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Up Close And Personal - By Daphne Butters

Continuing the account of Daphne’s association with the Florida-based Big Cat Sanctuary Wildlife On Easy Street. In Part 1, Daphne recounted some of the events of her first visit to the sanctuary in December 2001. Here we pick up on the new volunteers’ ‘Expedition’ day, where everybody wishing to help out as a volunteer at WOES undergoes some real ‘up close and personal’ association with the big cats, starting with a tour of the facility…

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.

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!

All hands on deck
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.

Daphne meets a Caracal at close quarters

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.

Helper David with Conan the Tiger

Daphne feeding WOE’s biggest Tiger, Shere Khan.

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.

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.

Moses the Bobcat enjoys playing with one of the guests.

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.

Daphne Butters with Carole Lewis, founder of Wildlife on Easy Street.

Mixed feelings
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, 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.

Dreams and reality
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. 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.

Raindance the Bobcat in a tree

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 were not surprised to learn that I began saving up to do it all again some day. …

For more information about Wildlidfe on Easy Street – now re-named Big Cat Rescue, 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.

* NEXT: Daphne makes a return visit to Big Cat Rescue and forges close links between the UK’s Maine Coon Club and their bigger cousins Stateside.