Our Cats Shop

Continuing the account of Daphne’s 2005 trip to the Big Cat Rescue, Florida...


Day Three – Independence Day!
Up by 6am again and at Food Prep by 8am. Today we were short-staffed so Scott the Operations Manager asked if I would be happy to start work at the Little Back area on my own.

I felt honoured to be given this chance as it meant that he really trusted me not to do anything stupid. One wrong move and the entire sanctuary could be closed down - and believe me, with the number of property developers in the area just waiting to get their hands on that place, this is a real issue!

Daphne with Scott, the Operations Manager.

Again I started with my three bobcats, and once more the male decided that it would be fun to attack my pole. However, this time I was prepared for all his attention and although he was really desperate to get it, the pole escaped unscathed!

Having finished Little Back, I helped to double check again before meeting Steve. He had been busy building up a relationship of sorts with the other Snow Leopard, Chloe, a large female who rarely comes out. She had decided that he looked like fun and had spent several minutes playing with him by hiding behind a large log and then bounding out towards him.

He said that the first time she did it, it felt quite daunting, having a fully-grown snow leopard charging towards you. You just don’t seem to think that there are bars between you so it can be quite scary. However, he soon got over the initial shock and joined in with her game.

On Tour
After more Binturong feeding (need I say more – they are odd animals!) it was time for the afternoon tours. This time we didn’t participate as we had to think about making tracks back to Sarasota. We took a walk around the site, meeting Vernon who builds all the cages, and he explained how he designs and builds the pens, known here as cat-a-tats.

I remember during my first visit, being told that the cage sections are circular in case a hurricane ever struck and then in theory they should just collapse in, springing back when whatever had hit them was removed. Had it worked? (After all, it had been over 40 years since the last hurricane hit Tampa). Yes, generally, it had worked fine. One cage was damaged and Vernon was making a new one to replace it although the Caracals inside had suffered no injury and hadn’t been able to escape when the tree fell.

Vernon explained that a number of years previously his friend Carol had asked him to build a cat-a-tat for a leopard and he had been there ever since, building cages and doing maintenance! I asked him what experience and qualifications he had - he calmly replied that he wasn’t sure as he’d been a pilot during his working life! I’m sure that he understates everything - whatever his background, this man is just amazing when it comes to building structures, he can even incorporate the live trees already growing in the area for the animals to climb. Vernon, you are certainly one in a million!

The mighty Hercules.

So what did happen during the hurricanes? Well a few trees came down in the storms. A tree did fall right on one of the Caracal’s cages and over into the Black Leopard, Lola’s pen. No cats escaped, none were harmed, but the Caracals had to be moved while a new pen was being built. To my knowledge, this was the only “total rebuild” and even this one did not enable escape, or cause injury to its occupants.

The cat-a-tat they were moved to was the one previously occupied by the large male Cougar who had been struck down by lightning and killed during a thunderstorm just prior to my visit in July 2004. The large electrically-powered security gates at the front of the property were affected by water, but they were now working again - although new gates, at an estimated cost of $12,000 were, at that time, still on BCR’s wish list. In actual fact BCR were very lucky.

All the work done in cage design meant that where trees had fallen over cages, the wire collapsed inwards, the animal did not get out and when the tree was removed the cage sprang back into its original position with minimal damage. Once again, Vernon was to be congratulated.

Age Issues
And what of the cats mentioned previously? Well, the love of my life, Hercules the Snow Leopard, looked much better, having put on quite a lot of weight - obviously neutering him had been the right decision.

Sadly I did see a difference in Catrina, my chosen Cougar. She looked much older and slower than when I had last seen her in July. Scott said that several of the older cats had gone down over the winter, and she was one of them. However, for sixteen years old she still managed to get around and eat well. Some of the older cats had passed away, including Thunder, one of the Jungle Cats I had looked after last time.

Two of the five Sand Cats had also died and the saddest was the loss of Maya the Lioness. Maya was rescued from a lion park in Florida after being fought over by lionesses when she was a small cub.

This fight had caused her to have brain damage and the lion park didn’t want a lion on exhibition that was less than perfect. During her time at BCR she had several operations and was on medication for seizures. In July she had been really ill and in the special hospital. Sadly she died within a couple of months of my leaving, but at least she had several years of happiness before her death.

Fellow Brits, Malcolm & Marion McMillan with Daphne.

On a happier note, the new cat-a-tat that was under construction during my last visit was now complete and Cameron the African Lion and his soul mate, Zabu the White Tiger, were back together. These two had been rescued from a roadside zoo.

The original owner’s intention had been to breed them together to produce white ligers. Cameron had had a vasectomy (a full castration would have made him lose his testosterone level and consequently his mane). The difference in these two cats was amazing. Both had put on a huge amount of weight and now looked in peak condition. Yet another success story for Big Cat Rescue!

And what about Faith, the Southern Bobcat kitten found in a shopping centre car park? Well it was now over a year since she came to BCR as a tiny kitten and staff had worked very hard to prepare her for future release back into the wild.

A suitable area for release had been identified and she was now catching her own live prey in her special enclosure, hidden away from humans so no human contact can be made, ensuring that she remains wary of people. Scott told me that her release was imminent, and hopefully by the time you read this, she will already have been set free to return to the life she was designed for.

We left BCR around 3.30pm so we could be out of Tampa and well on our way back to Sarasota before the rush hour. By the time I came to leave, once again the insect bites (I suspect that they were fire ants) were swelling up and forming large blisters all over my arms and legs. By the time I got back to Steve and Carol Lawson’s house, I had no visible signs of my ankles and everyone seemed rather worried that it was something sinister and serious.

However, it didn’t hurt, I didn’t feel it, but did spend the next few hours shuffling around the house as I couldn’t move my ankles. A large dose of antibiotics, some antihistamines, hydrocortisone cream and lots of bandages (I felt that I had bought enough medication to have shares in the pharmacy) and by the next morning it was starting to feel better. Just as well as I was up at 5.00am for the flights to Fargo!

Day Four - Our Last Day At BCR
After my trip to the cat show, we had a quiet day on Monday - drinking rum runners at Cha-Cha’s, the cafe below Steve and Carol’s office. Then it was an early night in readiness for our return to BCR. Steve and Carol, and my Steve all had reservations about me working over the barriers again as it was when working in the undergrowth that I was bitten by bugs, but I was determined to do this, so compromised by wearing my jeans and taping the bottoms so the ants couldn’t get to the bare flesh on the legs.

I had promised Scott a full day’s work so we left Sarasota at 6.00am, arriving ready for work just before 8.00am. This time I cleaned “The Road” so got close to the Fishing Cats as well as the smaller Jungle and Geoffrey’s Cats.

Then we double-checked the Servals. I felt lucky to have been given the opportunity to work in all the main areas this time as it meant that I got to see most of the cats. Binterong feeding took place and then we went out to water the newly-planted trees around the site. By this stage it was getting really hot and none of us minded when we were accidentally sprayed during the watering.

Frosty the Serval.

And finally, something that may amuse you. In that winter’s issue of the Maine Coon Cat Club newsletter, I included an article by Malcolm and Marion McMillan. These members had visited BCR eighteen months previously, based on reading my articles, and shared their thoughts about the place with everyone.

Well, we had never met the McMillans but it just so happened that they were in Florida at the same time as us and we arranged to meet at the sanctuary on the Tuesday. Funny how you live just 200 miles apart but have to travel 3,000 miles just to meet! When they arrived for the 3.00pm tour, they immediately recognised me and came over.

I was lucky enough to be given the chance to back up their tour and we were able to share experiences as we walked around the site. One the same tour I had a couple from Essex, originally from Leeds, so together with Steve and I, six of the nine people on the tour were from England.

White Tiger Zabu.

Was that a record I wonder? I bet the Americans thought that it was some sort of takeover bid! This time Malcolm and Marion finally saw the largest cat on site - the mighty Shere Khan, a 700lbs Siberian x Bengal tiger. The ground truly vibrates as he pounds towards the front of his three-acre enclosure.

Hasta La Vista…
That evening, a large section of the cats were to be wormed with their food, a logistical nightmare and an operation that takes much organisation. With this in mind, I decided that we would be more of a hindrance than a help, so decided to leave the sanctuary before feeding started.

Q: How do you worm a big cat! A: Very carefully! Specifically, you put the worming pills inside dead chicks and feed them to the cats!

With very heavy heart, I hugged Scott goodbye and said my farewells, while Steve commented to everyone, “She’ll be back!”

I took a last walk around the site, stopping to talk to all my favourites - Canyon the Sand Cat, Catrina the Cougar, Two Toes and Rainedance the Bobcats and Hercules, my very special boy. I spent a little longer with Catrina, wondering if this would be the last time I would see her.

A lump rose in my throat as I got back into the car to leave, and driving out of the gates for the last time I produced a few tears although I did manage to hold them back until I reached the top of the dirt track and pulled into the Macdonalds car park.

I’m sure that anyone with an interest in cats of all sizes would really enjoy a tour around this place. For me, it’s more than just a place to visit, and I leave a huge part of my heart there every time I leave.

There’s a line from a Lionel Richie song that goes: “You’re the closest thing to heaven in my world”, and for me this sums up how I feel about BCR. It is a sanctuary in the truest form, for both animals and humans, far from the hustle of traffic jams, production deadlines and noisy bustle, yet there it sits, right beside one of the busiest northern routes through Tampa.

How I wish that I could become a real volunteer and work closely with the cats on a more regular basis. Maybe one day I will win the lottery and get to live in sunny Florida, but until then I dream of my large feline friends at BCR and save hard for my next visit.

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