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Hold the dream - By Daphne Butters

It had been almost two years since I’d first visited Wildlife on Easy Street in Florida and my feet were itching again.

My friends, Steve and Carol Lawson, encouraged me to visit by finding a flight from London to Tampa, when I could get nothing booked 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.

Pyjama Party
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.

Esmerelda decides to go for a swim after all.

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.

Meeting Flipper
Steve and Carol 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.

Scott and Flea.

A couple of days later I was introduced to Professor Randall Wells, one of the top dolphin behaviourists 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.

Back on Easy Street
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.

Hercules - as muscular and noble as ever.

There had been a number of changes since my last visit. Firstly they were 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 they had ended up with Patagonian Cavies, lemurs, ducks with broken limbs, binterongs, 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 of the 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.

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 had not eased on the rescue side. There were still about 170 rescued cats living at the Rescue, with 300 more on a waiting list and a further 100 servals! I think that servals had become “the latest craze” since some areas were now cracking down on keeping big cats such as tigers as pets.

Two Jags!
Less than a couple of weeks before my arrival, Big Cat Rescue had taken in two Jaguars - the first Jaguars to come to the Rescue. 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.

Frosty, with his four white feet.

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.

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 had 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 since I last saw her. 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 was now a lovely large, happy and healthy cat. Sadly, she still bit her leg and tail for attention and I guess that this psychological problem will remain with her forever.

More Old Friends
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 had 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....

Feather the little Bobcat.

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 Jumaji 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.

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.

After the cats’ feeding time, it was our feeding time, so I went out for dinner with a couple 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.

Watching and Wandering
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!

Esmerelda, one of the many Servals at the sanctuary.

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 spent hat BCR, the more involved and committed I became. After my last visit, I arranged through the Maine Coon Cat Club a “Name the Bobcat competition” at the club show. The fund generated by this, together with my own work, publicity and sponsorship raised over $1,000 for the sanctuary over the two and a half years between my visits but that would only keep the place going for 24 hours! Wildlife on Easy Street desperately needs more help and still does three years on.

Catrina the Cougar.

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. They told me they were 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 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 for 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.

Aurora, one of the tigers wondering how to get her pumpkin without getting her feet wet.

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.

Get Involved
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 one-and-a-half 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. If anyone would like more information, I would be happy to help and can be contacted at butters@keverstone.co.uk

Next Time: Daphne recounts her third visit to Big Cat Rescue and how she became ever more committed to the Rescue’s work