
Until my eyes no longer see.
I know in time that you will see
The kindness that you do for me.
Although my tail, its last has waved
From pain and suffering, I’ve been saved.
Do not grieve, it must be you
Who decides this thing to do.
We’ve been so close, we two, these years
Remember joy among your tears.
“Sarabi – Queen of Big Cat Rescue On my tours, we would pass Sarabi the Lioness. She would sit regally on her “throne.” She was, by far, the largest cat I had ever seen. When she roared, you could feel the vibration in your chest. Sarabi was an awe inspiring Lioness. I was afraid of her. When I cleaned her enclosure for the first time, she came up to me. Being on “her” side of the barricade fence, my heart pounded so hard I could hear it. She towered over me. I said “Hi, Rabi, pretty girl.” She rolled over and showed me her belly! I was in love! I will miss Sarabi. I know she has now found her “pride” and is running free”……Barbara, Senior Volunteer Keeper
“She was such a powerful, strong, healthy girl, with a wicked sense of humor, waiting until you were preoccupied, picking up poop, etc., then rushing up close to the fence. She achieved the desired effect, startling you half to death, then she would step back. She was such a beautiful big cat, I miss her”…….Mary Lou, Volunteer Keeper
More Memorials at https://bigcatrescue.org/category/memorials/