Published: Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 12:01 a.m. Last Modified: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 10:58 p.m.
The minute you see them, you know they're just too lazy for words.
They sit there in the hot Florida sun, barely acknowledging you, content to aspire to nothing more than relaxing and waiting for dinnertime.
But then there are others that are natural performers. As soon as they glance your way, well - that's it, they have to start behaving in an almost theatrical way, doing something designed to catch your eye. And they know you're there to watch them, to observe their every move, so they don't let you down. They're a marvel to watch.
It was one of the best birthday gifts I've received in a long time, and it happened this past July: a trip to Tampa, where I was introduced to Big Cat Rescue, a nonprofit, educational sanctuary that operates a bit like a safari - similar to what Walt Disney World tried to create with its Animal Kingdom theme park, only this one isn't as big, and is more specialized, providing what its brochures happily call "the world's largest and most diverse collection of exotic cats." Who would have known it would be right down the road from all of us?
We got to the 45-acre sanctuary early, a good half-hour or so before the next guided tour across these Serengetilike plains would begin. We sat in the car, first in line, until the staff opened the gates and showed us where to park. It was only then that I'd noticed there was a long line of cars behind us, ready for this Saturday morning tour.
Right beyond the front gates, it really doesn't look like much; a spacious parking area, with little more than a small gift shop where you can buy water or souvenirs like T-shirts, stuffed toys, mugs, etc.
But behind that gift shop is another fenced in area - this one harboring 200 animals, including more than 100 big cats representing 20 species and subspecies of wild critters.
The tour guide will urge you to bring some water for the 90-minute walk - and frankly, I wouldn't have minded if my birthday had fallen on a day in, say, November, when the temperatures are milder in Central Florida. But no matter. It's a slow-paced walk, as your group moves from one cage to the next, where inside the big cats are either too lazy in the hot sun to even notice yet another crowd peering in … or, as I've already mentioned, are all too eager to entertain.
This was an ideal gift for me. I'm a cat man. There are cats in my house right now, like Squeaky, whose day isn't a happy one until I've put aside all matters of work and play and devoted at least several minutes to stroking her head.
There are cats on my lanai, looking at least as lazy as the least motivated big cat at Big Cat Rescue. And there are strays outside on my front steps, waiting for more attention or catnip from this homeowner.
They all have different ways of interacting with people. One stray cat in my yard that I've nicknamed Dopey (for the dumb look on his face) hisses at me constantly - then rubs my leg affectionately as I put out food for him. Cats are not all about love and affection like Squeaky. They're far more complex than that - which is why I found it fascinating to see what complete hams some of these large cats were.
This rescue sanctuary includes tigers, snow leopards, ocelots, Geoffrey's cats, jungle cats, bobcats, cougars, lynx, caracals, lions - the list goes on. When they see you, the more expressive ones will go right up against the cage and watch you, claw at the cage, show you they're aware of your presence. They climb on trees, jump wherever they can - it's like a circus performer doing some well-rehearsed tricks. As the tour guide motions you to keep moving and the crowd wanders away, the big cats settle down and go back to their shaded spot. They await the next tour, and the next performance.
The hardest thing about the tour is hearing the often depressing stories of how the animals got there.
Zabu is a white tigress who was brought to a roadside zoo, and when she arrived she had been starved so long her ribs were showing.
Nikita is a lioness who spent her first year living on a concrete slab, chained to a wall by a drug-dealing owner, with sores on her elbows the size of tennis balls.
Faith, a baby Florida bobcat, was orphaned when its mother was killed by a man and left orphaned.
CleoCatTra, a cougar, had arrived in a nylon harness that she had so completely outgrown that it had become imbedded in her skin and had to be slowly and painfully cut with a razor blade over three days.
What surprised me most is that so many of the rescued big cats started out as pets by families who thought it would be "fun" to raise a little cub, knowing it would eventually grow up to be a big cat, and assuming it could be domesticated like my Squeaky. Far too many of these families, the tour guide cautioned us, learn the hard way that you can take the lion out of the jungle, but you can't necessarily take jungle instincts out of the maturing lion.
Big Cat Rescue is a wonderful place to visit, at 12802 Easy St. in Tampa.
It's also a nonprofit 501(c)3 charity and a wonderful place to make a tax-deductible donations.