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Big Cats, Bearcats, Bobcats - and Bugs! - Return to Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida, USA

When I booked our flights back in early August 2004, this whole trip seemed so far away. Yet as the time drew closer – we were to fly out in March 2005 - 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 Big Cat Rescue.

Recovery Time!
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 back in 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 ten minutes north of Tampa Airport, but 60 miles away from our base at the Lawson’s home.

Steve & Carol’s PT Cruiser, a sporty little number that I loved driving - once I got used to automatic and the other side of the road.

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 9am.

‘Dances With Wolves’ - or in this case, a Bobcat...

Within ten 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 three 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!).

Another day, another vehicle - this time I was driving visitors around in a golf cart!

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. 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 8am for the interns and volunteers; before 8am, 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 their poop 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 lynxes’ pens. My favourite is an old girl called Dances With Wolves. She has the most amazing legs and feet; really long, large and chunky.

A Bitterong - strange animals!

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.

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.

Bananas and the Beach
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 it’s 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 it was 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 and I were asleep in bed by 8.30pm…

NEXT: ‘Independence Day’ for Daphne, when she is allowed to ‘go it alone’ at Big Cat Rescue…. And she nips up to North Dakota to do some judging!

* If anyone would like further information on BCR, they have a fabulous website at www.bigcatrescue.org