Bitter Pasts, Bright Futures
A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
Tampa, Florida, USA
Big Cat Rescue 2001 – 2008
- from a visitor’s perspective
This is a combined series of articles, each one written after a visit to Big Cat Rescue.
I wanted to share my experiences with people who have not had the chance to visit - perhaps it would encourage more people to come!
This book could not have been written without the help of the volunteers at BCR, answering questions and allowing me to participate in some of the jobs so I could really experience working with the cats and other volunteers, and for that I thank you all.
I would especially like to thank Carole and Scott to allowing me to make my dream a reality, hence the name of the first article. Scott has always shown a huge amount of patience as I bombard him with questions and demands for updates. Thank you Scott, I could not have written all this without you!
A Few Thoughts First….
This is a true record of my visits to Big Cat Rescue, it is fact and not fiction. As you read through the book, you will see how the sanctuary’s thoughts on direct contact with wild cats, in particular, the smaller wild cats, by untrained individuals, has changed dramatically. During my early visits, guests were allowed to actually enter ‘interactive’ cats’ cages, play with them and stroke their fur. Over the years, as the sanctuary founder, staff and volunteers became more knowledgeable and their experiences more varied, attitudes towards this interactivity changed and now not even volunteers who work with the cats are allowed to touch the cats or enter their cages with them. On reflection, even though I had the opportunity to be ‘interactive’ I believe that this ‘no touch’ policy is correct.
I remember right back during my first visit, alarm bells rang out for me. There were two young rich women, from California, who had come to stay, just so they could get close to the bobcats, servals and lynx because they were considering buying one as a pet. When they informed Scott of this, he did his best to explain why wild cats don’t make good pets. However, I personally felt that instead of putting them off getting a wild cat pet, which was the aim of the sanctuary, even back then, and both of them being sprayed with hot urine by one or more cats during their visit, I suspect that they went home and made their purchase anyway. Their last words in my presence were “Well, we are going to do it differently and our cat will be fine”. So many of the cats at BCR, arrived here even though their previous owners made similar comments when they got them.
In those days, buying a wild cat was not a difficult task – if you knew where to go, then you could buy a tiger cub on a street corner in Miami and there were literally hundreds of baby wildcats for sale on the internet. With no wild animal licence required in many American States, you didn’t even have to tell your neighbours if you decided to keep a tiger in your backyard. In fact, even now, there are still areas in the USA where this is still the norm.
As well as continuing to give a lifelong home to unwanted big cats – from retired circus tigers to unwanted servals, BCR now spends a great deal of time and energy campaigning to have the laws changed on keeping wild animals as pets, to prevent so many unwanted or abused big cats. Slowly, things are moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.
Over the years, they have dealt with tigers who were kept alive by being fed using other dead tigers when the owner’s money ran out and they have gained the confidence of leopards who were beaten when they refused jump through fire hoops in circuses. They have given a permanent home, lasting many years, to a cougar who came for a holiday, never to be collected by his owner, and lions who have had their teeth pulled out to enable the previous owner to make cash by charging people to have their photos taken with them – no chance of biting anyone with no teeth left! There are numerous bobcats who live there, having been bought out of fur farms and many servals who turned out to make poor house cats. The list is endless.
The staff and volunteers work in all weathers – from beating hot sunshine and unbearable high humidity to torrential rain and flooding, not forgetting the occasional hurricane passing through. This book is a glimpse into the workings of a big cat rescue sanctuary. Enjoy – but never forget the reason why it is there in the first place.
This book is dedicated to everyone who has encouraged me to write my experiences upon my return home after each visit. Never did I imagine back in early 2002, when I wrote the first article, that it would ever be more than a single story for friends and here I sit, seven years later with a mass of photos & videos and a hundred pages of information!
There are several people who deserve a very special thank you –
My grandfather, Alan Widdas, who taught me about the wonderful natural world from a very young age and inspired my lifelong love of all animals.
My husband Steve, who has looked after everything at home to enable me to visit time and time again, and listened to endless tales of the animals and my experiences. Without you, I would never have been able to do all the things that I have done.
My close friends, Steve & Carol Lawson in Florida – who trusted me with their car and mobile phone, then picked up the pieces and handed out the tissues when I returned to them with a heavy heart after leaving the sanctuary each time.
Hugh Howe – head teacher at my school for several years. The motto he brought to the school was “Making Dreams a Reality” and he believed that you could make your dreams come true. They certainly did for me.
Carole Baskin and the volunteers at BCR – who have taken me in and treat me as ‘one of the gang’, making me feel welcome each time, allowed me to live on site and be a ‘short term’ volunteer, sharing their world and the experiences. My thanks to Julie Hanan who has the arduous task of letting me know when cats pass away. This is one of the hardest jobs and I am so grateful that she keeps me informed of what is happening when I am 3000 miles away.
And most of all, Scott Lope – Scott you took me under your wing, taught me so much, had never-ending patience when I asked question after question and always had time for me even though I knew that you were so very busy. The cats and their welfare come first every time, all of the time. The word “dedication” was invented with you in mind and you are one of life’s true unsung heroes. You allowed me to witness and experience BCR life to the full, you trusted me to do the right things and without you this book would never have been written. You are a true inspiration to everyone who meets you and I am proud to be able to call you my friend.
My thanks would not be complete without mentioning Canyon, the Sandcat - without him I would probably never found BCR when I did, and together with Hercules the snow leopard, these two wonderful cats are my main reason for yearning to return again and again.
And finally, this book is dedicated to Joan Lawrence, a friend who made me promise that I would put all my articles into a single book so that people could enjoy it as much as she had when she read the individual stories after each visit. Joan, I have kept my promise!
Chapter 1 – 2001
MAKING DREAMS A REALITY
Have you ever dreamed of visiting a place with over 170 exotic cats, from lions to leopard cats, tigers to bobcats, 22 species in all, available for the public to see? Well there is such a place, just ten minutes from Tampa International Airport in Florida. When I found Wildlife on Easy Street (now known as Big Cat Rescue) on the Internet I could not believe my eyes. Despite the fact that it was three thousand miles away in America, I knew that I just had to visit this place.
I stumbled upon Wildlife on Easy Street (WOES) by chance while searching for information about Sand Cats, a small feline species living in the Sahara and the Middle East, for an essay I was writing for my feline studies diploma. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I read page after page about different rescued wild cats living at the sanctuary. At the time, my husband was trying to find me a very special present for my 40th birthday. Now I really knew what I wanted – a trip to WOES would be a dream come true.
Male Sand Cat at Twycross Zoo, August 2001
In early August 2001 I contacted WOES to find out more, decided to stay at the sanctuary overnight, do the full “Expedition Day” and booked my flight to Tampa. Now all I had to do was wait four months and count the days before my adventure would begin. It very nearly didn’t happen… With the events of 11th September, there was a period when I wondered whether the airline company would cease trading or there may be a halt to travelling to the USA, but thankfully neither happened and on a cold foggy late December morning I headed over the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester to catch my flight. Next stop, Florida.
Wildlife on Easy Street was started in 1993 by Carole Lewis and her husband Don. Carole’s affinity towards cats (which included breeding Persian Longhairs for a while) would eventually lead her to having one of the largest exotic cat rescue sanctuaries in the world. Carole is a Real Estate Agent (similar to an estate agent in the UK). One day back in the early 1990s she attended an exotic animal auction and amongst the items for sale was a Bobcat kitten. Thinking that it would be a great idea to own one of these cats, Carole bid and bought it. Shortly afterwards, she thought that it would be nice for her Bobcat to have a few friends, so after much searching, managed to locate a place where Bobcats were bred. She drove from Florida to Minnesota, and upon arriving at the farm, was horrified to find that it was actually a fur farm. In her naivety, she thought that the owners were probably breeding mink, went ahead and chose her six new Bobcat kittens. After choosing her new babies, she casually asked what would happen to the other Bobcats if they weren’t sold. She was told that they would be used in the fur trade. (A point to note is that only the pale tummy fur is used, the rest of the pelt is discarded and it takes twenty Bobcats to make one fur coat!) Horrified, she bought all 56 Bobcats and brought them back to Florida, where she enlisted the help of friends and family to raise them. Being just a couple of weeks old, they still needed to be bottle-fed and it was a round the clock job for all concerned. So Wildlife on Easy Street was born.
Being in Real Estate, Carole had her finger on the pulse and eventually managed to locate 40 acres of derelict land, being sold very cheaply because it was a filled-in refuse dump, full of old bicycles, cans and rubbish. Over the years it has been transformed into a leafy refuge for rescued large cats and today you would never guess its original purpose. According to those who work there, an occasional piece of metal can still rise to the surface after very heavy rainfall and the volunteers spend much time checking that the ground is safe to walk on for both man and feline.
Now landscaped, it is difficult to imagine that this used to be a refuse site
Over the years many cats have spent time at Wildlife on Easy Street. Unlike in Britain, where one must hold a special licence to obtain a wild cat, in America it is very different – if you know where to look, you can buy a tiger cub on a street corner in Miami or from sites on the internet, and take it home – no major restrictions or licence required, although some states do require a permit. Cute as they may seem when they are small kittens or cubs, they soon grow into large animals, and many become unmanageable in a home environment. The lucky few end up here, but many more are destroyed or sold to game farms in the USA where people will pay to hunt and kill them. Hearing this really made me feel quite sick and I am very thankful that we have more restrictions in the UK to prevent similar occurrences.
In all, I made three visits to WOES during my week in Florida. Having arrived at Tampa on Thursday evening, I spent Friday visiting a Maine Coon breeder and then, with two American friends, headed to the sanctuary for a “Wild Eyes At Night” experience. This event takes place on the last Friday of every month, after dark, about 8.00pm in our case. Our guide, Jennifer, took us around the sanctuary in the dark, with just a flashlight. It was a good opportunity to see some of the shyer cats, many of which sleep during the day. It was quite daunting to see the 850 lbs Siberian-Bengal cross Tiger come bounding up to us from the hidden depths of his three acre pad. Known as Shere Khan, his story is all too familiar to those working at WOES. Provisionally sold as a very small cub by a tiger breeder, his new owners refused to pick him up, because he was not white, and the breeder kept him in a pet carrier until he was four months old when Don and Carole discovered him, while flying through Indiana. Consequently he did not receive enough calcium, nutrition and exercise and by the time he arrived at WOES some three months later, his teeth and bones were in a very sorry state. His baby teeth were disgraceful and had rotted through his face, causing the need for surgical drains to be installed. After much supplement and tender loving care he is now the largest cat on the premises although he still doesn’t look “quite perfect”. There are several cats living at Wildlife on Easy Street who have suffered a comparable fate with similar consequences.
Shere Khan (left) and China Doll (right)
As we wandered round in the darkness we were greeted by various noises as the cats recognised Jennifer, from tigers chuffing to lions roaring. We met Nikita, a lion cub who was WOES’s latest addition, arriving just a couple of weeks before my visit. What a character, chasing her tail, rolling over and doing head stands. She had been
confiscated from a drug dealer during a raid and spent a short time at a zoo before arriving. Because she had been de-clawed, she could not remain at the zoo to run with fully-clawed lions and money was raised to bring her here, along with three Bobcats rescued at the same time.
Nikita the lion cub.
We also met Shaquiel, a rather shy Black Leopard who had been badly mistreated by his previous owner when he wouldn’t perform in a Las Vegas nightclub. As we walked round we saw Fishing Cats, Jungle Cats, Servals, Caracals, Lynx, Bobcats, Ocelots, and lots of Pumas (also known as Mountain Lions or Cougars) as well as the odd domestic cat. This tour lasted almost two hours, and was well worth the $20 we paid.
The following day we started our real adventure, known as “Expedition”. Arriving at 9.00am, we were taken through the rules before being given our “Volunteer” t-shirts, which we were told to wear at all times when on site to allow identification. The main rule is “The Three Foot Rule”. Even if there are no barriers between you and the cats’ pen for some reason, and even if it seems the sweetest cat in the world, rubbing its head along the cage wire, don’t ever go closer than three feet. After all we, are dealing with wild cats here, some of which would just love to taste a finger or two. Failure to obey this rule leads to immediate expulsion from the site. Of course, there are occasions when the three-foot rule doesn’t count – but more about that later. After our initial talk, we then headed off into the main sanctuary to meet the cats. For anyone who wishes to see wild cats up close, this place really is a dream come true. We were greeted by Shere Khan – looking even bigger in the light of day, and his companion, China Doll. We watched Pisces the Fishing Cat dive into his pool for food, half a dozen ex-circus tigers all looking for attention, three lions including Nikita, the cub, still doing headstands and chasing her tail, Enya the cougar, who was recovering from liver failure, various groups of Lynx with the biggest ear tips I have ever seen, Bobcats lazing in the grass, Ocelots with amazing coat markings, Amur Leopard Cats, Jungle Cats, Servals being “hissy” (apparently that’s what they are best at), elegant Caracals, huge Leopards both spotted and black and five Sand Cats, the species that had helped me to find WOES in the first place.
Pisces the Fishing Cat
The list goes on and on. Each cat had its own story, and many did enjoy human attention, coming over to greet out tour guide, Jamie. As well as cats, there was also a group of Binturongs (Bear Cats, not a real cat but a member of the mongoose family) including a big male called Banjo, clumsily climbing a tree. When he gets excited he smells like popcorn cooking! There was a family of lemurs, who arrived after their owners divorced. But the love of my life was Hercules, a male Snow Leopard. He was just wonderful, with a tail so long that it curled round and round over his back, and feet that looked far to big for the body, reminding me of a clown. Hercules was house-reared but now lives in at large purpose-built cat-a-tat (WOES’s name for a cage) with a walk-in freezer cleverly hidden in fake rock, which enables him to keep cool during the hot Florida summers. It was quite a shock to learn that this endangered species can still be purchased as a pet in America. I really loved him and visited him several times during my time at the sanctuary.
We were accompanied on our tour by various domestic cats, which were free to go where they liked. Interestingly, they were all well aware of the three-foot rule too! I guess that they would only make a mistake once, judging by how interested the big cats were in them.
Fancy, one of the domestic cats
The tour lasted about two hours and then we started our interaction. Some of the cats are so tame that people are allowed to go into their cat-a-tat with them and this is when the three-foot rule can be broken. Before entering each cage, we disinfected our hands, and were reminded that we were now entering their home and should respect this fact. If they didn’t wish to be petted, then it was their choice and we mustn’t pursue them. This was my chance to actually touch Caracals, Lynx, Bobcats and a Serval. Elijah, one of the Caracals, took an instant liking to me, making a beeline for me on each occasion – he wanted my camera, he rubbed against my legs and on one occasion tried to jump up. Sadly this last action meant that we had to leave – the cats are not allowed to jump up for safety reasons, and this rule is strictly adhered to. The rising star of the interactive cats was Moses – a Southern Bobcat who had been left, dumped in a carrier, at the gates of the sanctuary a few months previously. Still a kitten, he just wanted to play, and when you threw his toys (yes, cat toys just like we have at home, but bigger) he would bring them back to you. It is difficult to believe that I played ball with Bobcats, felt the difference in coat texture between them and the Lynx, and stroked a very beautiful Serval called Esmerelda. We had three interactive sessions in total, visiting seven different cat-a-tats and it was a great opportunity to take photos without the cage wire being in the way.
After a short break for lunch, we were off again. The first afternoon activity was training – the cats, not us. This is not performance training, but essential training, getting the cats to stand up on their hind legs against the cage wire so the paws and underbody can be examined. They also learn to go into their “lock-out”, a small cage attached to each cat-a-tat. Their water is kept here, and this is where they are fed so they associate this place with good things. But there is another important feature of the lock-out. If an animal needs to be closely examined, given medical treatment or moved (either to visit the vet, or in extreme weather conditions, such as a hurricane), this is where they go. The lock-out is detachable, enabling a safely caged animal to be transported as required. We all got the chance to try our hand at training, some worked with Conan, a large tiger, others including myself, worked with Catrina, the cougar, getting her to stand up, go into “lock-out” and sit down on all fours. We did have a few problems with my English accent, but got there eventually. Reward was given in the form of a piece of meat on a long stick and the cats seem to enjoy this interaction.
One of my friends, David, works with Conan
The next session was enrichment, where we all had to make up special boxes of goodies. We placed meat, fish, or large bones together with fresh herbs in the box before sealing it and rubbing the outside to make it smell attractive to the cat. Our job was to hide the box in the cat’s pen, whilst the cat was safely locked up in its lock-out. Then the cat was released to find its box. I hid my box in Sabre’s pen. Even though this huge black leopard was safely locked up, the adrenaline still pumped around my body as I entered his cat-a-tat. On his release, he sniffed round before jumping up on the mound where the box lay and began to tear it open. It was interesting to note that in the majority of cases, the cats were more interested in ripping up the box to play with, rather than eating its contents, a sign that these cats were very well fed.
Hiding the box in Sabre's cat-a-tat
After another interactive session, it was time to give the cats their daily feed. At this point of the day, its all hands on deck with over two hundred animals to feed before darkness falls. The sanctuary has three full time employees and about thirty volunteers who work on a rota to keep things ticking over. Many of the volunteers have a full time job and still manage to spend a further twenty to forty hours a week working at the sanctuary. There are different grades of volunteer, depending on their hours and experience. Some spend their time working in the gift shop, others keep the grounds tidy or cut up food. Gradually, as their experience widens, they will start to help with the various animals, eventually having more responsibility for certain felines. It is plain to see that these people build up excellent bonds with their charges; helping them to overcome any difficulties they had prior to arriving at WOES. We all got the chance to feed Shere Khan - he ate nine chicken legs at one sitting. Other food in the form of red meat chunks and minced meat mixed with vitamin and mineral powder are also given to ensure the cats obtain a healthy balanced diet. Each cat has a set diet, listed on a sheet, and on Sundays the cats are not fed at all, to give their bodies a “rest day”. This is an approved method at zoos and sanctuaries across the world, for keeping the carnivorous cats in the best of health. As we approached each pen, the cats ran into their lock-out, ready for their dinner. I also fed a cougar, although this cat wasn’t quite as polite as the tiger and snatched the large chunk of red meat greedily. During feeding time, I was lucky enough to see Two Toes, the Bobcat that I had adopted back in the summer. She is an ex-fur farm cat and very nervous, only coming out to eat. I had originally chosen to adopt her because of her name, in memory of one of my old cats, also called Two Toes. Because she is so nervous, no one had ever adopted her, probably because they never get to see her. I was fortunate, managing to obtain some video of her eating her food.
Me feeding Shere Khan
As darkness fell, we left the main body of the sanctuary to head for our cabin, since we had made arrangements to spend the night there. Once it becomes dark, you are not allowed to wander around the site just in case you trip over the barriers and have an accident. However, you may leave the site but must be back by 10.00 pm. I had booked the Kenya Cabin, which was part of a converted barn. However, once inside you would never have guessed it, with all modern conveniences, such as TV and microwave present. The décor was amazing, photos of African wild cats hung on every wall, drapes and cushions of lions, and even the shower curtain design was big cats. The bedspread was of lions and tigers and to top the lot we had CCTV, which focused on the Sand Cats. What more could we ask for? Right outside out door was a cat-a-tat where Little Feather, one of the original Bobcats lived and we spent a considerable amount of time watching her prowl around her pen in the darkness. We could also hear the lions roaring in the distance.
The following morning we took a walk around the sanctuary to see the cats again before meeting with the others for our last interaction of the tour. Once again we played ball with the bobcats, especially Raindance who was a real favourite, threw toys for Moses, and Elijah the Caracal took another liking to my jeans. Thankfully no one sprayed on us during our visit, but it is not unheard of! Before leaving I made arrangements to adopt Hercules and Canyon the Sand Cat who was responsible for me find the sanctuary in the first place. As the gate closed behind us and we drove back up the dirt track to the main road, I knew that my dream had finally become reality. I had been able to spend time with wild cats.
Moses the Bobcat enjoys playing with one of the guests
According to the web site, Wildlife on East Street isn’t too easy to find because they are not allowed to have a big sign to advertise it. There is just a small discreet sign on a post with the picture of a running tiger. However, we had no problems finding the place, and it really is just ten minutes or so from Tampa International Airport. I left the sanctuary feeling rather bitter-sweet and very emotional. Whilst it had been wonderful to see so many feline species in one place, the fact that they were all there because they were rescued or unwanted was very sad. Some had been abused or severely underfed at their previous home. However, they are the lucky ones – in 2001, twenty-three new cats arrived, but fifty-one had to be turned away though lack of space and finances. This place has no outside financial help, it must be self-supporting and in 2001 it cost around $375,000 to maintain, $347,000 was raised in donations and the rest came out of Carole Lewis’ own pocket. One hundred percent of all donations go towards caring for the animals.
But that wasn’t the end of my experience. The following Thursday I convinced my friend Melissa that we needed to go back to take just one more look, so we got up at 6.00 am, drove north for an hour and a half (I was by this time staying with some friends near Sarasota) and arrived for the standard morning tour, where we once again visited the various cats and had interactive time with my friend Elijah. I was fortunate enough to meet the founder, Carole Lewis, Carole (right) and I meet
with whom I had been in contact via e-mail over several months.
It was great to put a face to the name. I told her that it’s a pity that WOES is so far away from Sheffield, since I would have loved to become a real volunteer.
Wildlife on Easy Street has had some famous visitors, including Ian Anderson of the rock group “Jethro Tull”. Ian is a real cat lover, who actually has a link from his website to WOES. I managed to contact Ian, telling him of my experiences at the sanctuary. Ian replied, saying of WOES, “Like all sanctuaries of that sort, they have the dilemma of showing for the public and housing animals who have sometimes been mentally or physically abused, rehoused from private facilities or dodgy zoos. But they do a good job and seem to have a great rapport with the animals, many of whom are quite sociable with humans”.
I hear people ask “Why can’t they be released back into the wild, especially the cats native to North America?” Well the truth is, these cats have all been hand-raised, usually taken from their mothers at only a few days old, so they would not be capable of looking after themselves if released. Occasionally, cats come along which can be released, and these do eventually go back to live in the wild, but the vast majority end their days at Wildlife on Easy Street.
My dream came true – I got to play, pet, train and feed lots of different wild cats. Whilst it is very tempting to want to handle them in the same way I handle my domestic cats at home, it is important to remember that these are wild cats, and therefore, to a degree, unpredictable. The volunteers do a fabulous job, its not all fun – cages to clean, maintenance work to do, but they seem to do it with a smile on their face and are always willing to answer questions, no matter how obscure they may be. These people obviously love their work.
Raindance on her tree
However, if you ask the volunteers what they would really like for the sanctuary – the majority will answer “For this place not to be needed anymore”. Sadly, because of human nature, it seems unlikely that their dreams will become reality unless there are major changes to the laws on keeping exotic animals.
For more information about Big Cat Rescue (formerly Wildlife on Easy Street) visit the website at www.bigcatrescue.org where you will find so much information about the different species of cat around the world as well as the animals living at the sanctuary.
As for me – well my visit was certainly one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but being interested in the smaller cat species, which are rarely seen in zoos, this is not unexpected. Considering that I went thinking that this was “ the trip of a lifetime, a one-off experience”, my friends are not surprised to learn that I am now saving up to do it all again some day.
Chapter 2 - 2003
HOLD BACK THE DREAM
- WILDLIFE ON EASY STREET REVISITED -
Those people who know me will be aware that I have more than a passing interest in a big cat rescue centre in Florida - Wildlife on Easy Street.
It had been almost two years since I was last there and my feet were itching again. My friends, Steve & Carol Lawson, encouraged me to visit by finding a flight from London to Tampa, when I could get nothing from this side of the Atlantic. Decision made, I was on my way to the sunshine state yet again. This time I arranged to spend three days at the sanctuary, plenty of time to see everyone and reacquaint myself with the cats.
Having travelled for twenty-four hours, from Sheffield to Tampa, my first stop was a hotel close to the airport - not to sleep, but to visit a cat show. However, this was no ordinary cat show - it was a PJ show, in other words, everyone was dressed in pyjamas - exhibitors, judges and officials. The show was not open to the public, although I was able to walk in (by prior arrangement) and was one of the few people in “day time” clothes. Many of the exhibitors were actually staying at the hotel overnight. The show had started at 4.00pm, and closed around 10.30pm once all the judging had finished. I arrived at about 9.00pm, and immediately bumped into many of the friends I had met two years previously in Sioux Falls. There were a number of different breeds present - some I am familiar with - several very nice Maine Coons included, as well as a number that we don’t see, including a lot of ragamuffins in a vast array of colours. I was very pleased to see my old friend Tori, a brown tabby Maine Coon owned by my friend Melissa Schmidt. In fact, seeing Melissa was a huge surprise for her - I hadn’t told her that I was coming, but just turned up with her Maine Coon Cat Club calendars in my arms! The look on her face was an absolute picture when I tapped her on the shoulder.
Melissa gets the shock of her life when I tap her on the shoulder
Steve & Carol Lawson were judging at the show. After a couple of hours gossiping to friends, I left with the Lawson’s for their home about an hour south of Tampa, for a few relaxing days in the sun. I eventually got to bed at 1.30am on Sunday morning (now some 48 hours since I last slept). The following day it was off to one of my favourite places - The Red Barn, a huge indoor market, with lots of unique clothing decorated in cats - that’s where I get lots of my judging outfits. A couple of days later I was introduced to Professor Randall Wells, one of the top dolphin behaviourist in the world and was fortunate enough to have him escort me round the Mote Marine Mammal Research Centre at Sarasota. He was quite fascinating - his tales of rescuing and rehabilitating dolphins all over the world. Two days later I was lucky enough to see a couple of dolphins swimming in Sarasota Bay, during a biology boat trip. It was something that I won’t forget in a hurry.
On Friday morning, having had a few days to rest I set off north back to Tampa to spend time at Wildlife on Easy Street. This sanctuary is known as the largest big cat rescue centre in the world - not something that they like to boast about at WOES, they would much prefer that it didn’t need to exist at all. There have been a number of changes since my last visit. Firstly they are in the process of changing their name to Big Cat Rescue. There are various reasons for this, one being that the former name gave the impression that they took in all sorts of wild animals, and have ended up with Patagonian Cavies, lemurs, ducks with broken limbs, binturongs, genets and civets. Whilst these animals are all looked after well, the main aim of the place is to look after rescued cats - everything from Tigers, Lions, Leopards and Cougars to Bobcats, Servals, Caracals and Lynx. Many of these are unwanted pets owned by the public until they cannot cope with a wild cat living in their home any more, others have come from circuses. Several cats have very sad stories - abused in some way, either physically or mentally, used to protect drugs by dealers or fed on such a poor diet that they have deformed bones.
Shaquille the black leopard had been beaten when he wouldn't perform. This has left him with severe facial deformities
I arrived to be greeted by Scott, the operations manager, who incidentally gave up a very well paid job in the histology department of a hospital to become a volunteer here. It was great to see him again after almost two years, and I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a little time talking to him over the three day period about a wide variety of matters. Sadly, things have not eased on the rescue side. There are still about 170 rescued cats living here, with 300 more on a waiting list and a further 100 servals! I think that servals are “the latest craze” since some areas are now cracking down on keeping big cats such as tigers as pets.
Esmeralda, one of the many servals
Less than a couple of weeks before my arrival, Big Cat Rescue had taken in two Jaguars - the first Jaguars to come here. Apparently everyone was very excited at the proposed arrival. They had been part of a small roadside zoo in New Hampshire and when the owner had died, homes needed to be found for them. However, anticipation turned to dismay when they arrived. Apart from being old, they were not in very good condition. In fact, as I sit writing this I am waiting for an update from Scott as both had Upper Respiratory problems and the male was painfully thin. It is suspected that he has some form of tumour and their intention is to let him have a few happy months if possible in the evening of his life. Scott did let me see them, even though they are quarantined, although I was told not to go too close to them. This time I was also introduced to Scott’s cats including a rescued Maine Coon, “Flea”, a lovely brown tabby lad in very good condition for a teenager.
Scott & Flea
Once again I had decided to do the full expedition day and it was even better than last time. Since there were only four of us, we have much more interactive time with the animals and the whole experience was just wonderful. We started out by touring the site. I could not believe how much Nikita the lion had grown. This was the lion that had been confiscated in a drugs bust in 2001. She had been found tied to the wall of a basement, a young cub who had dreadful lumps on her elbows where she had spent many long hours lying on a concrete floor. Gone were the lumps and now she is a lovely large, happy and healthy cat. Sadly, she still bites her leg and tail for attention and I guess that this psychological problem will remain with her forever.
Nikita had grown up!
Hercules, the snow leopard, was looking as good as ever and by the end of my visit I felt that he was beginning to recognise my voice as he would come out of his cave when I shouted his name. On several occasions, he really amused me by chasing his ball round his cat-a-tat (cage) like a kitten. Sadly, one of the female snow leopards had recently died from kidney failure following an insect sting, but the other girl was still happy and healthy.
Raindance the bobcat still had her shoe fetish, making a beeline for my trainers. Little Feather, another bobcat, had moved to a new cat-a-tat within the main area of the sanctuary. It takes twenty bobcats to make a short fur coat - thankfully these two have been saved from a fur farm, but many others aren’t so lucky. Once again, it was fascinating to feel the coat textures of the different species, and I also learnt that one way to tell the difference between a bobcat and a lynx is that bobcats have white underneath their tails whilst lynx have black under their tails. So now you know....
After the basic tour, we began our operant conditioning session. Last time I worked with Catrina the cougar. This time I got to work with Jumanji the black leopard, Simba the spotted leopard and Bengali the Bengal tiger. We had to use pieces of meat on the end of a stick to get them to sit, lie down or stand up on their back feet. This is all done so they can be examined or medically treated if required with minimal stress. Whilst working with all three animals was great, I will never forget the feeling of Bengali standing on two feet, paws bigger than my head and towering over me. I should really point out that there were the cage bars between us!
Next it was time for enrichment. As I arrived on Halloween, there was a special treat in store for the cats - a huge load of pumpkins had been delivered and the cats just went berserk for them. We threw pumpkins into the lake and watched Shere Khan dive in to grasp this huge round object within his massive jaws and chase it round in the water. The cougars juggled their pumpkins around their pens, biting them and rolling over and over. For the smaller cats, a choice of small pumpkins or special packages made from either kitchen roll tubes with herbs, grass and meat inside or paper bags with similar contents. They rolled and drooled like any domestic cat would. One of the bobcats became so excited that he ended up soaked in drool all over his chin and chest.
Aurora, one of the tigers wondering how to get her pumpkin without getting her feet wet
After enrichment, it was time for the feeding routine. Once again we all had the opportunity to feed Shere Khan, the largest cat on the premises, a Siberian Bengal cross tiger weighing in at over 700 pounds. We then fed a variety of large and small cats, some fed leopards, but I was given the opportunity to feed Catrina the cougar, my old friend from two years ago. She has the most stunning eyes - they seem to look deep into your soul.
Catrina the Cougar
After feeding, I went out for dinner with some of the guests. They were very excited as they were getting married at the sanctuary the next day and by all accounts they had a beautiful wedding. Although I was invited, I had prior arrangements to go out for dinner with Carolyn, one of the volunteers, so wasn’t able to attend the wedding.
The following day I had the entire day just to wander round the site. This was a wonderful experience and I spent the whole day watching the various cats. The weather was beautiful, warm and sunny, especially good for October. I was particularly fascinated by Frosty, a serval with white bib, chest and feet. He is the father of the white servals at the sanctuary, and even more amazing is that whilst their coats initially appear white with silvery spots; they have feet that are pure white, making the body look slightly grey in colour. I’d love to know the genetics behind that one!
Frosty with his four white feet
This time there seemed more cougars than ever and I did find their presence very sad. These are natural animals to the North American continent and it just seems so wrong that they have to spend their lives behind bars. It would be impossible to release these cats since they have no instinct to survive alone because they have been humanised since birth and would starve to death or be killed because they don’t have a natural fear of humans. Some of the cages have a sign saying “My owners thought I’d make a good pet. They were wrong but I went to jail.” Poignant thoughts!
The more time I spend here, the more involved and committed I become. As many of you know, through the Maine Coon Cat Club’s “Name the bobcat competition” at the club show, together with my own work, publicity and sponsorship has raised over $1000 for the sanctuary over the last two and a half years. But that will only keep the place going for 24 hours! Wildlife on Easy Street desperately needs more help. With this in mind, they are now looking for more corporate sponsorship, and are hoping to build a conference centre on the site so businesses can hold meetings there, perhaps combined with a visit to see the cats, and this way they hope to raise more funds. I understand that they are looking for an education officer and when Scott asked me if I was interested I could have been very tempted. Imagine, getting up every morning to see a cougar or tiger living outside your front door! Dream on Daphne!
Since I made my first visit in 2001, several Maine Coon Cat Club members have followed in my footsteps and been to meet the big cats. They have all agreed that this really is the most wonderful experience and without exception, all want to return some day. As for me, well as long as I can afford to, I will aim to return every year. This is not just a sanctuary for the cats, but it’s a wonderful sanctuary for me too. The peace and quiet of the whole place makes you feel like you are in another world and to spend hours just watching the cats doing cat things - like Grace the Ocelot who is always busy marking her territory, Hercules playing ball, Lola the leopard fighting with her skittle or Shere Khan diving into his lake to cool off, are certainly experiences I will never forget.
For those of you who would like to learn more about the wild cats of the world, or Big Cat Rescue, they have a very informative website at www.bigcatrescue.org. This place is just ten minutes from Tampa International airport, very easy to find and certainly worth a visit. You can do the standard tour, which lasts about 1 1/2 hours, for $20, and it’s certainly worth every penny. The really good news is that almost everyone who works there is a volunteer and all the money donated really does go to the cats.
Chapter 3 - 2004
DRAINS, DITCHES AND DREAMING OF SUNSHINE!
Life at Big Cat Rescue (BCR)
Who would have thought that when I started my diploma in feline studies four years ago, my life would take on such a dramatic change! Since then I have completed an animal nursing course, ended up teaching animal care both at college and school and the most dramatic change of all, found a rescue sanctuary for big cats based in Florida, USA. It was during research for an essay on evolution of the cat that I found the place, then known as "Wildlife on Easy Street". I had typed "Sandcat" in the Google search engine and the first site that came up was this one. Once I visited the website, I just knew that I had to go there in person. The rest is history, and I visited in both December 2001 and October 2003.
The need to go back...
In late 2003, Wildlife on Easy Street changed its name to Big Cat Rescue. The reason for this was two-fold. Firstly, the original name gave the impression that all wildlife was catered for, and the sanctuary ended up taking in animals other than cats, everything from Lemurs, Binturongs and Civets to Patagonian Cavies and ducks with broken limbs.
One of the binterongs
This meant that there was less money for their original aim - to provide a safe home for unwanted exotic cats such as lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, lynx, bobcats and the like. Secondly, it gave the impression of "an easy life", something that it definitely is NOT! Having stayed at the sanctuary as a paying guest twice, the word I would use to describe this place is "tranquility", both for the cats and myself. There is a real air of calmness. The cats do not generally pace up and down (unlike many in zoos) unless it is getting near feeding time, and its so quiet that you feel that you could be anywhere in the world, not just ten minutes from Tampa International airport and very close to a major road system. Staying here helps me to revive after a challenging few months at school. No pupils shouting, no phones ringing, just peace and quiet. Each time I leave, whether I have been for a two-hour tour or stayed for several days, I find myself becoming emotional and within hours I start to feel a very strong need to return. Having just visited in October, by Easter I was already feeling the wanderlust again, so booked a flight to return in mid-July. However, this time I wanted to actually do something positive, rather than just wander round the site to watch the animals. I contacted Scott Lope, the Operations Manager to ask whether I could actually work as a volunteer and he agreed. He would have liked me to stay for several weeks, but unfortunately my commitments on this side of the Atlantic meant that I could only go for a few days. However, it would give me a taste of what it is really like to work with the cats.
Going in July, I knew that the weather would be very hot indeed. I had fears of bad sunburn and so I decided to prepare myself for this by building up some form of a tan on a sunbed. For weeks I did my few minutes under the UV, building it up gradually, telling everyone that I had been to the Greek Island of Handsworth, Sheffield. By the time I got on the plane, I was no longer pasty white and quite confident that I could cope with the hot Florida sunshine.
But the best laid plans - Day One at BCR...
After a long and at times frustrating journey, changing planes at Washington DC, I finally arrived at Tampa some two hours late. I had been travelling for 19 hours, but my journey was not yet complete. . My friends, Steve & Carol Lawson met me at the airport and we drove for an hour, down to Sarasota where they live, stopping off on the way for me to collect supplies for my stay at the sanctuary. Shopping at midnight in Wal-Mart (ASDA) on Sunday evening was actually a bit of a blur, but I got food and drinks to last me for the next five days. The following day I was up at 5.30 am and on the road back to Tampa by 7.00 am, with Steve Lawson driving. We set off in rain, and as we got closer to Tampa the weather got worse and worse, with torrential rain by the time we got to Big Cat Rescue. I signed in, took my clothes and supplies to my cabin and returned to the main area, ready to start work, but wondering what we could possibly do in this dreadful weather. I was issued with a walkie-talkie and a red t-shirt with the Big Cat Rescue logo on the front, and "Trainee" in huge letters on the back. Everyone who works at the sanctuary must wear their issued t-shirts at all times when on site as it identifies them as volunteers. Note the colour of my t-shirt; I'll come back to this later.
Within thirty minutes I was out in the pouring rain, helping to check that the cats had all been cleaned and watered. This is known as "double-check", one volunteer does a section of the sanctuary, and another checks that they have not missed any cats. It may seem laborious, but with so many cats, it is an essential part of the daily routine. As we checked the cats, it became very evident that there was a drainage problem; many of the cages were starting to become really wet and fill with large areas of water. This was reported to Scott and within minutes, we were issued with a variety of implements such as garden rakes and spades and we were on our way to clear ditches that were full of pine needles, leaves and sticks. The rain was so heavy that the ditches and drains were becoming blocked with debris, and the water was backing up into the cages.
So, within twelve hours of arriving in "sunny" Florida, I was in the pouring rain, soaking wet from head to toe, standing in six to eight inches of water (in my trainer shoes), fishing out debris from the ditches, being told to watch out for fire ants, poison ivy, spiders and leeches. Not quite what I had expected in The Sunshine State! So much for all my time on the sunbed!
The rain continued without letting up at all and we wondered whether we were going to have to build an ark for all the animals! The work was very hard, physical graft, but as the water started to move and the level in some of the cages started to drop, it was all worth it. Some of the cats loved the water - the new white tiger, Zabu, loved splashing in her newly found pond, but others weren't so keen. In particular, some of the caracals and servals looked like they really needed pairs of wellington boots as they plodged around in six inches of water. However, they weren't really blessed with brains as they did have drier areas in their cages, but insisted on coming down to the lower areas to watch us as we worked to get the water flowing again.
Zabu enjoying her new pond
The next job was to remove heavy wet pine leaves from one of the empty cages. All the cages are made out of metal, and we had to use step ladders to climb up on the inside of the cage to pull the debris through, raking it and collecting it in plastic refuse bags for removal. Looking back, I feel that this was the most dangerous activity that I undertook during my visit. You see, we were actually working in thunderstorms - on metal ladders in metal cages! I admit that the thunder storms were in the distance, but being honest, this is the one activity that I really wouldn't want to do again in this type of weather. The sobering thought was that just a few days before my arrival, Casper, one of the cougars had been struck down and killed by lightening, inside his cage. Everyone was soaking and filthy - both animals and humans, and by the
time I finished that night I can honestly say that I had never been so wet in my life. It was so bad that I actually got into the shower with all my clothes on, thinking that this would be less messy all round rather than trying to take my clothes off and get mud all over the floor. To make matters worse, having spent much of the day in ditches, I positively stunk! Somehow I had to wash my t-shirt ready to be clean for the next morning. When I took it off, all my underwear was pink because the dye had run! My socks had changed from white to a very dark shade of grey. They were past redemption so went straight into the bin. I collapsed into bed and almost immediately fell asleep.
Strange noises in the night....
I had been asleep for a few hours when I was woken by a strange sound that I thought was a machine. I decided to get up to investigate, expecting to find some sort of generator. However, it was not a mechanical item, but loads of bullfrogs all croaking together in the darkness. I have never heard such a racket and it took some time to get back to sleep.
Tuesday started as Monday had ended, with torrential rain. However, this time I was better prepared. Whilst it was raining, the temperature was still warm, so I put on my shorts, rather than a pair of jeans as I had done the previous day. I decided that it would be easier to dry my legs rather than another pair of heavy jeans. I also tied my hair up - two pigtails and a ponytail at the back. What a sight!!! By the time I got down to the food prep centre, having plodged through six inches of water for most of the way, I was once again soaking wet and rather bedraggled, and my attire caused Scott to have a good laugh at my expense. The food prep centre had changed dramatically since my last visit. Gone was the old shabby "portakabin", now there was a proper brick built structure, in part thanks to the exhibitors at the 2003 Maine Coon Cat Club show, who had raised over $200 for the new structure. Now there was a large clean and very hygienic building to prepare all the food for the cats and other animals.
Old Food Prep Cabin New Food Prep Centre
Work starts at 8.00 am, and I was usually down at the centre by 7.30 am. This gave me a few minutes to have a chat with Scott before the other volunteers arrived to start work. The days are long, often not finishing until almost 7.00 pm with only a very short break for lunch. Obviously, the regular volunteers stay as long as they can, but there were also several interns, people who come to spend 3-6 months working at the sanctuary, and they are expected to work five or six days a week, doing 11 hour days. For this, they get no payment or food, but are provided with basic accommodation. They have to support themselves financially during their stay. Reasons for doing an internship vary, but for most it is done to back up their degree course. One intern wants to work with primates eventually and needs practical experience of working with larger animals; another (who was from Brazil) is training to be a vet and wishes to specialise in big cats. There were two from the UK - one who was doing this as part of her work experience from a college animal husbandry course and the other who took three months off work just because she wanted to work with tigers. She is actually a secretary at a Scottish university, but having visited in 2003, decided to come back to work with the cats just to gain experience!
The day starts with the volunteers signing-in. Then everyone decides which area they want to clean. New volunteers work with more experienced people, but its not long before you are working independently. Buckets are set up - these contain different brushes, one for the water bowls and one for cleaning the feeding slab. The bucket also contains a pot with bleach solution in it, a large pair of barbeque tongs for collecting uneaten food and poop, a bin bag to place the poop and meat in, and a rather ingenious long metal bar that can be placed through the cage bars to fish out the poop in the first place. The cats' cages are never actually entered, unless the cat is locked up in its "lock-out" cage. There is no physical contact with the cats, except the "interactive cats" where people can actually go in with them. Even these are cleaned without entering the cage. It is important that no one touches the animals, even through the cage bars. Although some of the cats really want attention and it is very tempting to want to stroke them, it must be remembered that they are not domestic pussy cats, and if ever someone got hurt, even unintentionally by a cat grabbing the person through the bars, then the whole place could be closed down and what would happen to the 150 cats then?
The cleaning routine....
A strict routine is followed during cleaning. Firstly the tile on top of the water bowl is cleaned. Then the water is tipped out of the bowl over the feeding slab to moisten it and the bowl is cleaned. Then the feeding slab is scrubbed. A water hose is then used to wash the tile, bowl and slab and the water is replenished. One hose caters for several cats. After finishing, the hose is turned off at the tap and emptied before being rolled up into a neat pile. Any food uneaten from the night before is recorded, as are any unusual behaviours with individual cats. Each cat is checked during cleaning, by observing it as it walks around, looking for signs of injury or illness. Problems are immediately relayed to Scott by walkie-talkie and he comes to examine the animal.
With almost 200 animals to care for, cleaning and double-checking takes most of the morning. Scott then gives everyone other jobs for the afternoon. This can range from landscaping to cage maintenance, cleaning vehicles, moving items around the site, helping in the food preparation area and of course, dealing with the tours that take place twice a day.
As the rain continued to belt down, we found that although the ditches were now effective, the drains were becoming really blocked with silt and sand. Many of the roads on site were several inches deep in water, and all tours had to be cancelled, which is very bad news for the sanctuary - no paying public, no money to feed the animals! It costs over $1000 a day just to keep the sanctuary going and this place gets no government aid. Without the paying public and their donations it would soon go under altogether. We had to get the water moving, and quickly. This meant digging some of the drains up and clearing the debris from inside the plastic pipes. The smell didn't really affect me, although I was well aware of how much I smelt of stale sludge. Carol Lewis, founder of the sanctuary, came to visit me during the late morning. We swapped some things - and she asked me to go out to lunch with her. I felt that I had to turn her down, as I smelt so bad! This was a disappointment, but at least we got to catch up with our news. She also gave me a pre-release copy of a new video that has just been completed, about the species of cat at BCR, as well as some of the stories behind individual cats. I have watched this over and over since leaving, and hope that at some point other members of the club will have the opportunity to see it too, so they can learn a little more about the place I hold so dear to my heart.
The ducks enjoyed the rain!
After clearing drains, a group of us were sent over to landscape one of the empty pens. This meant digging up ferns from one area of the sanctuary and replanting them in the cage. Sounds nice, but we were planting them in very muddy and often waterlogged areas. However, once done, the pen looked much better and is now partially ready for another new cat to be taken in.
Tonga, one of the white servals
And finally the sun shone...
It was just after 3.00 pm when that golden ball in the sky finally made an appearance for the first time in three days and once the sun shone I actually dried out pretty quickly. Other routine jobs were carried out and then we starting the feeding routine. Scott and other experienced keepers prepare the food for all the animals during the day. There is a large freezer beside the food prep centre as well as a massive walk-in fridge in the centre itself where meat is defrosted and vegetables for the non-carnivores is kept. There are several feeding routes and I was lucky enough to be on virtually all of them during my visit so I got to see almost all of the cats over the four-day period. Feeding is actually done by the keepers, those experienced volunteers who have been fully trained, and the inexperienced volunteers and interns get to pull the cart. Each cart is loaded up with buckets of meat, and a list of individuals’ requirements is issued. Some of the cats get extra supplements such as glucosamide, which seems to help with joint problems in the older cats. My favourite feeding experience was when Scott took me to feed his "specials". This included Nikita the lion who had been confiscated in a drugs raid. Nikki had been used to protect drugs and had spent her first few months of life living in a basement on a concrete floor, consequently when she arrived, just a couple of weeks before my first ever visit, she had huge lumps on her elbows and a number of behavioural problems. Who could have ever dreamed that she would turn out to be the most stunning lion with no physical evidence of her poor start in life? She truly loves Scott and I was amazed at her gentleness as he fed her. His special charges also included Cameron and Zabu. These two recent additions came from a roadside zoo, a small unlicensed outfit where people can stop at the side of the road and pay to see them in small cages. At night they were kept in a basement. Their owner had planned to mate them - a male African lion and a female white tiger to produce tigrons and ligers, to make money as these cross-breeds apparently command high prices from people wanting to buy one. When the owner died, his wife could no longer afford to keep them and they ended up at BCR. Their story is all too familiar, they were the lucky ones, but how many more end up being sold on to game farms in the USA where canned hunts take place? These establishments will drug the animal, often confining it in a small area and take large payments from individuals who then shoot the animal and have it stuffed as some form of "hunting trophy". Yes, unfortunately this does happen... Thankfully Cameron and Zabu have been saved from this torture. At the moment the two
cats are living in separate pens to prevent any unwanted pregnancy, but because they have lived together for so long, a large enclosure is being built as I speak and after appropriate permanent birth control has been implemented, they will be put back together. Because they have been handled since birth, these two cats are very friendly and like Nikki, they were very gentle with Scott as he fed them. The bond between Scott and his new feline charges was already developing.
I was again up before dawn, and sat outside my cabin door watching the sunrise over the sanctuary lake. The day turned out to be hot and sunny, thank goodness, as I would have been so disappointed if all four days had been bad weather. For the first two days I had been unable to use my camera or video because of the water, so I have no photos of the flooded site. It was quite amazing how quickly the water level dropped and by lunchtime on Wednesday there was little evidence of the flooding we had seen. Everywhere was dry and the cats were no longer wallowing in water. I understand that although the flooding situation I had just encountered was not unheard of, it is actually quite rare. Trust me to arrive at a time of crisis!
I walked up to the food prep centre via the main section of the sanctuary and stopped at Hercules' pen. He is the most wonderful snow leopard and I jokingly call him the love of my life. However, he isn't often out, especially during summer months, preferring the cool atmosphere of his cleverly concealed walk-in freezer that sits inside his pen. To humans, it just looks like a rock face, but inside is a freezer that he can cool off in. I shouted his name and to my amazement he came out. Apparently he doesn't do this for most people and I felt very honoured. Maybe its just me hoping, but he seems to come out whenever I call his name, something I did during numerous times during the visit. Others tell me that he doesn't do this for most people. His eyes seem to follow me wherever I go and he bounds over to play with me. According to Scott, he is currently undergoing tests for a potential spleen problem and was neutered fairly recently as his DNA profile show that he is not 100% pure snow leopard, though what his background is, no one as yet knows. He looks like a snow leopard, but somewhere in his background there might be something else. Consequently, he is of no use in any breeding programme to help to save this rare species.
I made it to the food prep centre by 7.40 am. Work started by 8.00am. I had just started on the morning cleaning routine when Scott called on the walkie-talkie to ask me to come over tot the visitor centre to meet him. On arrival I was asked whether I would mind leaving the cleaning and put on my school hat. There were two boys on the 9.00 am tour who were proving to be a bit of a handful and I was needed to backup the tour. This job involves going round with the tour guide and guests, monitoring for unreasonable or unsafe behaviour as well as answering questions. Having actually done the tour as
a visitor on several occasions, it was great to be asked to work on the other side now. The boys weren't actually too bad, more excitable at the opportunity to see big cats rather than being disruptive and I thoroughly enjoyed answering questions on the various cats and the work of the sanctuary. We were standing at one of the tiger pens when someone noticed a box turtle about to try to enter the cage. I had the job of grabbing it and finding a safe place to put it, well away from big cats who might just fancy this turtle as a potential meal.
For the second day running, I helped one of the volunteers to prepare the food for the non-carnivores. They include the Patagonian cavies, genets, civets and binturongs. The task involved cutting up lots and lots of fruit, especially bananas, fifty or more each time, and to be honest, the whole thing has put me off eating another banana. So don't even think of offering me one when you next see me!
Mid afternoon I arrived back at the food prep centre. The floor was filthy with all the people tramping in and out with muddy shoes during the floods, so I set to and cleaned it. This was very hot work as the centre is large and I only had a household sponge mop. The task took two and a half hours to complete, in temperatures of 30 degrees plus. However, it looked much better once finished - until the next downpour takes place. I left a donation when I left the sanctuary a couple of days later, with instructions for Scott to buy a proper mop with some of the money. Hopefully it will be waiting for me when I next visit!
Day four ... more sunshine
My last full day! How I wished that I had another four weeks to stay. The morning was spent doing the standard cleaning routine - except this morning was anything but routine. Firstly I met my first big bullfrog, a huge yellow and brown chap with a very daunting expression. He was massive, and not the prettiest thing I had ever set eyes on. Then Kate noticed a really bad smell coming from Pisces' pen. It turned out to be a dead rat, one that the Fishing Cat had obviously caught and killed since the clean out the previous day. The stench of rotting flesh was stomach-turning but she managed to remove it and dispose the dead creature. It doesn't take long in this heat to decompose. For some reason, volunteers were thin on the ground so we all worked together once our individual routes had been completed to do the one outstanding area - the servals. There are a lot of servals at BCR, and the number waiting for a place is constantly over 100. Because it is becoming more difficult to obtain and keep the really large cats such as lions and tigers (as the regulations regarding the keeping of big cats are starting to tighten up in the USA) people are now opting for smaller cats such as servals and caracals. However, there are two things that servals are really good at - hissing and peeing. They spray everywhere, and those cute serval kittens soon grow up to become "hose pipe" cats. Consequently, most people cannot or do not wish to deal with this so get rid of them. Some, such as Frosty the white-footed serval, are quite amiable. Others spit and hiss if you go anywhere near them. Personally I wouldn't want one of these in my home.
Scott gave me the afternoon off to take photos and talk to volunteers. This was a very bitter-sweet time for me, as I knew that my time was coming to an end. I was very fortunate to be able to do the "front" feeding section that evening, helping with the big cats including cougars, lions, tigers as well as some of the sandcats, bobcats and lynx. Of the standard feeding routes I did, I think that this was my favourite. Obviously going with Scott to feed his "special charges" was the exception, but that route isn't on the main list anyway! Interestingly, the big cats seemed better at taking their food - it was the smaller cats such as lynx and bobcats that snatched the food as it was being put through the bars onto the feeding slab. Feeding complete and all the equipment put away I headed back to the cabin for the last night. I took a slow walk back, visiting several of my favourites on the way. That night I packed my bag, ready for departure the next morning. Again I watched the sun set, accompanied by three swans and two deer that had swum across the lake to graze outside my cabin door. The bullfrogs started singing again, but by now I was getting used to them and their tremendous noise.
Day five, the farewell...
I was not looking forward to this day, despite the lovely prospect of going on to stay with my close friends, Steve and Carol. However, I did get the chance to catch up with one of the volunteers who has become a friend over the last three years, Carolyn - heavily pregnant with her second child.
I got my stuff together and went off into the sanctuary for one last time to see all the cats. Just by chance, Hercules' keeper, Bill was near his pen. As Bill walked up, Hercules ran over to him for attention and I managed to get some good photos. Bill told me that he used to walk Hercules on a lead around the site but eventually the snow leopard got too strong to handle safely and no longer gets the opportunity to leave his pen. Hercules does have some behavioural problems, the worst being that he will sit and bite his back foot for attention. I told Bill that I had not seen this behaviour since my first visit, and just then, as if prompted, Hercules did just that! He sat with his foot in his mouth, rather like a dog would hold a bone. I took a quick photo and then made a sharp exit, as the only way he will stop once he starts this is to leave the area.
Bill and I spent several minutes talking about the sanctuary. He said that aside from the financial side, the biggest worry is that someone will try to get onto the premises to release the animals. If this happened, then it would be almost inevitable that BCR would have to close. I'm sure that many of you will have seen the news headlines where tigers have been shot after escaping from their owners' homes.
I bumped into Scott as I wandered round. I became very emotional as I tried to thank him for giving me such a wonderful opportunity to work at such close quarters with the cats. However, as the tears began to roll down my face, he also became emotional and we ended up putting on our sunglasses as we were just making each other worse. He told me to go to the volunteer sign in hut and get the "interactive" keys so I could spend my last half hour with Raindance the Bobcat. He wanted my last memory of BCR to be a good one.
So, I spent my last few minutes petting a bobcat, playing ball with her and taking photos. It was wonderful - just me and a bobcat together. How many people ever get that opportunity in a lifetime? Then I heard the big bell ring. This is positioned on the other side of the main gate and can be heard in most of the sanctuary. I knew that this must be one of the Lawsons, arriving to collect me. I left Rainy, a huge lump in my throat.
Steve was waiting for me in the parking area, talking to Carolyn. I put my things into the car, pressed the switch to open the mechanical gate and we drove through with the gate closing behind us. I wept silent tears all the way to Sarasota.
I threw my trainer shoes in the bin when I got to Sarasota. Like two pairs of socks already discarded, they were beyond redemption and it gave me a good excuse to buy some new ones. I also visited "The Red Barn", a huge market with lots of 'cool' cat clothes for sale, so I came home with one or two new outfits to wear.
Each time I visit BCR my love of the place deepens. It really stirs a huge range of emotions, both happy and sad There is a huge amount of work that takes place just to keep it running, and thankfully a lot of volunteers who help out, some come to clean before starting their day's work, others rush straight here after work to feed. Many spend much of their free time working at the sanctuary. The work is very hard, manual and physical, even the poop and cleaning buckets get heavy as they are filled with waste. Much of the work might be considered mundane - for me the worst task was cutting up bananas, it seemed to take forever to get enough prepared. However, the benefits far outweigh the down sides. To be in close contact with such beautiful cats, to watch their recovery from abuse or injury is so rewarding. I have watched all my videos, going back to my first visit, and even I can see how some of these cats have dramatically improved. Shaquelle comes instantly to mind. When I first went, he would cower if anyone went near his pen. Now he sits on his rock like lord of the manor. This cat had suffered dreadful physical abuse - he had been a performing black leopard in a Las Vegas nightclub, and when he didn't to the trick correctly his trainer beat him with a baseball bat. Consequently he suffered broken eye sockets and other injuries to the skull. To this day his eyes still weep constantly and he has a lot of bone scarring to the head. However, the sanctuary and those who work with him have given him the chance to have some peace and happiness. He will now respond positively to humans, rather than cower and hide away. However, he still has a fear of men, although he is quite relaxed around females.
Would I do it again?
In an instant! Despite the foul weather for the first couple of days, the huge number of insect bites I suffered, the nasty rash that appeared around my leg and having to throw some clothes away, I would go back tomorrow and do it all again - rain, fire ants and all! In fact, I'm already consulting my diary to see when I have the next window of opportunity... Now, how much would it cost to go for Easter, I wonder?
- Almost a First Hand Experience –
I had been home from Florida for just two weeks when I first heard about Hurricane Charley, and the fact that it was heading towards the west coast of Florida and expected to make landfall in the Tampa Bay area. I had a very short message from Carol Lawson in Sarasota, telling me that they had been told to leave the island where they have their travel agency and get ready for the worst. As you can imagine, the next thirty-six hours went very slowly for me, worried about my close friends, Steve & Carol and also very concerned about Big Cat Rescue. The sanctuary is based in Tampa. What would happen if the hurricane hit them? Would the cats survive? Was this the end of my feline paradise?
I spent Friday 13th (that date will never be forgotten) glued to an American news channel, just watching the hurricane’s path as it headed for the Florida coast. At 7.00pm I made a very quick phone call to Steve & Carol, who were by then holed up in “my bedroom” with food, water and emergency supplies. Carol had cooked a hot meal early in the day, thinking that it could be several days before the electricity was back on and they would have no hot food. I then contacted Big Cat Rescue by e-mail, just to let them know that I was thinking of them. I then sat and waited. The following day I judged at the Chester & North Wales Cat Club Show, but I must admit that my mind was never far from Big Cat Rescue and I went to listen to news bulletins at every opportunity during the day. It was a very long 24 hours. No one was more relieved when Charley suddenly made a right turn and headed into a less densly populated area of Florida.
On Sunday I received the following message. This was written by Carole Lewis, founder of Big Cat Rescue as she had sat waiting for Charley to arrive. I feel that this is just such a powerful piece of wriitng that I would like to share it with everyone. Even my headteacher has read it and been moved - and he’s not even an animal lover!
Carole Lewis wrote:
“What happens when 145 mph winds and a 12 foot storm surge pass through the world’s largest and most diverse big cat refuge? The newscasters say we will know in six hours. It will be dark by then.
Today, Friday the 13th, Hurricane Charley is headed straight for Tampa. A mandatory evacuation has already sent homeowners in four counties scrambling for higher ground. The gas stations were sold out before noon. The home supply stores were sold out of emergency necessities. The grocery stores were sold out and boarded up. The power company is shutting down power to low lying areas because of the impending tidal surge. The emergency response networks are on the air waves saying that if you have not left the evacuation areas already, it is too late. They will take your call, but they won’t send anyone to help.
The city looks like a ghost town as windows have been boarded up and everything that might get caught in the storm has been brought inside. The only sounds are the wails of the sirens. At noon the skies are dark, but as still as death.
The eeriness is spread over this normally bustling town like a hot, humid blanket. The winds began to pick up and the first bands of rain have come pouring down. Storm waters began rising up from the manholes in the streets, flooding the roads. The crickets that had been raucous in their warnings are now silenced.
The cats know. They knew the day before. Appetites increased as they sensed the change in barometric pressure. This storm was going to be a bad one and nature had hardwired them to prepare in their own native way. Fill your bellies now and find a dry place to hole up until this blows through.
The cats of Big Cat Rescue had been watching their keepers prepare for this night. The perimeter fences had been shored up and secured in weak areas. Everything in the park had been put up or tied down. The cat’s dens had all been elevated so that even with the horrific rains that were expected and all of the flooding from poorly planned development around us, the cats would have a high and dry spot to ride out the storm. Almost all of the cats had concrete dens now. Even if trees came crashing down around them from the tornadoes that would spin out of the womb of this massive and powerful hurricane the cats had safe places to escape the storm’s fury.
Years of planning and preparedness would pay off. All of the dead trees had been cut down and ditches had been recently dug to be deeper and more efficient. The storm drains had been cleared and soft spots in the sanctuary roads had been filled and reinforced. The tranquilization drugs were in good supply and the staff had been practicing their marksmanship in the event of an escape. The perimeter walls were patrolled regularly every day, so the status of their effectiveness was already well known. The volunteers had been trained and drilled for this day. The cats had been trained with operant conditioning to respond in an emergency situation. The cages had been designed in sections that could be shut down if there were a breach in one portion. The lockouts, where the cats are fed, could be detached and the cats loaded into trucks if that became necessary.
Dual systems abound in case of first line failure. The keepers carry both walkie-talkies and cell phones. There are two freezers, two coolers, generator back ups and the gate operates on power, or manually. There is a pump to keep the lake from overflowing and drainage canals if the machinery should falter. There are safe, high and dry areas for the cats and a way to move them if those fail. There is barbed wire and hot wire, which is supported by solar powered battery back up boxes that are marketed to last five days in the dark. Everything that we could think of had been implemented and practiced for this sort of a crisis. We thought we were prepared. But were we?
Are you ever prepared for what it feels like to tell those you love that we are going to walk around in 145 mph winds, dodging projectiles, to be sure the cats are safely in their dens? How do you tell your family and your friends that to recapture a leopard or tiger means we are all put in harm’s way so that the cat does not escape and become a menace to the neighbours? When you have raised so many of these cats from cubs, or have seen them through miraculous recoveries from the abuse that brought them here, how do you instruct your staff and convince yourself that if the cat is going over the perimeter fence it must be killed?
Nothing prepares you for a day like today.
Note: That was written at 2PM yesterday. Thanks to the collective prayers and visualizations of thousands of our supporters Hurricane Charley diverted and crashed onto shore in a far less populated coastal area. The damage done all across our state was enormous, but nothing like it would have been if this storm had kept to its original path into Tampa Bay. Thank you everyone!”
Many things went through my head during those days. How would I have coped if I had been there when it all happened? Would I have been able to stay to help or would I have been asked to leave? Could I have shot Hercules, my beloved Snow Leopard if he had escaped from the sanctuary? What would they do with the cats if the place was flattened? I had heard Scott telling visitors of how the cat-a-tats (cages) are designed to fold inwards if a hurricane ever hit, but would it work? Since there hasn’t been a hurricane in that area for over eighty years, it had never been put to the test. Once it was all over I felt emotionally drained. It was so hard, feeling totally helpless, some three thousand miles away with no contact to let me know that everything was OK. I cannot describe the relief I felt when I received that message from Carole Lewis. Things like this make you realise how vulnerable we all are! All that time out in the pouring rain digging drains and ditches ended up being more relevant that I had ever thought it could be!
Chapter 4 – 2005
BIG CATS, BEARCATS, BOBCATS - AND BUGS!
Return to Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida, USA
When I booked our flights back in early August this whole trip seemed so far away. Yet as the time drew closer I felt that the preparation time was not enough and I spent the last week rushing to get everything done in time. The trip had originally been planned for my husband, Steve, to meet the cats at Big Cat Rescue. However, things took another turn in September when I received an e-mail from North Dakota. A lady I had met four years previously
was inviting me to judge at the Minn-Kota Cat Club Show in Fargo, ND. Although I am an ACFA (American Cat Fancier's Association) International Guest judge, I had expected that my first engagement would be in September 2005 in Budapest. The chance to judge Maine Coons in their native homeland was something I had always dreamt of doing. Without hesitation I answered with a very large "Yes please!" especially when I found out that the event was due to take place when I was already in America visiting Steve and Carol Lawson as well as BCR.
My BCR trip was already sorted - this time I was going to have a day free to recover from the flight before starting work at the cat sanctuary - unlike July when within 10 hours of touching down in Tampa I was hard at work. Originally we had been booked on three flights - Manchester to Newark, Newark to Atlanta and Atlanta to Sarasota. However, the Atlanta flight was so delayed that we were eventually put on a direct flight to Sarasota from Newark. Unfortunately our bags decided that they really did want to go to see the sights of Atlanta, so we were without most of our clothes until Monday lunchtime! With my BCR clothes in that case, it was just as well that I had decided not to start work on Monday.
A trip to Wal-Mart to get our food and drinks for the trip and we were all set. The following morning we were up early, packed and ready to go. My next hurdle was to find the place. BCR is about 10 minutes north of Tampa Airport, but 60 miles away from our base at the Lawson's home. The Lawsons had very kindly offered us the use of their car - a PT Cruiser in bright metallic green - at least other road users would see us coming! Its over 8 years since I last drove in the USA and so with Steve and Carol watching, the first few minutes were pretty daunting as we drove away from them, map in hand, praying that we wouldn't get lost or prang their bright sparkly car. The journey took a little longer than expected due to rush hour traffic as we got towards Tampa, but we made it to the sanctuary just before 9.00am.
Within 10 minutes I had been put to work - backing up the first tour of the day. Steve was on this tour as a guest. Our tour guide was Avi - a young man from new Zealand who was working for 3 months as an intern before heading off eventually to work with cheetahs in Africa. Most of my old friends came out to greet me - Raindance and Moses the bobcats, Bengali, one of the tigers, Reno the leopard, Catrina the cougar and my beloved Snow Leopard, Hercules. Even Steve could not fail to be really impressed with this lad as he trotted round his cat-a-tat playing with anything that dared to move, mostly leaves I hasten to add!
Tour over, we drove out to our cabin. Last time I stayed there I had a bobcat for company in the cage outside my cabin door. Now I had one of the five new tigers- all ex-circus performers from a circus. Steve was more than a little nervous that we would be sleeping with a huge male tiger penned just 20 feet from our door. However. King was a super lad who entertained us with his various types of verbal vocabulary over the three day visit. Most of the first day was spent just re- acquainting myself with the various cats, and introducing them to Steve. Although he has seen hours of video and hundreds of photos of BCR, there is nothing quite like seeing the place and its feline charges first hand.
DAY TWO - MY FIRST REAL WORK STARTS
We arrived at the Food Prep Station at 7.55am, as work starts at 8.00am for the interns and volunteers, Before 8.00am, no one is allowed to wander round the site. I was introduced to the newer volunteers and interns, as “BCR’s Honorary Intern”. Immediately Scott (the Operations Manager) put me to work cleaning the cats in the area known as “Little Back”. The sanctuary is roughly divided into three basic cleaning areas for the volunteers - Little Back, Servals and Road. The large cats, such as leopards, lions, cougars and tigers are always cleaned by the fully trained volunteer keepers, most of whom come to clean their cats before starting their paid employment elsewhere in the Tampa area. However, the red shirts (trainees) and blue shirts (interns) get to clean out the smaller cats - bobcats, lynx, caracals, servals, geoffroys cats, jungle cats and sand cats, as well as the binturongs (bearcats), civets and patagonian cavies.
Little Back consists of three rather wild bobcats (for those of you who have followed the story from the start, they came in with Nikita the lion cub back in 2001), various lynx, bobcats and binterongs. I was paired up with Honey - yes that is her real name. She had been on site during my visit in July for her initial interview to become an intern, and had been successful. Honey had been working at BCR for a couple of months and was well versed with all the procedures. First we went to the volunteer sign in and completed the paperwork to inform everyone of where we were cleaning that day. Then, after checking the walkie-talkies were working, and spraying our legs with insect repellent (this was an instruction, not a voluntary action because there was known to be a flea and bug problem and all the cats were currently being treated) we headed off towards Little Back. She told me that she had seen a snake down in the bobcat area and wasn’t too keen on snakes, even though it was just a rat snake. Funny, here in the UK, you can buy them as pets! I offered to do that area, so armed with bucket, barbeque tongs (to grab poop) and a long pole to fish any debris out of the cage, as you never actually enter a cage, I set off to start cleaning. First I unwound the hose, switched on the water and cleaned the tile over the top of the water bowl, the bowl itself and then the slab on the ground, where the meat is placed for the animals to feed. Any uneaten meat and fly larvae has to be carefully removed to prevent infestation. Then I set off to look for bobcat poop. Now, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some cats cover it with dirt or leaves, others leave it in the open, some even hide it under bushes. Eventually you get to know where their favourite places are, but as a “newbee” this section of the cleaning seemed to take ages, and it was some time before I actually found some. I never thought that I could get so excited at finding cat pooh! By the end of my time working at BCR, I wouldn’t say that I had the skills of an American Indian tracker but at least I could find something in almost all the cages. I was round the back of the bobcats’ cage when I had my first real encounter. OK, that is maybe a little dramatic, but it certainly brings home that these cats are unpredictable. I was just walking along with my metal pole when the male bobcat shot out from his hiding place and bounded over hissing and snarling, trying to attack the pole from the other side of the cage. I later learnt by experience that neither the bobcats nor the lynx seem too happy with the pole - perhaps it reminds them of a snake, but whatever it is, these cats seem to love to attack the pole, whether it is being poked through the cage, or just on the outside. I understand that they also like to grab the hoses, but we are trained not to leave the hose within reach of the cage bars. Having finished the three bobcats, I headed through “Snake country” to some of the lynx’ pens. My favourite is an old girl called Dances With Wolves. She has the most amazing legs and feet, really long, large and chunky.
I was so lucky to be able to spend time with this gentle female who followed me round as I talked to her while cleaning her cat-a-tat. I also cleaned out Windsong, the original bobcat that started off the whole sanctuary in the first place. Then I did Baby Cakes, the civet I had looked after during my previous visit. Later that day we took him a range of fruit and a fig biscuit. He was so funny, came running out of the den, grabbed the fig biscuit and immediately ran back to safety to eat it, leaving all the fruit behind. This was obviously a very special treat for him. Next to clean were the binturongs - really weird creatures. One of the females had just lost her mate two weeks previously and was missing him a great deal. As we got close to her cat-a-tat, she snarled and growled at us, but we just talked calmly to her and were able to clean everything without causing too much stress.
Canyon the Sand Cat -
its through researching this species
on the internet that I found out
about BCR, back in 2001.
Cleaning finished (this took about two and a half hours), we then went to “double-check” the road. During this operation, we actually checked an area that someone else had cleaned, just to make sure that no one had been missed, and also to recheck for more poops. Because of the large number of cats and the layout of the pens, it is quite easy to miss one, so double-checking is an important part of the routine. By this time it was getting warm. Even though it was still late March, the temperature would reach the 80s by afternoon. On returning to the food prep, we cleaned our equipment and went off to see what was to do next. Meanwhile, Steve had been given the job of backing up a morning tour. Although he couldn’t go over the barriers to clean because he hadn’t had enough experience or training, he was still put to work when the need arose. This also gave him the opportunity to see the various cats again.
And what did I end up doing next - you guessed it - cutting up those dreaded bananas, fruit and vegetables for the non-carnivores. Oh no! I haven’t touched a banana since I was last there in July. At least this time I had a knife to cut them up with, but even now, I wouldn’t thank you for a banana. Once everything was cut, we headed off to feed the various animals - patagonian cavies, civets and bearcats. Jefferson (a palm civet) gets an egg every day. Sometimes they are hard boiled, sometimes raw. It’s so funny to watch him juggling the egg before he eats it.
Next I spent some time at the beach - sounds lovely doesn’t it - until I tell you that the beach is man-made and situated beside the lake. Our reason for being there - we had to weed it. By this stage the temperature was really rising and we were glad of the ice cold water available for us when we finished. Imagine, me on hands and knees, pulling grass and weeds out of the sand. However, this is a vital part of the job, the place has to look good for guest, tours and functions. A tatty beach makes the whole place appear unkempt and will reduce the amount of donations given. No donations - no cats with full bellies every night! Now you see why weeding a beach is so important...
During the afternoon, there are normally more people wanting to do the tours, so its all hands on deck just to keep the tours safe and moving. Now, having just got used to driving on the wrong side of the road, I was then asked to drive a disabled person around on the tour on a golf cart - not only narrow paths but wrong side of the road, steering wheel on the wrong side and no gears - just forward, reverse and neutral. After a crash course - or should I say not-to-crash-course, I was on my way. By the time we finished, I felt quite confident as long as the area wasn’t too narrow! Steve had gone off-site to collect a washing machine from someone who was donating it to BCR, so he did actually get to see a small area of Tampa. Then its time to feed everyone, as the temperature drops and dusk approaches. Once again the senior keepers arrive, and they do the feeding, aided by yellow shirts (keepers) as well as blue shirts and occasionally red shirts. By the end of the day, I was really tired and both Steve & I were asleep in bed by 8.30pm.
DAY THREE - INDEPENDENCE!
Up by 6.00am again and at Food Prep by 8.00am. Today we were short-staffed so Scott asked if I would be happy to start Little Back on my own. I felt honoured to be given this chance as it meant that he really trusted me not to do anything stupid. One wrong move and the entire sanctuary could be closed down - and believe me, with the number of property developers in the area just waiting to get their hands on that place, this is a real issue! Again I started with my three bobcats, and once more the male decided that it would be fun to attack my pole. However, this time I was prepared for all his attention and although he was really desperate to get it, the pole escaped unscathed! Having finished Little Back, I helped to double check again before meeting Steve. He had been busy building up a relationship of sorts with the other Snow Leopard, Chloe, a large female who rarely comes out. She had decided that he looked like fun and had spent several minutes playing with him by hiding behind a large log and then bounding out towards him. He said that the first time she did it, it felt quite daunting, having a fully grown snow leopard charging towards you and you just don’t seem to think that there are bars between you so it can be quite scary. However, he soon got over the initial shock and joined in with her game.
After more binturong feeding (need I say more!) it was time for the afternoon tours. This time we didn’t participate as we had to think about making tracks back to Sarasota. We took a walk around the site, meeting Vernon, who builds all the cages and he explained how he designs and builds the cat-a-tats. I remember during my first visit, being told that the cage sections are circular in case a hurricane ever struck and then in theory they should just collapse in, springing back when whatever had hit them was removed. Had it worked - after all it had been over 40 years since the last hurricane hit Tampa? Yes, generally, it had worked fine. One cage was damaged and Vernon was making a new one to replace it although the caracals inside had suffered no injury and hadn’t been able to escape when the tree fell. Vernon explained that a number of years previously his friend Carol had asked him to build a cat-a-tat- for a leopard and he had been there ever since, building cages and doing maintenance! I asked him what experience and qualifications he had had - he calmly replied that he wasn’t sure, he’d been a pilot during his working life! I’m sure that he understates everything - whatever his background, this man is just amazing when it comes to building structures, he can even incorporate the live trees already growing in the area for the animals to climb. Vernon, you are certainly one in a million!
So what did happen during the hurricanes? Well a few trees came down in the storms. A tree did fall right on one of the caracal’s cages and over into the black leopard, Lola’s pen. No cats escaped, none were harmed, but the caracals had to be moved while a new pen was being built. To my knowledge, this was the only “total rebuild” and even this one did not enable escape, or injury to its occupants. The cat-a-tat they were moved to was the one previously occupied by the large male cougar who had been struck down by lightning and killed during a thunder storm just prior to my visit in July 2004. The large electrically powered security gates at the front of the property were affected by water, but they are again now working - although new gates, at an estimated cost of $12,000 are still on BCR’s wish list. In actual fact BCR were very lucky. All the work done in cage design meant that where trees had fallen over cages, the wire collapsed inwards, the animal did not get out and when the tree was removed the cage sprang back into its original position with minimal damage. Once again, Vernon was to be congratulated.
And what of the cats mentioned previously. Well, the love of my life, Hercules the Snow Leopard looked much better, having put on quite a lot of weight - obviously neutering him had been the right decision. Sadly I did see a difference in Catrina, my chosen cougar. She looked much older and slower than when I had last seen her in July. Scott said that several of the older cats had gone down over the winter, and she was one of them. However, for sixteen years old she still manages to get around and eats well. Some of the older cats had passed away, including Thunder, one of the Jungle Cats I had looked after last time.
Two of the five Sand Cats had also died and the saddest was the loss of Maya the lioness. Maya was rescued from a lion park in Florida after being fought over by lionesses when she was a small cub. This fight had caused her to have brain damage and the lion park didn’t want a lion on exhibition that was less than perfect. During her time at BCR she had several operations and was on medication for seizures. In July she had been really ill, and in the special hospital. Sadly she died within a couple of months of my leaving, but at least she had several years of happiness before her death.
On a happier note, the new cat-a-tat that was under construction during my last visit was now complete and Cameron the African Lion and his soul mate, Zabu the White Tiger were back together. These two had been rescued from a roadside zoo. The original’s owner’s intention had been to breed them together to produce white ligers. Cameron had had a vasectomy (a full castration would have made him lose his testosterone level and consequently his mane).
The difference in these two cats was amazing. Both had put on a huge amount of weight and now looked in peak condition. Yet another success story for Big Cat Rescue!
And what about Faith, the Southern Bobcat kitten found in a shopping centre car park? Well its now over a year since she came to BCR as a tiny kitten and staff have worked very hard to prepare her for future release back into the wild. A suitable area for release has been identified and she is now catching her own live prey in her special enclosure, hidden away from humans so no human contact can be made, ensuring that she remains wary of people. Scott told me that her release is imminent, and hopefully by the time you read this, she will already have been set free to return to the life she was designed for.
We left BCR around 3.30pm so we could be out of Tampa and well on our way back to Sarasota before the rush hour. By the time I came to leave, once again the insect bites (I suspect that they were fire ants) were swelling up and forming large blisters all over my arms and legs. By the time I got back to Steve & Carol’s house, I had no visible signs of my ankles and everyone seemed rather worried that it was something sinister and serious. However, it didn’t hurt, I didn’t feel it, but did spend the next few hours shuffling around the house as I couldn’t move my ankles. A large dose of antibiotics, some antihistamine, hydrocortisone cream and lots of bandages (I felt that I had bought enough medication to have shares in the pharmacy) and by the next morning it was starting to feel better. Just as well as I was up at 5.00am for the flights to Fargo.
DAY FOUR - OUR LAST DAY AT BCR
After my trip to the cat show, we had a quiet day on Monday - drinking rum runners at Cha-Cha’s, the cafe below Steve & Carol’s office, and then it was an early night in readiness for our return to BCR. Steve & Carol, and my Steve all had reservations about me working over the barriers again as it was working in the undergrowth that was the time I was being bitten by bugs, but I was determined to do this, so compromised by wearing my jeans and taping the bottoms so the ants couldn’t get to the bare flesh on the legs. I had promised Scott a full day’s work so we left Sarasota at 6.00am, arriving ready for work just before 8.00am. This time I cleaned “The Road” so got close to the Fishing Cats as well as the smaller Jungle & Geoffrey’s Cats. Then we double-checked the Servals. I felt lucky to have been given the opportunity to work in all the main areas this time as it meant that I got to see most of the cats. Binterong feeding took place and then we went out to water the newly planted trees around the site. By this stage it was getting really hot and none of us minded when we were accidentally sprayed during the watering.
Steve’s favourite cat, Cloe the snow leopard, emerges from her den
And finally, something that may amuse you. In the winter issue of the Maine Coon Cat Club newsletter, I included an article by Malcolm and Marion McMillan. These members had visited BCR eighteen months previously based on reading my articles and shared their thoughts about the place with everyone. Well, we had never met the McMillans but it just so happened that they were in Florida at the same time as us, and we arranged to meet at the sanctuary on the Tuesday. Funny how you live just 200 miles apart but have to travel 3000 miles just to meet! When they arrived for the 3.00pm tour, they immediately recognised me and came over. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to back up their tour and we were able to share experiences as we walked around the site. One the same tour I had a couple from Essex - originally from Leeds, so together with Steve & I, six of the nine people on the tour were from England. Was that a record I wonder? I bet the Americans thought that it was some sort of takeover bid! This time Malcolm and Marion finally saw the largest cat on site - the mighty Shere Khan, a 700lbs Siberian x Bengal tiger. The ground truly vibrates as he pounds towards the front of his three acre enclosure.
That evening, a large section of the cats were to be wormed with their food, a logistical nightmare and an operation that takes much organisation. With this in mind, I decided that we would be more of a hindrance than a help, so decided to leave the sanctuary before feeding started.
With very heavy heart, I hugged Scott goodbye, said my farewells, while Steve commented to everyone “She’ll be back!” I do hope so. I took a last walk around the site, stopping to talk to all my favourites - Canyon the Sand Cat, Catrina the Cougar, Two Toes and Rainedance the Bobcats and Hercules, my very special boy. I spent a little longer with Catrina, wondering if this would be the last time I would see her. A lump rose in my throat as I got back into the car to leave, and driving out of the gates for the last time I produced a few tears although I did manage to hold them back until I reached the top of the dirt track and pulled into the MacDonalds’ car park.
I’m sure that anyone with an interest in cats of all sizes would really enjoy a tour around this place. For me, its more than just a place to visit, and I leave a huge part of my heart there every time I leave. There’s a line from a Lionel Richie song that goes “You’re the closest thing to heaven in my world” and for me this sums up how I feel about BCR. It is a sanctuary in the truest form, for both animals and humans, far from the hustle of traffic jams, production deadlines and noisy bustle, yet there it sits, right beside one of the busiest northern routes through Tampa. How I wish that I could become a real volunteer and work closely with the cats on a more regular basis.
Maybe one day I will win the lottery and get to live in sunny Florida, but until then I dream of my large feline friends at BCR and save hard for my next visit.
Chapter 5 – 2006
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE ‘FURRED’ KIND
Taking That Walk on the Wild Side at Big Cat Rescue
Hercules, my beloved snow leopard
It had been sixteen months since my last visit to Big Cat Rescue and as I packed my cases in Sheffield, I wondered how much had changed. Would all my feline favourites still be there, or would some have passed away in the intervening time? How much damage really had been done with the Florida Hurricanes of 2006? Were they any closer to getting new gates for the entrance?
I was up at 4 a.m. on Sunday 5th August, leaving the house at 5 a.m. to be in Birmingham by 6:30 a.m. for the flight at nine. My first flight was Birmingham to Newark, New Jersey, with a three-hour break before my flight from Newark to Tampa. Because I was flying into Newark from another country, I had to go through the usual immigration and customs, then go back through security to find the gate from where the plane was leaving. I was one of those people chosen for an extra security check, having my hand luggage wiped with special tissues, presumably to check for illegal substances. At the time, I wondered why I had been chosen, but as I went from flight to flight throughout my two-week holiday, I realised that this was a regular occurrence for anybody travelling. There was a slight technical hitch on the runway at Newark as a plane that had parked behind ours had broken down and although this delayed our takeoff, we still arrived in Tampa on time. I was astonished to find that my entire luggage had managed to make it to Tampa without getting lost on the way in. This was a first for me! In the past I have had bags sent to Atlanta by mistake, left in the Carolinas overnight, and typical, this time, when I had put all my essentials into my carry-on luggage, everything arrived safely. What a bonus! I had booked into a local hotel overnight and was back at the airport just after 7:15 a.m. the following morning to pick up my hire car. Now here was the first task of the day - without any instructions I had to get into an automatic car without handbrake, reverse it out of the rather tightly packed car park, find the airport exit, then Veterans Expressway and the correct exit to Citrus Park and BCR. Once I had actually managed to work out how to get this particular car out of ‘Park’ mode and into reverse, things started to look up. I felt very relieved and pleased with myself when I found the Macdonald's at the top of the dirt track which leads to BCR and had made it there by 8:00 a.m.
A quick cup of coffee at McDonald's before the driving down that now famous dirt track to BCR. It felt so good to be back! Sharon ushered me through and phoned Scott to let him know that I had arrived. Within a couple of minutes Scott had arrived in his golf cart and he took me off on a tour of the site, a chance for me to catch up with all the news and all the cats. My first question, who was “Are Hercules and Canyon OK?” and thankfully they both were. In fact, all the old favourites were still there, with the exception of Samantha the old Ocelot, who had died just the previous week. This must have been very sad for Scott, as he had looked after her right from when he started at BCR all those years ago. Our first stop was Scratch, probably one of the oldest living cougars in the world and despite his ageing years, he still manages to prowl around his cage. Just a little way down the path from Scratch was Hercules, and I was so pleased to see him in such wonderful condition. He does look so much better since he was neutered a couple of years ago. Last summer, he was introduced to the other snow leopard, Chloe, and for some considerable time, the two lived together happily, even sharing the den. However, quite recently, when Chloe came into season, they had a bit of a disagreement which resulted in her damaging Hercules’ eye. If allowed to continue, this could have be a serious situation, resulting in one of them being badly injured so the decision was taken to separate them and Hercules is now back in his old cage beside Chloe’s pen.
Down the track past Lola the black leopard and Catrina the cougar (who looked much fatter and actually healthier than when I last saw her in April 2005), on past Sylvester (still loving lying in his tree) and past a wide array of servals.
Our next stop was Cameron and Zabu. Both looked in fine condition, and didn't resemble those two sorry looking cats I had seen back in the summer or 2004 very shortly after their arrival at BCR from a roadside zoo. The word I would use to describe Cameron now is ‘magnificent’! He has a full mature mane and wonderful size, substance and muscle tone; you can just see those muscles ripple as he walks. Some of you may remember that these two animals had always lived together and were reunited following Cameron’s vasectomy (a full castration would have resulted in him losing his mane through lack of testosterone). During my visit, Cameron's testosterone level was a bit of a problem. Zabu was in heat and Cameron was feeling rather fruity and they were undergoing a temporary separation. Scott told me that it is highly likely that they will have to spay Zabu very shortly, so that the two can live together in peace. However, he was concerned, as spaying a female tiger is no small operation, and it is not without risk. I will contact Scott, in due course, to find out if everything went okay.
We went on round, past the Circus Tigers row and out of the main body of the sanctuary to the ‘outback’ where new cougar family were living. As we passed Nikita’s pen, I marvelled at how this big substantial lioness had developed over the last five years. When I first saw her in December 2001, she was no more than a cub, with huge swollen lumps at her elbows from spending months lying on a concrete basement floor in a drug dealer's house, there to protect his drugs haul. After her confiscation (she had been used to guard drugs from thieves) she was given a home at BCR, where she now has a huge pen to run around in. Looking at her now, you would never guess that she had suffered such a bad start in life. As we turned the corner, I could hear the three cougars squeakily screaming for Scott, even before they saw him as they could hear the golf cart approaching. I'm not really sure what I expected, since I've seen no photographs since they were tiny cubs with spotted coats. Now they really looked like young adult cougars, although they still have a lot of growing to do. At the moment, they are all legs and ears and reminded me of a typical young Maine Coon, still to grow into his ears and paws. Artmis, Orion and Ares certainly loved Scott, and all three charged up to the wire caging to greet him. These three arrived at BCR after being saved following their mother being shot and killed by a hunter in Idaho and I told their story in a previous newsletter. Big Cat Rescue was warned that they would be lucky to get all three cubs to adulthood as hand-rearing wild cats is no easy task. Prior to their arrival, they had been fed on a wildlife baby formula and they all arrived with runny tummies and sore bottoms. Their diet was changed to goat’s milk and later raw turkey mince. Hand rearing cougar babies is really no different to domestic kittens, they still had to be stimulated in those early weeks to enable them to urinate and defecate. Two of the cubs became ill and the need for antibiotic administration to overcome various problems also upset their constitutions so it was some time before all three really looked like they would actually make it through. It is quite obvious that all three adore Scott, and the feeling is mutual. A huge cage, of complicated design in the main body of the sanctuary is currently being built, incorporating a pool for them, as (most unusual for cougars) they love playing in water. You can see their swimming antics at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/podcats.htm (cubs in the pool, under the Big Cat Rescuers section). Unfortunately, direct contact with them is now very limited as they have grown so much that their play sessions are too rough for human contact.
Back to the main body of the sanctuary – the sights, sounds and smells bring back that feeling of familiarity and overpowering emotions. As we passed Banjo the Bearcat, there he was lazing in his tree, exuding that cooking popcorn odour. There were the usual number of ducks and peacocks, all with chicks in tow, though how many of these would ever reach adulthood is disputable. They are very brave creatures, choosing to live and bring up their young in a large cat sanctuary, but its their choice and perhaps its safer than the outside world.
I then took my car and luggage to the house I was to call home for the next four days. This property was just being fitted out during our last visit, and is for the interns who live and work on site. Things have changed a great deal since I first started visiting in 2001. Visitors are no longer allowed to stay on site and the houses have now been transferred into intern homes. In some ways this is sad as the chance to stay there was what for me, made it so magical way back in the beginning. However, because Big Cat Rescue is working alongside other organisations to try to get American laws changed to prevent people keeping exotic animals, such as lions, tigers and the Felis group as house pets, they have undergone a barrage of verbal and written attacks from those who do not want these changes and wish to continue keeping these animals as companion pets. Scott told me that people have gone to some extreme lengths, getting TV time, blocking BCR’s phone lines and even threatening to break in after dark and poison the cats using antifreeze. He said that he had not slept properly for almost two months in January and February because he spent his nights patrolling the sanctuary to protect the animals in his care. Whilst he says that things have calmed down in recent times, everyone continues to be vigilant. This is consequently, one of the main reasons why there are no guests staying on site anymore. No one can really be fully trusted any more and that’s sad fact for those who have been coming for years. In the past I have stayed on site, and thankfully because I have such a long history with the sanctuary, they make an exception for me and I am allowed to live on site. This is a wonderful privilege for me.
The house is permanently occupied by a full time staff member, Sharon, and at the time of my visit, two interns were also living with her. I was staying in the spare bedroom. After dropping off my cases in my room, changing into my ‘volunteer’ clothes (my trusted red ‘trainee’ t-shirt, khaki trousers and trainers), Sharon and I headed back to the main area where work was being done on an empty cage. Amazing Grace (an ocelot) had been moved since my last visit and the cage opposite hers was empty so it had been decided that she should have access to this one too. There was a slight problem – a path between the two cages. How could she get from one to the other without disrupting the path? The answer was to build an overhead cage tunnel. I was put to work by helping to clear the empty cage, get rid of old foliage and ensure that it was safe for her. Meanwhile, Scott and some of the volunteers started to construct the cage tunnel. By the end of the afternoon, the cage tunnel was in place above our heads, though the two cages were still unconnected as holes had to be cut into each cage to join them together via the tunnel. There was great hilarity as it was pointed out that ocelots do have a tendency to spray and whether Gracie would perform this feline action when someone was walking innocently along the path underneath the cage tunnel at the time she chows to do it. It would be several weeks before I would actually see the finished results, long after I had left Florida for England. The results can be seen at www.bigcatrescue.org/podcats and to watch Gracie climb the branches and walk along that tunnel that I helped to make, brings tears to my eyes. I feel so proud to have been part of the job to bring this little cat more happiness.
Later on Monday afternoon I was introduced to Coleen, one of the two Educational Directors for the site. She works part-time at BCR and part time in a school where she is an educational psychologist. We discussed her schemes of work for BCR’s summer school and how she had engaged the children in learning about wildlife. I promised to let her have details of some useful websites and we had a good exchange of thoughts and experiences of education on both sides of the Atlantic, so similar in many ways.
Then it was back to the Food Prep House, where organisation of feeding was already well underway. The logistics of organising a correct diet for so many cats is huge. On top of this, many of the cats were being wormed. How do you worm a big wild cat? You can’t really hold them down and open the mouth, can you? For many, its done by putting the worming tablet into defrosted chicks and giving the whole chick to individuals at feeding time. There are three different feeding routes – front, centre (or center, as they call it) and back, as well as ‘Scott’s feeding route’. I went with the volunteers who were starting the ‘front’ feeding route. This includes some of the tigers, such as Shere Khan & China Doll. Recently, a new large ‘lock out’ had been built for these two and as the food was put in place and the lock out door opened, there was no sign of Shere Khan. We called and called for him. Eventually one of the keepers found him, some yards away, waiting patiently in his old lock out, wondering why the food hadn’t arrived. Thankfully he did eventually suss it all out and got his dinner.
After feeding, Sharon took me off site to Wal-Mart (ASDA) to get food provisions for my visit and we headed back to the sanctuary. It was to be the only time I left site during the entire four day visit. If you have ever visited this place, you will understand what I mean when I say that it is almost surreal. Here you are, surrounded by large leafy trees, palmetto plants, birds and cats of all shapes and sizes, yet it is almost silent, and so very calm. Its impossible to believe that a major highway from Tampa airport to North Tampa runs alongside the premises, its like you really are in a different universe. I tend to sit out on the veranda in the evenings, just listening to the birds and the occasional lion roar – no traffic, no huge numbers of people, no street lights. It really is back to nature.
Back at the house, I showered and changed. I was shocked to see that the spot at which an old fire ant bite had started to swell on previous visits, had become angry, red and blistered. This was more of a frustration than anything else as I had done everything in my power to prevent it – already taking antibiotic and antihistamines in advance for the ‘just in case’. By the following morning the whole ankle was red and swollen and the blister was growing fast. I bandaged the area, put on my long trousers, waterproof ankle protectors, tons of insect repellent and headed off to work – praying that the medication would kick in soon. I was shattered – a combination of jetlag, hot humid climate and excitement of being there – so I was in bed for 9.00pm.
Day Two – Tuesday 8th August 2006
The following morning I was up by 6.00am, made my sandwich for lunch and was packed and ready for 7.00am. Sharon offered me a lift down to the food prep house, but I decided to walk. That way I could see many of the cats on the way, and although it takes about 15 minutes instead of five in the car, its well worth the walk. I was greeted by the various tigers, then Nikita and Sarabi the two lionesses, Banjo the binturong, Zeus and Apollo the lynx and various other bobcats and servals along the way. Each one was looking for attention and of course I just had to stop to say hello to them all! When I was last there, work started at 8.00am. Now it starts at 7.30am with clicker training for all the cats. This has been a very successful operation and now with the exception of just six cats, all felines on site are now clicker trained. Trainers use a combination of a wooden pole with a piece of meat stuck on the end, which has a clicker attached to it. The cats now associate the clicker with meat so will stand up, sit down and even in some cases, roll onto their side as the clicker-pole is used. This enables the volunteer to examine the animal for any signs of illness or injury as it moves around in response to the clicker. Each day, different cats get to use the clicker – but all the cats hear the clicker and come out to see if it is their turn today.
Scott asked me to work with one of the interns, to help to clean Little Back, where many of the servals and bobcats live and it wasn’t long before I was back into the swing of things, cleaning water bowls, removing uneaten food and searching for hidden poop. This is one of my favourite sections, as I adore the smaller cats. People are so impressed when I tell them about the lions and tigers I get to see, but for me, it’s still the smaller cats that I love most. Some of them are really curious and come out to see what you are doing, others will just sit and watch you are you work. I talk to them all as I clean them out, saying good morning and telling them all about myself. They might not understand, but a calm friendly voice seems to work with most of them. During cleaning out, we also monitor the individuals for behavioural patterns, you do get to know who normally comes out, who doesn’t, and also it’s a chance to check for any possible injuries, which are immediately reported to Scott. One of my favourites lives in that patch – Dances With Wolves, a gorgeous Canadian Lynx with wonderful tufted ears and toes (Maine Coons eat your hearts out!) After cleaning, its time for double check. This is where you check an area done by someone else, just to make sure that every cat has been done. The layout of the sanctuary is so complicated that its not impossible to miss one of the cats, and so double check is essential for the well-being of all the animals. It’s also quite funny that, just like when you clean out a domestic cat tray, your cat will frequently go straight back in to use the clean litter. Some of the exotic cats will also perform this action!
After cleaning, it was time for my favourite job – cutting up those dammed bananas! Its two years since I first performed this task and even after all this time I still have not eaten a banana, though preparing them is so much easier now as there are lots of sharp knives available so no more breaking up with fingers. I had the task of feeding the deer. There is a single deer living at the edge of the sanctuary, not far from our house, and I took a variety of vegetables down for it. We did actually see the deer in the distance – the intern I was with was very excited at this as she had not actually seen it before because it is so shy. It must have been my lucky day! On returning to the food prep, one of the interns who happened to be from Cheshire, England, built up courage to ask me a question. Had I ever written an article for the Maine Coon Cat Club about my trip to Big Cat Rescue when it was Wildlife At Easy Street? I looked at her in total shock. “Yes” I said, “How on earth would you know that?” It turned out that she had bought a Maine Coon from Bill Griffiths just before going to Florida on holiday and he gave her the article about BCR. She visited the place during her holiday, fell in love with it, and now a few years later was working there for three months, living on site as an intern! Talk about a small world! I felt very honoured that an article written for a club newsletter had ended up with someone actually going over there to work.
After a quick pit stop for lunch, we were sent to an area away from the main tour section, to collect cut grass and remove some trees. These trees were Brazilian Pepper, not native Floridian plant, and they take over the area if allowed to grow. As you see, working at BCR is not just about looking after the cats! We were armed with large secators, saws and rakes, and could become quite aggressive towards this pesty plant. I then went to help in the gift shop – a real hive of activity with the phone continually ringing, deliveries arriving all the time with items to check, mark up ad get out on display as soon as possible. This goes on all day, even when the gift shop is packed full of visitors. This is also where all the on-line sponsorship, thank you letters, flyers and newsletters are sent out. I have never seen so many different postage stamps in one place! These days you do not have to go to BCR or even contact them directly for their sales items as they have many on e-bay. Sharon runs this side of things. Her background is in retail so she is very experienced and she does an excellent job.
Scott has certain cats that he personally feeds each night – some of these, such as Scratch, Enya, Nikita, Cameron and the cougars are his ‘babies’ and others are so unpredictable that they are not fed by volunteers. When he asked me if I would like to accompany him, I jumped at the chance to go with Scott on his feeding tour. To see the love and trust that these animals have for him is just amazing to watch. Nikki is so funny. She sees him coming on the golf cart and there is a race between a fully grown lioness and a man on a golf cart each night to see who reaches her feeding post first. In those early days, she would gently take food from him, now she is much more possessive about her meal and will snatch the meat if she can. I watched Scott feed his brood and then he dropped me off and I joined the centre feeding route which included various cougars and lynx. Over the four day period, I watched feeding on all three routes, so saw most of the cats being fed. I am not sure which route is my favourite, as some of my special cats are on each route.
Day Three – Wednesday 9th August
I got up at 5.30am and sat outside the cabin to watch the beautiful sunrise over the lake. This was the time of day that I sent text messages to Steve to let him know how I was doing and catch up with the news at home. I have since been told that I should give him the telephone number at the cabin so he can phone me. This place is getting more like a second home each time I visit! I was down at the food prep centre by 7.20am and was lucky to be invited to watch Jennifer (who was my first ever tour guide on that night tour back in 2001) showing one of the interns, John, how to use the clicker trainer. John was a big lad, and Jennifer said that he had had to work very hard to gain the cats’ confidence because they are so used to dealing with smaller people and some were initially nervous in his presence. After observing this training we headed back to be given our cleaning section for the day. Once again I did Little Back. One of the interns I was working with was aiming to become a vet and had applied to Edinburgh University. I do hope that he is successful. After cleaning and then preparing the omnivore food, our next job was to weed an area of ground in front of several cages, to tidy it up for a forthcoming event. The following weekend there was to be a wedding on the beach area and it was important that the area looked neat and tidy, especially for the wedding photos. On completion of this job we were sent right out towards the cabin area (known as outback), to help to clear up grass trimmings from between the various tiger cages. Under close supervision I worked over the fence quite close to the cages, a tiger on one side and a black leopard on the other. Obviously I was very careful not to get too close to either of them but it was an amazing experience and one that I will cherish for a long time. I felt very honoured to be trusted enough to do this job. Sabre, the black leopard had great fun whilst this clearing was going on, bouncing back and forth. Imagine, watching a leopard at play! Whilst it was a fantastic experience, I will admit that it was very hot and sweaty work. In August you don’t go far without taking lots of water with you, and you just don’t look glamorous at all! In fact Scott said that he can tell who has been working and who hasn’t by the amount of sweat they are producing! Back to the main sanctuary where I helped to organise parking for the visitors’ tour and then went to help in the shop – everything from price labelling items to restocking shelves. Its non-stop work for volunteers.
Feeding routines have changed since my last visit. Now Wednesday is ‘bones & rats’ night where the cats get bones or rats (depending on their size) instead of the usual meat dinner. Not only does this vary the diet, but also acts as a form of enrichment feeding, especially for the smaller cats, who ‘kill’ their rat prey, throwing it around in the air before finally decided to eat it. The funniest thing was seeing Canyon, “my sand cat” with his rat – it was huge in comparison to him and he threw it, dragged it and jumped on it before taking it off to his tunnel to eat. Once again I got to go with Scott on his feeding route and watched in awe as he interacted with his cats. He dropped me off part way back and I went on the back route to help on the feeding route for the cats that I had cleaned earlier in the day. One very interesting thing – the smaller cats tend to be much more aggressive than the larger cats when it comes to getting their food! Back at the food prep centre, I helped to clean out all the feed buckets (yes you get used to dealing with lots of blood and bits of meat very quickly here), emptied the bins and generally clean up before leaving for the cabin. By the time we finished, it had been a 12 hour day. Working here is no easy ride! No eight hour day with an hour for lunch, but the benefits of being able to work with the cats far outweigh any possible negatives.
I told Scott that I would be leaving early afternoon the next day to go down to stay with my friends Steve & Carol Lawson, who live about 60 miles south. Thursday morning would be my last day. He told me that I would hit all the traffic and should stay until after feeding, leaving about 7.00pm, and after several others told me the same, I finally made the phone call to Steve & Carol Lawson to break the news to them that I wouldn’t see them until late evening. They were OK about this, as they both understand that BCR is so very special to me.
By this stage my small blister had grown to a huge 3 inch circular water blister and my ankle had completely disappeared. In fact, it was so big that we decided to name it. One of the interns suggested Bob. Sharon was totally against this, but she was outvoted, and the ‘Bob The Blister’ name stuck.
Day Four – Thursday 10th August
I will never forget this day for so many reasons and it will be remembered as one of the most memorable days if my life, for many reasons. The day started badly – I was just about to get up at 5.40am for my usual quiet sit before starting the day, when my mobile phone burst into action with a text message from Steve. It was not good news. I quote “Know its early. Critical security alert at UK airports. Reports that up to ten flights were to be targeted using liquid explosive. Chaos at airports all luggage searched no cabin luggage allowed. No new flights being allowed to take off. Hope it all calms down for you coming back”. I jumped out of bed, quietly slipped out of the cabin and phoned Steve, who proceeded to tell me that news was just breaking and the UK was in pandemonium. I had no access to news – in fact I had seen no television since I left England. To me, sitting on a quiet peaceful morning with the lions roaring down the path, Britain’s predicament seemed totally unreal. But I worried about Steve. I knew that I was safe at BCR, but knew that Steve would be very worried about me and my forthcoming flights both around America and also the last stage home. Neither of us would be really settled until I safely touched down in the UK. I arrived at Food Prep and discussed everything with Scott. He asked me what I would like to do and I said that I would like to take some video rather than cleaning this morning. I felt that I needed to record some video of me wandering around the sanctuary (morbidly just in case I never made it home). Looking back, that might have sounded a bit drastic, but at the time, not knowing anything about what was happening in the wider world, I wanted to record how happy I was during my visit, just in case… I didn’t tell Scott this, maybe after knowing me for five years he just knew, maybe he just accepted that this is what I always do on my last day, I don’t know, but he was quite happy for me to do this instead of cleaning cats. There was a great deal of laughter about ‘Bob’ because it was emerging that no one was allowed to take any liquid on board as hand luggage and they kept telling me that I would not be able to fly with Bob and would have to leave him at the airport. It certainly lightened the load on a day when I was genuinely worried about my future flights.
I set off and walked round the site taking video of the cats who were out patrolling their cages at the time. Hercules was really on form. I called him and he bounded over, drooling and rubbing against the wire each time I said his name. This was such a special moment for me and one that I feel very lucky to have captured on video, just to prove it really happened! Not everyone can say that they have had made a snow leopard drool.
That bit done, I went back to find Scott to ask him what he would like me to do next. I was in for a real shock, and it is something that I will never be able to thank him enough for. He asked Matt (a senior keeper – and also married to Jennifer) to take me on a photo shoot while he was checking the mosquito traps. So I got to do some real close up interactions with several cats. I even managed to take photos of Simba the leopard through the cage bars. Most of all I wanted to get a snow leopard photo through the bars, but Hercules dislikes Matt (this was very evident as we went to his cage because he was just so different from when I took that video just an hour earlier) but he loves Matt’s wife, Jennifer! However, the female snow leopard, Chloe, absolutely loves Matt and he looks after her. This was my chance – or so I thought. He called her and she came out of her cave, but instead of standing back to look at us, as she usually did (which would have enabled me to take her photo), she came straight over to Matt and rubbed against the bars. Here I was, less than 3 feet from a snow leopard. The photos had to be taken with the bars on show, but it didn’t matter. I had achieved one of my lifetime goals, to be close enough to actually be able to smell a snow leopard. I will never forget this moment as long as I live. The only thing better than this, would be to see one in the wild. I cannot describe the emotion I felt at that point. The rest of the tour was fantastic. I leant so much about the cats that Matt cares for. Most of the cats love cinnamon (and Matt had made up paper bag enrichment using cinnamon for many of them) but Buffy the tiger hates cinnamon and loves cloves, so that’s what Buffy got! It’s no different to your cat at home, some like catnip, others don’t.
After the photo tour I went back to work in the gift shop as I hadn’t finished my tasks from the previous day and was busy at work when I got a call from Scott to go to the food prep centre. Scott thought that I might like to go with Barbara (whom I had met during my last visit) to do some enrichment with the small cats. Enrichment was in the form of ice lollies – not Fabs, Mivvies or Cornettos, this was frozen ‘cat lollies’ in the form of mousicles, chicksiclkes and fishicles. These were frozen water (with a touch of blood there for taste) with chicks, fish or mice in them. Sounds disgusting? The cats love ‘em! We gave out about two dozen to various small cats including bobcats, servals, lynx, Geoffreys cats and jungle cats. Some were obviously waiting until they had defrosted, others just loved to play and chew them from the moment they went in the cage. Each one was recorded as every cat on site gets enrichment on a carousel system. What fun this was! It was great to watch what each cat did – every one acted in a different way when the ice lolly was put in with them. I see this on television being carried out for a variety of animals at zoos in the UK –never did I think that I would ever be helping to do it in real life! Scoot, if you ever read this, please can I help to make some up next time?
No sooner had we arrived back at Food Prep than Scott called us on the radio with a request to take a bucket sized ‘bloodsicle’ to Bengali (the tiger). We arrived to find Scott, Brian and some ‘yellow shirts’ (keepers) at his pen. Brian had video camera in hand and was shooting film of Scott changing Bengali’s water bowl. By the time we arrived, the well chewed metal bucket had been changed for a bright sparkly new one (Bengali loves chewing his pail which means that it soon leaks). Bengali was sitting sulking in the back section of his cage – because this cat loves to be at the front showing off to everyone – and the new ‘bloodsilce toy’ was out in his lock-out alongside the new pail.
Once Scott was happy with everything, he left the cage and opened everything up to Bengali. He bounced back into his lock-out (where the new pail and toy were) and sniffed about. Scott started to leave (all this was being videoed) as Bengali was licking his lovely cool bloodsicle – and immediately Bengali turned his attention to the pail. Every Maine Coon lover should watch this video – I swear that having seeing this for myself, as it happened, Maine Coons must be related to tigers! This tiger then turned his attentions to the pail. He pawed at the water, other leg pawing at the ground, just like Maine Coons do when they drink water. Most Maine Coon owners have seen this very action in their own homes but you will be shocked to see a tiger do just the same. Because he was more interested in the pail than the lolly, he was eventually locked out of this section until his feed time, in the hope that he would have forgotten about the new pail for a little while with food on the horizon.
The circus vet arrived just after we had finished with the Bengali exploit. This lady visits each month to check on all the tigers and leopards owned by the circus, who have retired here. This lady looks after all the circus animals so can’t be on call for the retired cats at BCR 24 hours a day. She was very pleased with all the cats. I later asked Scott what would happen if one of the retired circus cats suffered an emergency, since it would need immediate attention and she might not be available. He said that there was enough trust between them now that they were allowed to use the BCR vet in an emergency. It is good to know that one of the USA’s biggest circuses is not only stopping breeding tigers for its own use, but it continues to look after retired animals by paying for them once their performing life has finished. Personally, having seen the ex-performing animals at BCR, I am so glad to see that the trend to have performing animals is diminishing all together in the USA.
Meanwhile I helped to prepare for the afternoon tour and backed up this one using the golf cart (oh no, another chance to drive a golf cart on the wrong side!) and then went to help in the shop where visitors were buying lots of goodies. At the end of the tour I gave ‘goodbye hugs’ to various people before going to Food Prep for my last feeding tour. This time I went one the center route again – I chose it as it is probably my favourite tour off the three, if I am honest. It was so hard to say those feline silent goodbyes – especially to Hercules (and I snuck off to say bye to Canyon who was on a different route). By this time my emotions were running riot and by the time I got back to Food Prep I was no use to man nor beast! I will admit – I was totally incapable of cleaning much at all other than a few meat buckets. Scott arrived back from his feed, I wanted a photo of us together for posterity, would have liked one of Sharon with us as well but her feeding route was delayed and the photo doesn’t show the tears shed. Scott told me not to worry, if I couldn’t get home, then I could stay longer (now let me tell you – that was so tempting!) and we said our goodbyes. His parting words were “I don’t know why you are crying – you’ll be back next year!” And I hope that I will!
I left for Bradenton at 7.00pm. I stopped on the way out to say thank you to Carole and then cried all the way up the lane, stopped at the MacDonald’s at the top of the road and cried for ten minutes before feeling strong enough to drive the 60 miles south to Steve & Carol’s house. My four days of heaven were at an end…..
Five days later I left Florida for the next stage of my journey to Fargo, to see more friends and visit a big cat show. All week, Steve & Carol (knowing that I was still very sensitive about leaving BCR) kept saying that I had to treat my time in the USA as three different holidays - BCR, Florida with them, then Fargo. This mind over matter system worked well until I was approaching Tampa airport terminal to fly north. The last song played on the radio before arriving at the departures area was "Stay" by Jackson Browne, the words go "Why don't you stay, just a little but longer". Needles to say, I cried buckets of silent tears when I heard that. It was like an omen! At that point, I just wanted to say "Stop, just let me get out here please!" Here I was, just a couple of miles from the sanctuary, yet about to fly thousands of miles away.
This year, BCR along with other people have tried to bring forward laws to outlaw the keeping of big cats as pets. It has led to many changes at BCR and now no visitor is allowed to do what I did in the early days, by feeding, interacting or staying on site at BCR. Individual staff or volunteers, and in some cases their families who had nothing to do with the place and lived thousands of miles away, were personally threatened and there were threats on the cats living at BCR - people threatened to kill the animals by poisoning them, perhaps by breaking in and filling water bowls with antifreeze. In the early part of 2006, Scott did not sleep a single night; he had to parole the site for possible break-ins. Even today, they still patrol through the night, just to keep the 150 plus cats safe!
I know that some of you may have actually had the opportunity to visit BCR. If you haven’t, then visit the website and take a virtual tour. I promise that you will be impressed!
So, after visiting on a yearly basis for the last five years, what are my thoughts on BCR?
1. I am the luckiest person in the world – as far as I am aware, I am the only person in the world allowed to go there just for 4 days and be a real volunteer.
2. No visitor is now allowed to stay on site, go in with the smaller interactive cats or feed a tiger (as I did in my early visits). I loved doing these things, but it may portray the wrong message to some people. Time after time I heard other visitors saying that they wanted a pet exotic cat and this was wonderful. It always worried me that some would go that extra step and get one – I cannot really understand why any big cat lover would want to keep a wild cat in a house if they really loved the cats for what they are – e.g. servals should be fighting their way through African savannah long grass, not plush carpet. I am glad that they stopped this cat interaction though it actually helped me to form even stronger negative opinions on this subject.
3. When I look back at my first visit in 2001, so much has changed. BCR is now a really professional establishment, thanks to those who work there, both paid and volunteers. My words for it would be “slick”, “professional”, “knowledgeable” and “approachable”. Its now so green and leafy, so much better for the cats. The buildings for visitors and food prep have also improved so much. As for feeding and enrichment, well, I am far from an expert, but most zoos I have been to could learn so much from what is happening here.
4. Finally, these people continue to fight the cause. I personally think that Carole and Scott deserve a medal. Carole continues to fight the cause for wild cats being inhumanely kept in captivity, despite being personally threatened and she works tirelessly to keep everything going and make sure that the cats are safe and well. Scott gave up a well paid professional medical job for a life of uncertainty to give these cats a chance of a better life. This man runs and organises the whole sanctuary and knows what every single cat and volunteer or intern is doing at any precise moment. Personally I don’t think that he actually sleeps and I cal him the man with 16 eyes! Certainly he doesn’t have holidays or time off. For him its 24 hours x 7 days x 52 weeks. How many of us, reading this could honestly say we could do that? Not many I guess.
My wish – I love this place but like other volunteers, I now wish that it was no longer needed and the resources could be put into saving wild habitat instead of mopping up people’s “ throw away or can’t cope with” big cats.
Chapter 6 – 2007
PURRING PUMAS, PLUCKY POSSUMS AND AN ALIEN IN NEW YORK
In early November 2006, less than three months since I was last at Big Cat Rescue, I booked my next visit – for the Easter holidays, April 2007. From that day forward I counted the weeks and days until my return (in my eyes) to heaven – a.k.a. Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida. For any wild cat lover, this place is an awesome environment – never will you get as close to so many different species of wild cat as you do here – everything from huge tigers to tiny Geoffreys Cats. If you visit this place, you will stand just a few feet from some to the largest captive lions and tigers you can see in the world. How many times have you visited zoos and seen cats pacing up and down or hiding away, not happy individuals – and even then, the cats on exhibition were few and far between? Here you will see lots of happy individuals – ready to greet you with purrs (or in the case of tigers, ‘chuffs’), rubbing their cage bars, obviously recognising their keepers and showing everyone attention. Isn’t this something that we as true cat lovers really want to see – happy, healthy, well loved animals? Above everything else, this is what makes Big Cat Rescue so special. It would be better still, to see these animals in the wild, doing what comes naturally, though for the cats at Big Cat Rescue this will never be possible as they just wouldn’t survive because they have all lived as captive animals.
It was with great relief that my plane touched down in Sarasota, Florida on Sunday 1st April (I have had problems with flight connections previously) – my bags arrived safely, and I spent the next week doing my tourist bit – I visited an agitator breeding area, drank cocktails at dusk and lazed by the beach on the Gulf Coast – idyllic environment, though I must admit that a tiny part of my brain was always fifty-five miles north at Big Cat Rescue (BCR).
Alligator lazing by the lake in the breeding area at Myakka National Park
Steve & Carol Lawson lent me their car to drive up to BCR and I left their house at 6.40am on the Monday morning, I had to be at BCR for 9.00am sign in. In major rush-hour the 55 mile journey can take 2 hours, but today I was lucky – just 1 hour and 10 minutes, enough time to grab a coffee at the MacDonald’s at the end of their road before driving down the secluded dirt track to the sanctuary. As I approached the gates I recognised the person on the gate – in 6 years this person had never done the gate when I had entered – it was Scott, operations manager, the man who runs the sanctuary – it was impossible to hug him from the car so I parked up and headed back to greet him. This man is amazing – his animal handling is outstanding, his ability to talk like a trained professional TV presenter is incredible (to the point that he has been invited to be a paid guest taking part in a special Animal Planet advert) but most of all, his cat knowledge is probably second to none of the planet – I even phoned him for extra information when I was doing my Big Cat Studies course. Most of all – quite remarkable really – he knows what every one of his volunteer staff are doing at any particular time – I just don’t know how he co-ordinates everything with such unbelievable efficiency. I parked the car, left all my stuff in the boot and ran back to greet Scott. His first question – “Have you got your red shirt on under your sweatshirt?” “Of course” I answered, “Ready to start work when you are.” He had so much to tell me – the Animal Plant video had arrived and the first thing I did was watch the pre-issue version that had been sent to him. It was amazing – I really don’t know how he must have felt. He was flown to Los Angeles, given a fancy hotel room for two nights, spent an hour in the studio recording his section and then flew home. When the video came out there he was, in the same advert as Jane Goodhall, Jeff Corwin and other TV presenters. Apart from a young child, he was the only one in the advert who was not a regular TV presenter. This must have been a real boost for him. I feel that Scott knows that he can talk fluently on matters close to his heart but I think that he really doesn’t know how good he is! You can make up your own mind – he has featured in most of the BCR videos – details at the end of this article.
I spied my plaque – I had left money last year to sponsor a cat and told them that they could put the plaque anywhere they had some space. However, I was very pleasantly to see that it had been put on Windstar the bobcat’s cage, right outside the Visitor’s Centre for everyone to see. Scott teased me, saying that it had been specially polished for my visit. When I was asked what I wanted on the sign, I thought for a moment – who’s memory would I name? – Stripies, Yankee, Merric, Meggie, Hunky – the list was far too long, so I made a different type of statement. This would cover all areas. It would remind those at BCR that I think of them all the time, remember cats and friends no longer around and hopefully touch the hearts of people as they read it.
After watching the advert Scott took me over to the Food Prep building, told me that everything was still in the same place and left me to prepare my equipment for cleaning. I was surprised at how quickly it all came back – where to clip the plastic ‘poop collecting bag’ in my bucket, which tools to collect and how to make up the bleach solution. Then we went off to the ‘Serval area’ so that I could start cleaning. On our way we passed the cages where Scratch & Squeaker (cougars – also known as pumas or mountain lions) had lived – now habited by a binterong and another cougar, then we stopped to see Hercules, the snow leopard. Lucky for me he was out and about, coming over to see me. Scott said that he had been a naughty boy recently – biting his foot again, for attention. With this in mind, though I saw him on a number of occasions during my visit, I never stayed to talk to him for long. Thankfully he didn’t ever perform this negative act in my presence. Next stop was the three rescued cougar cubs – well you could hardly call them cubs any more as they were huge! They bounded over to Scott, recognising his voice, very excited to see him. Their cage ended at the start of the serval section, so I got out of the golf cart and climbed the barrier to meet the volunteer who was already working in the serval section. It doesn’t take long before you are back into the swing of things. In less than an hour after my arrival I was back working with the cats again. Most of the Servals just sit and hiss at you as you clean the cage, but one, Bongo, will follow you round, rubbing the bars and purring for attention. Tempting though it might be, no touching is allowed, and all poop is removed using a long pole which is manoeuvred though the cage bars. We never go in with any of the cats, for any reason.
The sanctuary is split into named areas – The Road, Servals, Little Back (probably named because it is at the back of the sanctuary) and Outback (way out from the main body of the place). Some of the layout had changed since August, sadly partly because of the deaths of some of the cats over the last few months. In particular, two of their really old cougars, Scratch & Squeaker, had passed away, but the big shock was Sarabi. Sarabi was a massive lioness, one of the visitors’ favourites, a very impressive seven year old who had been at the sanctuary since she was a cub. Her DNA had revealed that she had many of the traits expressed by rare Barbary lions and consequently may have been of value to the species. Scott told me that she had come into heat and stopped eating, which was perfectly normal for her. The worry started when she came out of heat and still refused to eat. Very quickly it was decided that a closer inspection was required so she was sedated and examined by the vet. A lump was found in her abdomen and they suspected that she had been bitten by a snake, though a sample was sent away for analysis to check. The results devastated everyone who works at Big Cat Rescue. Sarabi had cancer and so the decision was made to put her to sleep.
Losing these three cats in such a short period of time was a huge blow. Even for me, who goes just once a year, it was heartbreaking to see their cages with different animals in them.
Having finished cleaning the Servals, we had the job of double-checking ‘Little Back’. This means that we check all the animals in an area cleaned by someone else – making sure that no animal has inadvertently been missed during the cleaning procedure. Whilst the ‘Servals’ has servals, ocecats, a few bobcats and civets, Little Back has lots of bobcats, lynx, caracals and binterongs, so plenty of diversity. We had almost finished double-checking when the rain, which had been threatening all morning, finally started to pelt down. Everyone, except me, was very excited – it hadn’t rained in weeks – I was thanked for bringing some English weather with me. As you can imagine, I wasn’t too impressed with the change in weather! It was like déjà vu – I’ve been though this before during visits to BCR and ended up digging ditches and drains to stop the flooding! In fact, the combination of bad weather and the low number of senior keeper level volunteers on site on my first day of 2007 led Scott to make a decision to feed the cats at lunchtime and close the sanctuary for the day. The dreadful weather meant that there would be no afternoon tour for visitors – not a good thing, as it’s the visitors paying for tours that keep the sanctuary going. I was very lucky – Scott invited me to go with him to feed his cats including Nikita the lioness, Enya the cougar, Cameron and Zabu (male lion and female white tiger) and of course his special babies, the three cougar siblings, rescued after their mother was shot and killed in Idaho by a hunter. Boy, these three cats had grown such a lot since August. They had now been moved to the main body of the sanctuary, into an enormous cage area consisting of nine joined cages, each one slightly different, including a pool for them to play in, dens, trees and foliage. We then fed the cats in Little Back – well Scott fed them and we watched from the safety of the barriers since only senior and fully trained keepers can go over to the cats at feeding time – they can become very possessive and aggressive at food time, a bit like a litter of kittens who have just got the taste for meat, all swearing and claws out!
Scott feeds one of the cubs
Canyon came out in the rain to grab his food – totally unimpressed with the rain! (At least I had something I common with one of the cats!). All finished, feed buckets cleaned and I was off to the cabin where I would be staying for the next four days. I phoned home to let Steve know how my first day had gone. Of course, this was over the Easter break when England was suffering a heat wave, so as you can imagine, Steve took great joy in telling me how sunny and hot it was whilst I looked out of the window on heavy non-stop rain.
The following morning it was overcast but not actually raining so initially I was quite hopeful that the day wouldn’t be too bad. However the promising sky didn’t last for long and by the time I was heading out to clean cages it was already starting to rain again. Once again I worked in the serval section, which actually includes Nivarna the ocelot and several bobcats. I worked with a young man called Glynn, who had been promoted to a ‘yellow shirt’ (keeper level) since we last met in August. Glynn is at university, studying biology and wants to go on to do animal research in the wild when he finishes. The experience he is getting at BCR will certainly look good on his CV when the time comes to apply for jobs. By the time we had finished and double-checked ‘Little Back’ we were truly bedraggled and soaking. Scott had left site for the day – he now actually gets a small amount of time off each week if possible – and Brian told us that the decision had been made not to run an afternoon tour unless the weather improved. Quite a lot of us headed off to two of the serval cages. Both Tye and Frosty had been moved out whilst their cages were undergoing essential maintenance. This includes work on the cage wire, clearing the ground inside the pen by removing old dead leaves and twigs and planting new ferns, grasses and palmettos. Lots of dead leaves were raked up and loaded into bags to be taken to a compost area – you would be amazed at how many bags you can fit on a golf cart! New plants were dug up from other areas and planted in the cage. It was all starting to take shape when thunder and lightening started and we had to leave the cage. A couple of years ago, one of the cougars, Casper, was struck down and killed while he slept in his cage during a thunder storm. Now no one is allowed to work inside cages when this type of weather starts, it’s just not safe, so we all stopped work and had lunch. The weather did not improve during the early afternoon. By this time my trousers were dripping in water, so I changed in to shorts – at least its not freezing when it rains in Florida. I then went off to help in the gift shop – writing ‘thank you’ letters to people who have made donations to the cats. Big Cat Rescue values every donation and many thank you letters need to be written to thank these people for their generosity.
Bedraggled in the rain!
A special event was taking place on site on Tuesday – a Rotary Club Meeting with a tour of the sanctuary. The rain did ease off and we got a message from the organiser (Carole’s husband, Howard) requesting three golf carts for people to be taken on the tour and I was asked if I would drive one of them. Much hilarity – reminding me about how to drive the golf cart, which side of the road to drive on (reminding me that Americans drive on the right side of the road) and how to stop the vehicle. I had the oldest golf cart – and to be honest, though we did our best to clean it down, it was still wet from moving the bags of leaves earlier. We all drove out to the meeting house, though actually my vehicle ended up not being needed so I drove back to the main area. This enabled me to help with the feeding route instead and I went to watch cats in the front and centre areas being fed. This included Hercules, who couldn’t wait to have his tea and didn’t care that it was raining – guess that the water doesn’t penetrate his thick coat easily. Back to the food prep centre, buckets and equipment cleaned, floor cleaned, everything put away and then it was off back to the house to get a shower and my clothes cleaned up for the next day.
I got up early and headed outside to inspect the sky (by this time I was beginning to feel like a television weatherman), to find that it was cloudy and overcast, though it actually felt a little warmer and more humid than the previous two days. I phoned Steve, only to be told that the fantastic weather in Britain was set to stay until the weekend. While on the phone, Steve used the internet to check the weather in Tampa and he told me that it was due to be much better, sunny and warm, in the 80s. Thankfully this did prove to be the case and by mid-morning the sun had come out, staying there for the rest of my visit. A little while later I drove down to Food Prep, had just passed the tiger section and stopped at the t-junction when I saw something out of the corner of my eye – striding along towards me was Scott. Nothing unusual in that, after all, he does live there – until I tell you that he was carrying, at arm’s length, a possum, holding this vicious wriggling creature by its tail. I gave him a quizzical questioning look, and seeing that he appeared to be in a hurry, I left him to his possum wrestling and drove to the food prep centre. He arrived at the centre a little while later and told me that he had been called to one of the bobcat cages where a possum had managed to get in. He expected it to be dead, but this female was still very much alive and she also had babies in her pouch. I regretted not having stopped the car to take a closer look, especially since I had only ever seen these nocturnal marsupials (the only American marsupial) lying dead on the side of the roads. He told me that the babies kept trying to get out of the pouch and he had had to push them back in. Since the animal did not appear hurt, he released it near the edge of the sanctuary, in the hope that its experience of meeting a bobcat face to face would put it off further nocturnal expeditions into cats’ cages. Over the years I have seen Scott undertake numerous tasks including various wild animal rescues, but possum wrestling is a new one on me. She was certainly a very plucky individual and this is actually one of the abiding memories I have of this visit.
Scott asked me to work with one of the interns on The Road section. It had been a couple of years since I cleaned this section and I must admit that it is one of my favourites, since many of the original interactive cats live there, including Raindance, Windstar, Moses and Little Feather the bobcats, Esmerelda the serval, Natasha & Willow, the lynx. Nowadays, there is no interaction and you can’t actually touch these cats, even thought the cage bars, but it’s wonderful to work so close to them as they rub up against the cage, looking for attention. They love to be talked to as you clean them out. This section also includes Amazing Grace (Gracie) the ocelot. Those of you who read the last episode will remember that during that visit I helped to put up an overhead tunnel to connect two cages together to give her more space. This was now all in place and I had seen video of her going between the two cages, but she didn’t do it while I was cleaning her out. She was too busy following us round, checking that we had found all her hidden poohs! In this section there are also two rather cheeky lynx – Apollo and Zeus. These two boys take great delight in trying to frighten the volunteers by bounding towards them, making unearthly noises which can be rather scary unless you are prepared for it. I was quite excited as I managed to find pooh in almost every cage – I must be getting better at it! We then double-checked the serval section, another opportunity for me to have a chat with Bongo, the affectionate, cage-rubbing serval.
I had just finished cleaning my ‘cleaning equipment’ when a golf cart pulled up alongside me, Brian & Scott in tow, armed with video camera. “Daphne, a question for you, how many feet is 3000 metres?” Scott asked. “Roughly about 10,000 feet, why do you ask?” I answered. “We are making a video about the snow leopard and want to get the height range right” was the answer. “Don’t forget to include the bit about the enlarged nasal passages for increased air uptake at elevated heights where the oxygen levels are low” I said jokingly. “Not sure that our potential audience will understand that” Scott replied, tongue in cheek. Imagine my pride when I viewed the video and that information was there!
Because the weather had improved we were able to return to our serval cage landscaping job. Planting finished, we decided that Tye’s cage needed a log or two and found several which were suitable. One of these was set close to the cage bars since this will enable volunteers to use it as an enrichment tool, both as a scratching post and also by spraying perfume on it to try to entice Tye to climb it. Since Tye is a fully clawed serval (he has not had his claws removed, unlike many of the cats at BCR), he is quite capable of climbing. Perhaps he’s just lazy, or perhaps he doesn’t know that he can physically climb, but either way, he has never climbed. It is hoped that the introduction of this log will encourage him, just another way of trying to enrich the lives of these cats. When we had finished, the two cages looked really good and within the next few days both Servals will be moved back to their pens – I hope that they approve of what has been done for them.
Clearing and replanting the serval cages
After lunch I did at little shopping at the BCR shop, and then went back to Food Prep to see what was going on. I then went into an area that I never though I would ever enter – the huge three-acre cage where Shere Khan and China Doll, (two of the larger tigers on site) lived. Now before you all think that I have completely lost the plot, let me tell you that actually they weren’t in the pen at the time. They had been tempted into their smaller lock-out cage using food, and safely locked up before we all went into the main area. The plant, Deadly Nightshade had been growing in their pen and they had started chewing it, so it had to be removed. This was successfully done and while we had the pick-up van out, several braches were cut off some to the palm trees that were growing close to the administration building. In Florida, with the combination of heat and rain, plants grow very quickly and people who work here have to be experts in horticulture as well as animal care.
By this stage it was really starting to warm up. Our next job was to count out the food for the evening feed. As I said in a previous issue, Wednesday is bones and rats night. The smaller cats get rats, the larger cats get either bones or rabbits. I will stress that these animals are not killed on site, but are bought in frozen, just like people buying mice or rats here fore their snakes and reptiles. Set out in trays in the food prep were lots of defrosting rabbits and rats and our job was to count out individual defrosted creatures and put them into buckets for each area of the site. Once again I was invited to go with Scott on his feeding route. Nikita the lioness didn’t seem too impressed with her rabbit that night, whilst Enya was pretty pleased with her dinner.
Nikki was more interested in us than her rabbit
Typical, Cameron the male lion was very interested in his rabbit until Zabu (his white tiger friend) was given hers, then of course he decided that her rabbit looked more interesting than the one he had. Typical – how many times have you seen this at home with your own cats?
Cameron steals Zabu’s rabbit
The cougar trio were all very possessive over their ‘prey’, running off in different directions so they could have their rabbit to themselves. Scott teased one of them by pretending to steal it from them, but the cougar was having none of it – the only time during the four days that I saw the real ‘wild side’ to these three cats. A sharp reminder that whilst they can appear cute, they are still wild animals and certainly not to be messed with.
We got back to the prep house, and once again I took quite a lot of teasing about my use of words such as plaster (they call this band-aid or elastoplast), and ‘me mate’ meaning my friend and ‘bait time’ meaning lunch break. However, after some training, several of the volunteers and Scott himself cam now speak some ‘proper English’! I mopped the floor – this is one job that I feel I just have to do before I leave the place each year. (It’s a long standing joke between us about the quality of the mop and bucket). I then left for the day.
My final notes in my diary for Wednesday say “Today has been a happy day – probably in part because the sun shone and we had no rain”.
I had waited months to get here and already my last few hours at the sanctuary were ticking away. Time just flies by when I am at Big Cat Rescue. Being my last day, I was up at 6.00am and sat on the balcony of the cabin to watch dawn break over the lake at the sanctuary. This time of day is always beautiful here and I always try to see the sunrise on my last day. It’s so quiet, all you can hear is the noise of the various animals, though sadly no more would I hear Sarabi roaring at Cameron across the sanctuary. I was determined not to get upset when I came to leave later in the day, as it only upsets everyone else and spoils the end of a wonderful time. I got to the food prep centre at 8.00am and Scott asked me if I had double-checked ‘The Road’ during this visit. I told him that I hadn’t on this visit but I had jointly cleaned The Road the day before, working with one of the interns. He then asked me if I would clean this area today. I said “Yes, of course, who is down working there?” “No one” he replied. “You will be on your own.” I can’t describe how privileged I felt when I was told that. I knew that I would be slower than the regular volunteers – it does take time to really get up to speed, but being trusted enough to be sent out on a whole section on my own was probably the biggest honour that I could be given. It was vital that I got it right – one wrong move and I would have let Scott, and more importantly, the cats in my care that day, down. It did take a lot of time, longer than it should have, but it enabled me to talk to all the cats in my care that day as I worked. I found a dead frog in Windstar’s cage. I also had to fish out an uneaten rat (from feeding the night before) from Crackle the caracal’s pen. The uneaten food had to be recorded in the log book, just like I do for the school animals. One of the volunteers, Bridget, who had finished her section, came and helped me with the last few cats and we were all done by just after noon.
My last afternoon was spent taking some photos and video of the sanctuary. This was my sixth annual visit to Big Cat Rescue and each time I have recorded my visit by writing, taking photos and video. However, Scott has never seen any of these, other than a few photos. This time I took all the videos of my previous visits over for him to view at his leisure. These videos actually document the changes that have taken place since 2001 and include many of the cats that had passed away. Scott gratefully took the videos and also some magazines that had my BCR articles published in them. He planned to watch them on his own as he knew that some of the video would include some of his favourite cats that have now passed away, and this would possibly be very emotional for him. Without realising it, I had been recording the evolution of the sanctuary over the last few years. It’s always good to spend a little time walking round the place when there are no visitors around. It’s so quiet, just the cats lazing in the sun, having their afternoon siestas – you can hear every sound in the sanctuary. I went off down ‘The Road’, Rainedance was sleeping in her favourite spot in the long grass, Natasha and Willow, the two lynx lazily watched me from their dens, Bailey the Bobcat was busy exploring her pen and came up to greet me as I walked past.
I looked over towards Gracie (Amazing Grace, the Ocelot) and was amazed to see her up in that tunnel area that had been built the previous year to join two cages together. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had seen video of her climbing up and through the tunnel to the other side, but here she was, right in front of my face, lying in the tunnel area. She stretched out, slowly stood up and headed off down a branch into the other cage. Sometimes, you are really are just in the right place at the right time!
Gracie in her tunnel
I walked back up the road, said hello to Catrina, one of my old favourite cougars, who looked pretty good considering she is a pensioner. No sign of Hercules or the female Snow Leopard, Cloe so I wandered on, passing Lola the black leopard. When I first met her in 2001, she hated people walking past her pen and would cower away – now she sits proudly watching the world go by – what a difference time makes to the abused animals living here, being given the special care that they all receive.
Lola watching the world go by
Then on to Sylvester, another old cougar - sadly I thought that he seemed to have aged a great deal since I last saw him in August. You know the expression, its when the fat behind the eyes seems to have gone and the eyes seem deep set. I took some photos and video, not knowing if it would be the last time I would see him. I then reached the cougar cubs. I had seen them on a number of occasions during my visit, but this was the first time I had been near them on my own. They heard me approaching and bounded up from where they had been playing. Immediately, one of the boys started purring and rubbing the bars of the cage, then he started squeaking at me – it reminded me so much of Kahuna, my huge Maine Coon – he used to look like he should roar like a lion and he had the most pitiful squeak for a voice. After a few minutes, the female, Artemis, wandered off for a sleep, but the two boys just wouldn’t leave me. As I walked down the road along the length of their huge pen they both followed me – eventually I stopped again to talk to them and they sat down together at the edge of the pen, paws touching.
The boys holding paws
This enabled me to get a closer look at them and its where my pedigree cat judging came in useful. I wanted to be able to find out which one had been doing all that purring and chatting with me. Obviously there are no stripes, coat length was the same, as was the general colour. However, there was a difference in the shape of the nose. The quiet one had a straight nose with a slight bump towards the tip (reminded me of a Norwegian Forest Cat profile) whilst my chatty boy had a slight dip at the nasal bridge, more like a Maine Coon. I would ask Scott when I next saw him to see if this identified difference would enable him to tell me which one was which. I spent a lot of time with these cubs, just watching them and talking to them and it really didn’t take long to fall in love with them, especially the purring one! They are truly miracles and if their captive lives here help to publicise why wild cougars shouldn’t be shot leaving baby cubs behind, then it has been a good thing.
On leaving the cubs I headed off down ‘Tiger Row’. Several of the ex-circus tigers were out, and Sarmonti was sitting proudly on top of his den, as if he was just waiting for me to take his photo.
I walked up to see Nikita, who was being a very lazy lion, lounging in the shade of a tree. On past various leopards, then I saw Dances With Wolves, my favourite Canadian Lynx (with the “eat your heart out Maine Coon” lynx tips to the ears) and then round the ‘Little Back’ area to see various bobcats, caracals, servals and civets. Canyon the Sandcat was up in his elevated house, surveying my every move from above. Cameron the male lion was being a real ‘tart’ rolling around in the grass, whilst his friend Zabu, the white tiger was asleep in the den, out of the sun.
I returned to Food Prep and my first question to Scott was about the cougar cubs – and who was who. I explained how I had identified the difference between the two boys (Artemis, the female, is smaller and with a more feminine head shape), describing their nasal profiles and I was shocked when Scott told me that this was exactly how he told them apart too! Orion was the purring, chatty one whilst his brother, Ares, was the quiet one of the pair. Maybe Scott should become a GCCF judge with an eye for detail like that. Scott and I chatted for a while – put the world to rights, as you do when you get together with an old friend – and I watched him stuff various medication pills into dead day old chicks, ready for the evening feeding. Senior keepers started to arrive for the feeding time and I helped to load up the carts with various meats for the cats.
Scott ‘pill stuffing’
Scott went off to feed his cats and I felt very lucky to be able to go on the Front and Back Route to see those cats being fed this time. The clock was ticking away. I saw Canyon and said my farewell to him. If it hadn’t been for that little Sandcat I would probably never have found this place! We walked past Hercules’ cage – no sign of him which was, admittedly, a huge disappointment to me. I was almost at the end of his cage and I suddenly felt as though something was watching at me. I turned round to see that Hercules had emerged from his cave and was sitting in the long grass, just staring at me. I walked back, took a quick photo, told him to take care and that I loved him, then I hurriedly left him to catch up with the keepers who were waiting for me, apologising to them for holding them up on their feeding route.
Hercules comes out to say farewell
As we arrived back at food prep, a baby black snake slithered across the path in front of me. I wasn’t scared – just excited at seeing my first live wild snake – even if it was just a tiny baby only nine inches long. I don’t think that I would have been quite so confident if it had been full grown though! Some of these snakes are poisonous.
Back at Food Prep, I cleaned up the buckets, helped to finish cleaning the room and then said my farewells.
Final photo with ‘The Animal Guy’ – and friends, Shere Khan & China Doll
This time I did manage to hold back the tears, at least until I had left. I waited for those huge gates to secure behind me before starting the drive back to Steve & Carol’s home, just stopping for a few minutes at MacDonalds to shed a few tears before driving the fifty-five miles south to Bradenton. Just over an hour later I was back at Steve & Carol’s house – though it seemed a world apart from the life I had just left behind in Tampa.
Friday was spent packing and lazing on the beach before an evening at Cha Cha’s bar drinking rum runners. During the morning I had seen my second snake – a water snake swimming in the lake beside the Lawson’s house. Some of these can be dangerous, but it stayed in the water so I was safe. The following morning I was up early, determined not get emotional. I was fine until Steve got up and said “You’re going today….” and I started crying.
Carol came with me to the airport – the farewell was so hard, it shouldn’t be as we see them almost annually if not more so! There was a slight problem with my ticket – the computer at Newark was down so they couldn’t issue my confirmed seat ticket to Manchester. No problem, just go to the gate at Newark for it, or so I was told….
I arrived at Newark and the gate opened five hours later. I went to the desk to be told that the flight was overbooked though they would get me on as I had a confirmed seat. An hour later, the doors closed and I was told that I had no seat and was stuck in Newark for 24 hours, though I would be compensated and given a hotel room. They had messed up, big style! After a four hour wait at the customer service desk I was told that there were no hotel rooms left, given an airline pillow and blanket and told to sleep on the airport floor! I phoned Steve Lawson, who promptly booked me in at The Sheraton and I then went off to find the courtesy bus to take me there. Wow, it was a wonderful hotel, but I was so drained by this time that I didn’t really appreciate it. Exhausted, I finally got to my room at 1.00am, sat down on the bed and sobbed. I felt so isolated and alone and I started to think my trip had not been worth all this grief. A real alien in New York!
The following morning, after a few hours sleep I felt a little better. I recharged my phone, video and camera, and then decided to watch the video that I had taken at Big Cat Rescue. As I watched those young cougars following me down the path, chatting and purring, loving all the attention, I felt a warm feeling inside. Yes, all the grief of being stuck in Newark, New Jersey, had been more than worth it when I remembered my time at Big Cat Rescue. I then switched on the television to hear that severe storms were due to hit the area later in the day and there was a good chance that all flights would be cancelled. I had several hours of not knowing whether I would actually be going home or not, and in fact, didn’t let Steve or the Lawson’s know that I was definitely on my way to England until I was on the plane with seat belt on. I later found out that it had been the worst ‘North–Easterner’ storm in New Jersey for decades, six inches of rain fell that day. What is it about me and the weather in America? After a very bumpy take-off, we touched down at Manchester airport at 8.00am the following morning. Steve met me; I changed into my work clothes at a MacDondalds on the way back to Sheffield and went straight into work for the day – no sleep, not even having been home first! Adrenalin kept me going though the day – memories of Hercules, Canyon, Rainedance, Catrina and Orion (the new love in my life!) will keep me going until I can save enough money to return to my dream haven, hidden down that narrow dirt track in Tampa, Florida.
After all the ups and downs, the sadness of seeing various pens now occupied by other cats instead of the old favourites like Sarabi and Scratch, making friends with Orion, watching Scott wrestling with a possum, being soaked in the rain and Hercules coming out to say goodbye as I was leaving, I can only say yet again, the opportunity to share a little part of life at Big Cat rescue has to be the most amazing experience of my life, and I thank everyone at BCR for letting me stay yet again.
So here’s a toast to everyone who helps at that wonderful place, down that leafy dirt track in a busy part of Tampa, not far from the airport -
May the work at Big Cat Rescue continue to succeed, may they continue to spread the word about why big cats don’t make good pets and carry on educating people about why we should be taking more care of our planet and the flora and fauna with which we share our world. We all need to act today – as tomorrow may well be too late.
For more information about Big Cat Rescue, visit www.bigcatrescue.org. Don’t forget to go to their ‘podcats’ section to see a wide range of videos featuring the cats in their care. I can definitely personally recommend the Snow Leopard Spotlight Species video!
CHAPTER 7 – 2008
“STRANGE CO-INCIDENCES, SURPRISE PARTIES AND JEALOUS FEMALES OF THE FELINE KIND”
A Strange Co-Incidence
Almost twelve months had passed since I last set foot on Florida soil and as I got off the plane in Tampa, I had very mixed emotions about my visit. Would all my feline friends at Big Cat Rescue still be there to greet me, or will some have crossed Rainbow Bridge since last April? I already knew that Sylvester had died and also Pisces the Fishing Cat, but I always worry that Hercules the Snow Leopard, Canyon the Sand Cat or Catrina the Cougar have also gone. They are all getting old now and I know that it will happen some time, but hopefully not yet.
I chose to have a day at my friends’ home to sort things out and do my food shopping for my Big Cat Rescue visit before heading north back to Tampa and the sanctuary. So Sunday really was a day of rest – a trip to Walmart (ASDA), a leisurely ride on a river boat past all the homes of the rich and famous (such as Jerry Springer) and watch the dolphins jumping in Sarasota Bay. The following morning I was up at 5.30am and on the road by 6.15 to drive the fifty-five miles north to Tampa and Big Cat Rescue (BCR). I was at MacDonald’s (situated at the top of the track down to the sanctuary) by 7.30am and thirty minutes later I was ringing the bell at the BCR gates.
I explained that Scott knew that I was coming and was allowed through, driving round to the Food Preparation Centre where Scott was working. I jumped out of the car and ran over to greet him. After the traditional “Hi, how are you?”, Scott gave me the bad news. “I’m sorry” he said, “Catrina tried to hang on until you got here but she couldn’t make it and she died two weeks ago of kidney failure.” My greatest fear had become reality. I have always dreaded arriving to this type of news. I swallowed hard though my eye filled up with tears. She was the first cougar I had ever really loved and it was through her that my interest in the species began. She had eyes that looked deep into your soul and I adored her. It would be so hard to walk down the path past the cages that she and Sylvester used to reside in.
Catrina in 2007
Scott then said that I had chosen a good day to arrive as the pre-release video about his work at BCR, made for The History Channel, (called “Magnificent Obsessions’) had just arrived and the grand private viewing would take place at lunch time. He then said that he had some other exciting news though he couldn’t tell me yet but would come back to me as soon as he had some definite news. I was perplexed!
It didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things – by 9.00am I was already on a golf cart with two guests, helping with the first tour of the week. Shere Khan and China Doll (the big pair of tigers who live in the three acre enclosure) had been moved to the next cage as their unit was getting a full overhaul – new fencing, dens and landscaping. As we went down past the lake, I set eyes on one of the new tigers – TJ – and unknown to me at the time, he has a thing about stalking golf carts, so he bounded round the circumference of his pen as I drove down the path. It was immediate love at first sight – one way I am afraid – I was totally mesmerised by his magnificent head, though he wasn’t quite so impressed with me or my transport. It sounds stupid now, but he really reminded me so much of my beloved deceased Maine Coon, Kahuna (Keverstones American Dream) and from the moment I set eyes on him, I developed a love. Now that is saying something for someone who isn’t really a “tiger person”!
The tour finished and Scott came looking for me, telling me to hop on his golf cart as we were heading out to the isolation area of the sanctuary to meet Joseph’s Pride. This unusual group of two lions and two tigers had been rescued from a closed-down establishment in Ohio and had been driven back all the way to Florida, arriving on my birthday on 21st October. However, they weren’t quite ready to greet general visitors yet so were up in a quiet area of the place, though Scott is working very hard with them all to improve their confidence with people. See their rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00153.htm
The male lion, Joseph, was beautiful. His lion friend, Sasha had actually appeared on Channel Five’s Animal Rescue Squad as Michaela Strachen had filmed there for the series. She is an old cat, had suffered teeth removal to enable people to have photos taken of her without being bitten and she was also was wearing a collar that had been put on at her previous home. She continually has her tongue sticking out of her mouth, which is rather sad to see, though actually she appears to be very happy. Scott is gradually gaining Sasha’s trust and bit by bit he is trying to remove the collar. Actually the collar isn’t tight and its not distressing her so removal by this method is less dangerous than anaesthetising her to get it off. The two lions and two tigers have lived together for many years and it was wonderful that people donated enough money to enable them to be brought back to BCR and live out their lives together. It is estimated that these four cats would cost $35,000 to rescue and set up and by the time they arrived most of this money had already been donated. Because they arrived on my birthday, I had donated my birthday money to their cause. However, their on-going maintenance will cost much more over the coming years.
At this point, far away from everyone, Scott told me his news. He had been asked to go to England to film for a programme on the mystery big cats in Britain and he would be flying to London the day before I was due to fly home. Finally, he would get to see the UK, having never visited before. He didn’t even have a passport! He told me that at this stage he didn’t want me to say anything to anyone as everything had to be organised to ensure that the sanctuary would run well before he broke the news to everyone as he had never left the place for more than a week since he started work there over ten years previously. Now, this is where the strange co-incidence comes in. I knew that it was Scott’s 40th birthday on the Thursday that I was to be there, 20th March and I had decided to buy him something that he would be interested in and that he couldn’t get in the USA. Totally unaware that he was about to film in Britain, I had bought him a book, ‘Mystery Big Cats’ by Merrily Harpur, about sightings in the UK. “Well,” I said, “I guess that your birthday present can’t really wait until Thursday then. I had better give it to you now”. So we headed off back to the sanctuary – on the way Scott showed me TJ’s trick of splashing into his pool when Scott walked over to his cage, the tiger was quite obviously trying to soak him! You can see this trick at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00125.htm). Back at food prep I had the embarrassment of half emptying my case in the open air to find the present. He opened his gift and his face was totally shocked. It turned out that he had spent the weekend desperately searching the internet to get this very book – without success! How spooky is that? Both of us felt the hackles rise on the back of our necks. This co-incidence was just too much to take!
Next the film show and pizza lunch – firstly the video of Animal Rescue Squad, showing Scott and Michaela, only seen in the UK so Scott was glad to see the final show. Then the ‘first viewing’ of Magnificent Obsessions, starring Scott and also featuring several of the volunteers who were seated with us. Much hilarity and cringing when they all saw themselves on the TV. I can’t wait to show this to everyone as it is a great feature on BCR, but a copy of it is strictly under wraps until it has actually been aired on American TV, so be patient folks until I can actually show it.
I fully expected to be directed off to do a job, but knowing how many times I have been at BCR in the pouring rain for days during previous visits, Scott told me to make the most of the hot sunny weather and take off round the sanctuary to photograph and video the cats, just in case the weather turned bad for the rest of the week. This was a chance to greet many of my old friends – in particular Hercules the snow leopard, Raindance (my favourite bobcat) rubbing against the fence, Cameron the lion & Zabu, his white tiger companion, the naughty lynx boys Apollo & Zeus and of course Canyon, the Sand Cat who was the reason I went to BCR in the first place.
The three cougar cubs – who are now all grown up and very naughty but loveable rogues had changed drastically. They are now huge muscular killing machines, although all they are able to kill are leaves in their cage. It’s sad to realise that three such young and energetic creatures now face a life in a cage because a hunter shot their mother when they were tiny cubs.
The Cougar Boys
It really doesn’t seem like seven years since I first found BCR on the internet – how my life has changed since I clicked on that website! Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would end up looking for caracal faeces in a cage in Florida!
By 2.30pm I was back at reception, ready to help to park visitors’ cars and back up another tour. These days, lots of people know about BCR – they advertise well with leaflets in visitors’ centres and hotels all over the area and Easter is a particularly busy time, sometimes there are up to five tours all running at the same time. In 1995, there were just 43 visitors - in 2007 over 24,000 people came to see the cats! 5.00pm and the afternoon tour is over, but we will not be finished for almost another three hours. Now its time to get the meat ready for the evening feed, Scott has already done the basic preparation for each animal.
The meat fridge
The whole site is divided up into sections – front, centre and back with special cats being fed only by Scott. These include his naughty cougar cubs and Nikita the lioness. Nikki was confiscated from a drug baron who kept her in his basement to guard his illegal drug hoard. When she arrived in 2001 she had huge fluid lumps on her elbows because she had spent so much time on a concrete floor. Those lumps did eventually go and she built up a very special relationship with Scott - which really has to be witnessed to be fully understood. I never really believed that a lion could love a human so much, but it is plain to see that she adores him with every bone in her body and to see their relationship is probably the most moving experience I have ever witnessed in all my time at BCR. He only has to shout her name and she bounds over like a teenager with a crush, she just cannot do enough to get his attention. Scott went off to feed his special felines and I headed off pulling the meat cart, to help with the ‘back route’. As a red shirt, I am not trained to go over with the senior keepers to actually feed and I stay with the trolley on the path, though I do get to see almost every cat being fed. This is such an experience and one that you normally don’t get to witness until you are at least a yellow shirt (keeper level) so I am very lucky in being allowed to do this.
The ‘Back Section’ is probably my favourite. It includes many of the tigers, lots of bobcats, my favourite Canadian Lynx “Dances With Wolves” – known as Dances, various servals and of course my lovely Sand Cat, Canyon. And just like at home – the smaller the cat, the more aggressive they are when they get the food – aren’t kittens always more aggressive than adult cats? One of the worst is Canyon – and he is one of the smallest on the site. His cage has changed since I last visited – it now has a sand base instead of grass – and he loves it. This is what he would be walking on if he were in the wild in Africa and now he has it in Florida too! Nothing is too much to do for the cats at BCR, just to keep them happy. For more information about Sand Cats visit http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00175.htm)
We finished feeding and then it was off back to the food prep to clean buckets, cart, prep house floor and the meat fridge. Finally, it’s off to the cabin for the night. This time I had King, a tiger living just outside my door and I was sharing my living space with three feral rescued kittens that were in the process of being tamed ready for re-homing. I had only been at BCR for 12 hours and it already felt like I had never been away!
A Normal Day – If That’s Possible at BCR!
Tuesday was a normal day – well if a normal day is possible at BCR! I got up at 6.00am and phoned Steve – with King the tiger sitting right in front of me, rolling over and flirting while I talked. It was a bit bizarre trying to have a conversation with my husband about ordinary things when a tiger was six feet away from me making chuffing noises almost down the phone to Steve.
King – my neighbour for four days
I got to food prep just before 8.00am and was instructed to work on ‘The Road’ with Mary Lou. The Road is a lovely section to clean – it’s full of the really old cats that have been at the sanctuary for many years and several of them love human company so will come up to the edge of the cage to keep you company while you clean. It includes Raindance, Willow & Natasha (lynx), Esmerelda (seval), Windsong (the original bobcat who started the whole thing off) as well as the naughty lynx, Apollo & Zeus, Moses, Anna & Bailey (rescued southern bobcats), Tonga (white serval) and Anastasia, a very old lynx. During this cleaning route we also fed the tame ducks – and actually some of the turtles in the lake are so tame that I hand fed bread to one of those too (now that really was a first). There was a notice on Anastasia’s cage informing us that she is diabetic. She is very old and she now walks with a gait and I wondered how they managed to treat her diabetes, so made a mental note to ask Scott later. He told me that unlike domestic cats, treating bigger cats is almost impossible since you cannot hold them down to pill or inject, and all they can do is monitor and periodically blood test. However, at the moment, her blood test results are not too bad so fingers crossed, though she is extremely old and who knows what the future may bring.
After finishing the cleaning we ‘double-checked the servals’. This is where you check an area that someone else has cleaned. With so many cages to clean, in a complex layout, its not unheard of to miss someone by mistake so this isn’t a ‘big brother’ thing, more just a ‘let’s make sure’ hence the name ‘double-check. Also, I personally have gone round and round a cage only to find nothing, then the double checker comes along only to find a hot steamy poop – the cat has waited until you left or has done another poop once the area has been cleaned – yes just like your house cat waiting until you have finished doing the litter tray then he goes straight back in and does another – and how many times has that happened to you?
We then went off to clean our equipment – plastic bucket, long ‘l’ shaped metal “poop fishing” rod, toilet brush (for cleaning bowls), BBQ brush for cleaning the feed slab and BBQ tongs – which had been used to grab poop from the cage once you have been clever enough to fish/drag it to the edge using your metal rod. Don’t even bother asking me to a BBQ – for some reason I don’t see these tools in the same light anymore!
Me with my cleaning equipment
Then its time to chop up fruit and veg for the omnivores and head off back into the sanctuary to coax the binturongs down from their trees and shout over the genets and palm civets for their mid-day meal. I bet that not many people can claim to having stood shouting a lazy binturong down from a tree in the heat of the midday sun. Believe me, it’s not the easiest of tasks to do successfully! Being omnivores they will get meat with the cats at feeding time in the early evening too, but they need their ‘five a day’ at lunchtime as well. Just ten minutes for a quick lunch then off to help with the afternoon tour.
A lot of building and development work has taken place in the last year. The much needed concrete perimeter wall has started. This is being financed by donation - $100 per linear foot to build so it’s a huge job and is being done bit by bit as funds permit. The need to build a wall rather than have a combination of concrete and caging to the outside areas became very evident a couple of years ago when, on Christmas Day, some children armed with paint guns managed to cover the floor of two of the leopards’ enclosures with paint by poking the gun through the external wall caging. Several of the cages have been refurbished and improved and they now have a memorial wall, with a named photo plaque for each cat that has lived and died there. Whilst this area is tranquil and beautifully done, it is not an easy place to visit when you actually knew so many of the cats. Catrina had been the latest addition to the wall and I found it very difficult to look at her plaque.
The memorial wall
There was much whispering behind closed doors on the Tuesday and Wednesday as the volunteers were arranging a surprise party for Scott’s fortieth birthday. The party would take place on Wednesday evening at a house on the property known as The Party House, where events regularly take place and people can hire it out for functions. I am guessing that, knowing Scott, nothing gets past him and he did have an idea that something was going on, but none of us mentioned it to him, sworn to secrecy until the actual event.
Blind Leading the Blind!
On Wednesday morning I was up at 6.00am, to be greeted by King who had been roaring off an on throughout the night. By 8.00am I was at Food Prep and went over to help in the gift shop until I was needed to help parking at 9.00am. Scott came over and asked me if I would work with Natasha, a very new intern who had only just started a few days previously, on The Road section (where I had worked the day before). In Scott’s words “It will be the blind leading the blind”.
Raindance rolls over and flirts for everyone!
However, we managed and didn’t miss out any cats though we were rather slow and didn’t get finished until 12.40pm – we thought that wasn’t bad for a first attempt on our own. Amazing Grace (Gracie) the ocelot was still enjoying her elevated tunnel cage that we had built a couple of years ago to connect two cages together for her. She is such a funny cat – she walks around moaning and groaning to herself, marking her territory with urine or by paddling her back legs, yet she does want you to talk to her as you work. (See her at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00123.htm).
By this stage finding poop was getting easier as I could remember some of the cats’ favourite spots. Many of them poop very close to the cage edge, but not Gracie, she does hers right up a mound of earth and you have to get the long pole right into the cage to scrape it down to a point where it can be grabbed with barbeque tongs. The two cheeky lynx boys (Apollo & Zeus) are the worst to clean (in my opinion). Firstly they don’t oblige by doing it near the perimeter fence, preferring sections surrounded by bushes or towards the centre of their enclosure. Secondly, as soon as you poke the scraper through they come charging over to grab it, or to hiss and spit violently at you. Sometimes one person has to ‘entertain them by distraction’ while another grabs the poop or cleans the water bowls.
Next the omnivore feeding and then a quick lunch before the visitors for the afternoon tour start to arrive at 2.30pm. This tour I was asked to drive a golf cart again, for a group of people who could not walk well. Initially all went well and we were about halfway through the tour, watching Cameron roaring when my golf cart made a strange ‘poof’ noise, spat out a cloud of grey smoke and died – right in the middle of the tour path. I had killed it! We radioed Scott who duly arrived on his own golf cart, handed it over to me with the words “And don’t you dare kill this one too!” Actually the golf cart had died because of a battery problem, but it didn’t stop me feeling embarrassed – well if they will allow a Brit to drive in the US, then what can they expect? That tour was the first time I actually saw Will, one of the new rescued southern bobcats. At the moment he is living in his own enclosure beside the other three rescued bobcats – Moses, Bailey & Anna, though it is hoped that at some point he will actually be able to live with them. Meanwhile he is learning how to do what bobcats do by watching his neighbours. (See Will at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00055.htm)
Wednesday is ‘bones & rats’ night where all the cats get either a large bone, a dead rabbit or a rat (all humanely killed and bought in frozen I will add), depending on the cat’s size and availability. (See http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00064.htm). Once again I did my favourite route, The Back, so was able to watch Canyon throwing his rat around his cage before settling down to eat it in secret. We were all done by 6.30pm then it was a quick change and off to the Party House. I had the job of going down to the main sanctuary with one of the staff, Tiffany (I feel old as I remember when she was an intern – she just never left the place on finishing her internship and is now in charge of the interns). Our job was to secretly collect a golf cart so Cathy, a senior keeper and very close friend of Scott’s, could collect Scott and bring him to his surprise birthday party. We had to sneak back (yes, they did trust me with yet another golf cart) via the back route so we did not go near Scott’s house, just in case he sussed out what was going on. Feeling very proud that I had actually got the cart to the party house without any accidents this time, I waited with everyone else, hiding in the dark, for Scott to arrive. The door opened and we all shouted “Surprise” as he walked in. It was a 70s theme disco and many had dressed for the occasion. Unfortunately, not being aware of what was going to happen before I arrived on site, I only had my jeans and t-shirt, but there were a couple of people who had bought big wigs and these proved to be the hit of the evening with everyone trying them on and looking rather stupid.
Scott wearing one of the wigs
Sanctuary founder, Carole Baskin and husband Howard were there and I was so lucky to be able to spend time chatting to them both during the evening. Carole and I normally pass like ships in the night, and correspond by e-mail but rarely get time to chat on site. After a lot of dancing, Scott managing to blow out the candles on the cake and opening his presents, it was time to head back to the cabin to bed. What a week to choose to visit – first Scott’s trip to the UK, his video arriving and then being part of his birthday party celebrations. (Scott’s Party is at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00180.htm)
Carole & I
Unplanned Party in the Prep House!
Although I was tired when I got back to the cabin after all the dancing and fun, I found it difficult to sleep and ended up packing my things ready to leave the next day. I was wide awake at 4.30am and decided to get up and spend some time playing with the little feral cats. An hour later, my friend Kate Healing sent me a text asking me if I was sad to be leaving. Yes I was, I always go thinking that I have four whole days and then it seems to fly by and I am leaving before I have even got really started. I packed the car, said my farewells to the feral kittens and King the tiger before heading off for the last time. On arrival at Food Prep, I wished Scott “Happy Birthday”. However, while we were all dancing to “Staying Alive” the night before, someone else was partying down in food prep and when we arrived the following morning was not well in the place. The extension meshed area attached to the prep house was a devastation site. Overnight a raccoon had broken in and helped himself to the food stored in there. Dried rat food and monkey nuts everywhere with food drums tipped over – this creature had also had a party the night before! We cleaned it all up and discussions took place about how to mend the mesh. Scott then sent me out to Little Back to clean. This is my favourite cleaning area as it includes lots of feisty bobcats, probably one of my favourite species – to the point that I have bought in-depth books about them to learn more about the species in the wild. It also includes the lovely Canadian Lynx, Dances With Wolves, though she did give us a bit of a fright as she was in semi darkness in her den and did not move for some considerable time. My heart was in my mouth as I silently questioned whether I was about to witness my first death on site. It was too dark to see whether she was breathing or not and I felt a great sense of relief when I finally saw her ear move. On finishing the section, we double-checked The Road area and were all done before lunch.
At 2.25pm we headed over to the parking area and were amazed to see a huge line of cars waiting outside the gates. By the time we had finished directing the parking, I had never seen so many cars on site, in all my years of visiting Big Cat Rescue. It really was all hands on deck and there were not enough volunteers to have a walking back up and golf cart driver, so on my tour I backed up and drove the golf cart at the same time. The tour finished at 4.30pm and I then accompanied Kathryn as she went off to feed the ‘Front’ section. Hercules was sitting proudly on his rock and I managed to snap a photo on route. Hal (full name Hallelujah), whom I think was the first real ‘big cat’ to arrive at BCR, was very talkative – he is so funny, you say his name and his squeaky reply sounds like he is saying “Hal” back to you! He is one of the volunteers’ favourites on site. Jumanji, one of the black leopards, was moaning at us that he hadn’t been fed, even though he had just downed a chicken thigh in one go! Once again, so many similarities to our smaller feline friends at home. When I got back to food prep, Scott asked me if I had got enough photos – I had taken loads during this visit, but wasn’t sure that I had managed to get any of TJ. Kathryn took me down to his enclosure, then took the camera from me and went up to take photos through the wire for me. Of course, he was up to his usual tricks of jumping into his pool, every time she went close, but she did manage to get a couple of good ones, even though he wasn’t really being co-operative and she did end up getting wet. She also took the annual photo of Scott and I – this is all part of the BCR experience by now, it’s been happening for so long.
Scott & me on the last full day
By this stage I had already decided that I needed to come back and hence the tears had not been in full flow. I would return for the day the following Tuesday, but this time I would come as a tour guest – it’s a long time since I have had the opportunity to ‘visit’ and photograph/video the cats as part of a tour so I decided that next time I would do the tourist thing, just so I could experience it all again. So, I finally left site, car packed, but without too many tears as I knew that I would be back a few days later – and I would put my volunteer red shirt in the car – just in case they were busy and needed any extra help in any way….
You just never know what you’ll find – another co-incidence!
I had been so lucky during my four days at BCR – not once had it really rained and I had finally seen four days of sunshine, the first time that the weather had been really kind to me during my BCR trips. It had always rained, during every previous visit – just my luck as sometimes they have no rain for weeks.
Friday was a quiet day of reflection after the buzz of the previous four days, a chance to look at photos, relax by Steve & Carol’s pool and get my washing done. On Saturday there was a big change in the weather – it rained cats and dogs all day so Carol & I went off to my favourite shopping place – a large indoor market called The Red Barn. This is a great place to pick up cat accessories and clothes – and this visit was no different. As we wandered past the various stalls and little indoor shops I suddenly stopped dead as I looked into an artist’s shop. There on a shelf was a picture of a cougar that reminded me so much of Catrina. I went in for a closer look – beside it were two more pictures, a tiger head and one of two tigers together. I knew these cats – the tiger head was Shere Khan and the tigers were him with China Doll, his companion cat. I turned to the shop owner, who happened to be the artist and asked if she knew anything about the pictures. She told me that her friend had visited The Tampa Refuge and taken photos. She had drawn the pictures using these photos. I questioned more about where this refuge was. “It’s just off Busch Boulevard, down a long dirt track”. For the second time in a week, the hairs rose on the back of my neck. She was talking about BCR without even knowing it and these cats really were ‘my BCR cats’! I told her more about them and she was so pleased at finally being able to name the tigers. I couldn’t help it – I just had to buy prints of all three pictures to take home. Yet another really strange co-incidence – this visit seemed to be full of them.
Tuesday arrived, I was awake very early, excited at being able to return to BCR for the day. I arrived at the gates and queued to get in, other cars lining up behind me. This time I parked with the other guests and went to register – first time I had actually visited in ‘civvies’ for years and some of the volunteers (who thought that I had gone for another year) could not believe their eyes when I was back so soon. Yes, I knew the tour route by heart – I had backed it up several times over the last week, but now I was free to take photos and watch the cats instead of watching the people to make sure that they are not doing anything dangerous or stupid during their visit. We started off with Raindance and then went via Hal to Hercules. I had never seen Hercules so active on a tour – he was flirting, rolling around, rubbing up against the cage wire and thankfully no signs of him doing his bad behaviour trick of biting his back leg so we were able to spend quite a lot of time with him. It was as if he knew that this really was my final fling before heading home to the UK.
Hercules was out flirting with us
We then visited the three cougars and on to Cameron who just wouldn’t stop roaring. It went on so long that I managed to catch it on video. See him roar at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/video/00055.htm. After seeing several lynx, bobcats, servals and caracals, we ended up watching two leopards, Simba and his sister Nyla (housed in adjacent enclosures) who were sunning themselves. We finished up at Nikita’s enclosure. She is housed in the large enclosure, quite close to the new ‘Joseph’s Pride’. When we arrived, she was lying on her rock, staring at the new pride - there she stood, body hidden behind a ridge with only her head over the top, ears flattened to keep as low as she could, trying desperately not to be seen by the four new cats, but her eyes constantly giving these four cats the real ‘dead eye stare’. It is plain from her expression (which I had seen several times during the last week) that she is very unimpressed with her new neighbours.
Nikki gives the pride a ‘dead-eye stare’
It turns out that because Scott has had to spend so much time developing the confidence of the latest rescued lions and tigers, and she knows that he is there spending time with them rather than her, that she has developed a serious jealously problem. I can’t believe that I have actually witnessed a jealous lion first hand! It’s not an emotion that you would expect to see in the ‘king of beasts’!
Saving the best till last
The tour finished at 10.35am and Cynthia had done a fantastic job, such an interesting speaker who was very knowledgeable on the cats and Big Cat Rescue. Scott then told me to put on my red volunteer t-shirt and head off back into the sanctuary to spend more time watching the cats and taking photos on my own. Yes, I know that I am very spoilt – so few people are trusted this much, but he knows that I would never step over a barrier just to get a photo or do anything to upset the felines. Yet to be able to spend time just walking and talking to the various cats like Hercules, Dances, Rainy and Frosty the white footed serval. I promised to be back for 1.00pm to be ready for whatever Scott had in mind for my afternoon’s work. There was an education tour (17-18 year olds) coming at 1.00pm and I fully expected to back up their tour, bearing in mind my normal job, but Scott said that he had something else he wanted me to help with. However, first Scott, Dr Liz (a volunteer who is also a local vet who treats minor problems on site – and Liz had actually shown me what Sand Cat poop looked like when she was cleaning one of the Sand Cats – and for a Sand Cat lover that is so interesting – now call me sad if you like!) and I went off to visit Joseph’s Pride. One of the tigers had been bitten on the bum by another cat so they had the job of cleaning the wound. Scott was at the front of the lock-out (small feeding/water cage that the cats can walk in and out of) feeding the tiger with small cubes of red meat, while Liz was squirting hydrogen peroxide followed by iodine into the backside. Having heard so many times how this clicker training (that all the cats are trained to do) enables them to administer medication, I was now seeing it first-hand. This is so stress-free in comparison to having to trap and sedate the cat to clean the wound – even though the tiger was most definitely not speaking to Liz by the time she had finished. She actually pulled a face at Dr Liz – if that is possible for a tiger! Scott grabbed my camera and headed off over the barrier to take some close up photos of Joseph and Sasha for me so that I could share them with cat lovers in the UK.
Bum treatment for a tiger
Back to food prep and onto the next task – there is always a huge ‘to do list’ at BCR. As the weather was starting to warm up, cats would need treatment for fleas, and guess what they use? Frontline & Advantage, just like the domestic cats! However, today wasn’t de-fleaing – it was worming day, a regular and time consuming event at BCR. So how do you worm a lion or tiger? It’s a question that I have always wondered about though I am sure though most people have never given it a thought. Well, they actually use Panacur, just like at home, but no pill popping here – can you imagine having to open a lion’s jaws to throw a pill into the throat? Not a chance! The medicine was in one of two forms – either paste (for the bigger cats) or powder – in the biggest Panacur tub I have ever seen! Each dose was carefully measured out and then we had the job of mixing it with just the right amount of meat for every single cat on site. With over 130 to worm, this was a really long job and took several hours to complete but by 6.30 we were finally done and dusted.
Dr Liz measures out the Panacur dose
In between, we had had to stop for tour time and on this occasion they were so busy that at one point, before another volunteer tour guide turned up to help out at the last minute, Scott asked if I was willing to actually lead a tour! I had no problem in leading the tour, my only concern was knowing the route to take. In the event I didn’t have to do it, but maybe one day I will get the chance to take people round and tell them the history of all the cats that I have got to know so well.
My last job was to sweep the floor in the food prep and as volunteers started to leave, the sad farewells began. Its always such an emotional time for me, I just hate leaving, though now its also the people that I don’t like leaving behind rather than just the cats, as they have become firm friends over the years. This really is ‘my other world’ the one where people know me as a red shirt ‘trainee’ volunteer of seven years standing who will never progress any further as she can’t put in the hours but can remember things that happened before most of them ever knew of the existence of the place. They don’t see me as a cat judge, a school tutor or Maine Coon breeder. They never see me in my white judging coat, never read the reports I have to write or with the children I work with every day. They see me as Daphne, red shirt who visits once a year, gets to clean cats and goes home to write about her experiences.
Cleaning the meat cart
After the Catrina incident, Julie, one of the senior keepers promised to keep in touch and let me know when cats passed away. Very sadly, she has been busy e-mailing me since I got home as several more of the golden oldies have gone since March. One of them was Shaquille, the black leopard who was abused by his Las Vegas trainer when he refused to jump through hoops of fire. He was beaten so badly that his eye sockets were damaged and for the twelve years that he had a safe home at BCR, after he was rescued, his eyes continually wept. I was so glad that I had seen him during my last visit. I really didn’t think that he would be gone before I got back there but one day his arthritis was so bad that he could no longer stand so that dreadful decision was made. He was seventeen years old.
One by one the volunteers left after saying our goodbyes, until by 7.00pm there was only Scott and I left. We said farewell – though it was not really sorrowful as we had promised to meet in ‘the motherland’ the following week. However, it still stabbed the heart when those big iron gates shut behind me for the last time and I needed to stop at MacDonalds for a few tears – please let Hercules and Canyon still be happy and healthy when I return in 2009 – though at this stage its seems such an awful long time away. I did end up in floods of tears at the airport, as well as saying farewell to my friends Steve & Carol (always traumatic) I walked straight into a huge advert on the wall at the flight gate. Right in front of me was a huge photo of Shere Khan and the words “You too can stand just three feet from a tiger at Big Cat Rescue”. On came the sun glasses as the eyes filled up with tears while strangers walked past thinking that I must have lost the plot completely.
Football Matches, Demonstrations and Final Farewells
I flew home without incident, no flight problems unlike my 2007 trip and the day after I got back to Sheffield, Scott phoned me from his filming site in Gloucestershire. That weekend the weather in the UK was atrocious and he spent three long days of twelve hours or more filming in the pouring rain. For filming continuity, he had to wear the same clothes for three days and by the third day he was wearing soaking wet clothes from head to foot. During the following week he stayed in touch with me, visited various places including Woburn Safari Park where one of the previous BCR interns was now a carnivore keeper so he got to feed the lions. He also went off to the Isle of Wight Zoo where they asked for advice on tiger enclosure design, operant conditioning and enrichment of tigers. However, he came down with a really heavy head cold and for someone who is never sick, this must have been a disappointment when he wanted to do so much during his short visit to England. He was due to fly back to Tampa on Monday and we had to keep our promise to see each other in ‘The Motherland’ so on Sunday I caught the train from Doncaster to London to spend the day with him. It turned out that this wasn’t really the best day to travel as I ended up in a packed train with standing room only as thousands of Barnsley supporters were heading to the capital to see their football team play at Wembley in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Even though I boarded the train at 9.00am, a number of supporters were already ‘well-oiled’ and it was singing all the way. I managed to get there in one piece, though I was rather relieved when we finally arrived. I couldn’t see Scott anywhere – the station was heaving, so I phoned him and told him where I was. Before I finished my sentence someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned round to see a tall figure in a big coat and woolly hat. I was not used to seeing Scott in all this winter clothing. He was excited – he had woken up to snow (not something he ever sees in Florida) and had spent part of the morning in the park throwing snowballs. We wandered off and ended up near the British Museum in a café for a bite to eat and a coffee. As we sat there, a protest went past. Not only was Barnsley playing but it was also the day the Olympic torch went through London, together with all the anti-China demonstrators and they had been diverted off right past our café! As I said, the choice of day could have been better.
Scott & I in winter clothes in London
We then went off into the British Museum to see the cat mummies (well what else would you expect of two cat-mad people?) and then walked slowly through central London back towards the hotel where Scott was staying. My train home was late afternoon so eventually we had to say goodbye and head our separate ways. We managed to get a tourist to take our ‘final photo’ and then I caught the tube back to St Pancreas to head home to Sheffield.
Over for another year – or it is?
My seventh visit was over – I can’t believe that I have now been to Big Cat Rescue for seven full visits; it seems only yesterday since I drove through the big gates for the very first time. On reflection, this has to be the best visit yet – the sun shone for the whole time and that’s a first for a start. Then I got to see new and different sides of caring for big cats – worming and minor wound treatment as well as lots of interaction with tour visitors and of course the various cats. I spent a social evening at the party with fellow volunteers rather than just seeing them working on site and was really made to feel part of the Big Cat Rescue family. Finally I got to show Scott a little of my world – bacon butties, snow, rain and double-decker buses. It had been a great three weeks.
I deliberated long and hard for several days after Scott went home before finally biting the bullet and booking to go back, just for a week, in late July/early August. The weather will be hot and humid, too hot for me to do a huge amount of heavy physical manual work, coming from a much cooler country, but it means that I can see Hercules and Canyon again this year and I can’t wait. So, on 27th July I will be boarding a plane and heading back down that long dirt track for yet another Big Cat Rescue experience.
Meanwhile I have lots of memories to keep me going until the next time.
My old head teacher, Hugh Howe, had a motto – Making Dreams a Reality – and as long as there are the volunteers at BCR working to look after the abused big cats coming in as well as sending out that message to the wider world not to have them in the first place, then there is hope for the future. Keep up the work, Big Cat Rescue! You are doing an amazing job!