DAPHNE’S BIG CAT DIARY Part 1
Dreams A Reality - By Daphne Butters
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 was amazed as I read page after page about different rescued wild cats living at the sanctuary.
At the time, my husband Steve 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.
WOE Is Me
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 2001, 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 airport 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…
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.
Fancy, one of the domestic cats.
Daphne on ‘Easy Street’
Now landscaped, it is difficult to imagine that this used to be a refuse site.
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.
Nikita the lion cub.
No Licence Required
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 – there are no major restrictions or licence required, although some states do require an ownership permit.
Cute as they may seem when they are small kittens or cubs, many exotic cats 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 are 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.
Male Sand Cat at Twycross Zoo,
Shere Khan (left) and his parner,
China Doll (right).
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.
Meet The Family
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 she was, 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.
We also met Shaquiel, a rather shy Black Leopard who had been badly mistreated by his pervious 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 9am, 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.
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.
* NEXT: Daphne gets ‘up close and personal’ with the Big Cats and makes a life-changing decision.
Pisces the Fishing Cat.