By Tiffany McBride
CocoaÕs Central Florida Animal ReserveÕs had the largest turnout yet for its open member day May 17.
The non profit big cat rescue sanctuary has high hopes their next challenge will be met with success. A record 250 people attended and helped raise more than $4,000.
"We've met every challenge we've been given so far. This is an opportunity to build a better facility for the cats," said Bill Crawford, special projects manager and eight-year volunteer.
"We can build the next place from the ground up solely as a cat sanctuary that is open to the public."
This comes after the March 24 decision by the Brevard County Commission for the facility to move from its current location. The ruling states the sanctuary must move to agriculturally zoned property within two years. The property they occupy now is zoned general use.
On open member day the normally non-public facility was open to members and their guests. Visitors took guided tours of parts of the facility from volunteers. Free beverages and lunch were available, and educational videos about the facility were playing under a large open tent in the driveway. The videos documented everyday activities, volunteer testimonials and special situations like big cat dentistry and surgery. "Our main goal is to reward our members for their support and give them an opportunity to see the effort they are generously helping," said K. Simba Wiltz, senior vice president.
The facility, regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, houses 38 tigers, six lions, three leopards and six cougars. A total of 53 big cats.
The facility is not open to the public because it is unable to meet the regulation guidelines of three-foot offset barriers around the animals' enclosures.
This means that the animals are supported solely on donations. And aside from veterinary bills, it costs more than $7,000 a month to run the facility, says Mr. Crawford.
The facility stands at capacity and is unable to rescue any more cats, despite a long waiting list of big cats in need of rescue within the U.S.
The organization has a few leads on new property, one of them in Scottsmoor.
"We are looking for a place that is, first and foremost, high and dry," said Mr. Wiltz. "We need around 20 acres to accommodate cats and have room for future plans, and it absolutely has to be zoned agricultural. Ideally, it would be near a major access road so that people have easy access. We want our new facility open to the public."
The reserve trains all of its volunteers to ensure safety around the big cats. All volunteers follow a senior handler, with years of experience, before they are allowed to perform certain tasks.
"I had to shadow an experienced volunteer for the first few weeks until I was permitted to work on my own," said Lori Woodell, a volunteer since August.
Many cats would respond with nuzzles against their enclosures and seem to listen to what some of the tour guides would say to them.
"We love these cats. These are our kids, and they're the best kids I've ever had," said Effie Blue, volunteer coordinator and board member. "It's got to be a labor of love. This is the toughest job you'll ever love."
There are no paid positions at the reserve and many volunteers express the feeling of high morale and streamlined teamwork. Every tour guide had personal stories to share about the cats.
Mrs. Blue recalls having left a chore undone in a rescued tiger's enclosure. She had already released him back into his main cage from his shift cage, a smaller side cage used to separate the cats from their main cage so that volunteers may perform maintenance and feeding without being in the same cage as the cats. The lion had fresh food waiting, but Mrs. Blue attempted to call him to go back into his shift cage with ease.
"He took a look at his food, then back at me, then back at his food, and then he came over and got into his shift cage for me. He actually listened and waited for his food so I could go back into his cage," said Mrs. Blue.
The organization was originally known as Thunderhawk Big Cat Rescue, but reincorporated to Central Florida Animal Reserve in 2007. The facility had been rescuing cats from abuse, neglect, abandonment, and other scenarios since 1997. Education and outreach are the focus until rescue operations can resume, said Mr. Wiltz.
More big cats are in need of rescuing each year, as their popularity as household pets, and game in canned hunts, grows, said Mr. Crawford.
As the demand increases, the number of big cat rescue organizations grows. Hundreds of these rescues exist, said Mr. Wiltz.
Canned hunting is the practice of raising a captive wild animal to later be hunted and killed within its enclosure or fenced area for hunters to trophy.
It is estimated that there are more than 1,000 canned hunt operations in at least 25 states. At least 17 of these are in Florida, according to The Humane Society of the U.S. Web site.
Also, trading of these animals' parts for the use of Chinese medicine is on the rise, said Mr. Crawford.
You can do something about the flood of unwanted big cats by attending the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commissioners meeting June 17 Plantation Inn 9301 West Fort Island Trail Crystal River, FL 34429 from 8:30 till 4pm. They are discussing new rules and have decided that neighbors should NOT be notified before someone moves in with tigers, despite thousands of calls and letters from concerned neighbors who find out they are living next door to big cats, bears, pythons and venomous snakes. There is no state law that prohibits having these animals next to residences, schools, day care centers, etc.
There is a huge problem of people using big cats for shows and photo ops and then relegating them to back yard cages, killing them for their parts or selling them to canned hunts. The answer is not to build more rescue centers, but rather to stop the breeding and exploiting of these animals. None of the cats in private hands are part of any real conservation program. None will ever repopulate the wild. They are only bred in captivity because ignorant people will pay to see them in cages. Ending the breeding ends the problem. Tell the FWC you want them to end the breeding of big cats at RuleChanges@MyFWC.com or at the meeting.
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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