DAPHNE’S BIG CAT DIARY Part 5
The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow Continuing Daphne’s account of her third working visit to Big Cat Rescue in Florida...
One of the stunning White Servals (not hissing or peeing).
I WAS again up before dawn, and sat outside my cabin door watching the sunrise over the sanctuary lake. The day turned out to be hot and sunny, thank goodness, as I would have been so disappointed if all four days had been bad weather. For the first two days I had been unable to use my camera or camcorder because of the water, so I have no photos of the flooded site. It was quite amazing how quickly the water level dropped and by lunchtime on Wednesday there was little evidence of the flooding we had seen. Everywhere was dry and the cats were no longer wallowing in water. I understand that although the flooding situation I had just encountered was not unheard of, it is actually quite rare. Trust me to arrive at a time of crisis!
I walked up to the food prep centre via the main section of the sanctuary and stopped at Hercules’ pen. He is the most wonderful Snow Leopard and I jokingly call him the love of my life. However, he isn’t often out, especially during summer months, preferring the cool atmosphere of his cleverly concealed walk-in freezer that sits inside his pen. To humans, it just looks like a rock face, but inside is a freezer that he can cool off in. I shouted his name and to my amazement he came out. Apparently he doesn’t do this for most people and I felt very honoured. Maybe it’s just me hoping, but he seemed to come out whenever I called his name, something I did that he liked during numerous times during the visit. Others tell me that he doesn’t do this for most people. His eyes seemed to follow me wherever I went and he bounded over to play with me. According to Scott, he was, at that time, undergoing tests for a potential spleen problem and had been neutered fairly recently as his DNA profile showed that he is not 100 per cent pure Snow Leopard, though what his background was, no one knew. He looks like a Snow Leopard, but somewhere in his background there might be something else. Consequently, he is of no use in any breeding programme to help to save this rare species, sad to say.
Tour Guide Daphne
I made it to the food prep centre by 7.40am. Work started by 8am. I had just started on the morning cleaning routine when Scott called on the walkie-talkie to ask me to come over to the visitor centre to meet him. On arrival I was asked whether I would mind leaving the cleaning and put on my school hat. There were two boys on the 9am tour who were proving to be a bit of a handful and I was needed to back-up the tour. This job involves going round with the tour guide and guests, monitoring for unreasonable or unsafe behaviour as well as answering questions. Having actually done the tour as a visitor on several occasions, it was great to be asked to work on the other side now. The boys weren’t actually too bad, more excitable at the opportunity to see big cats rather than being disruptive, and I thoroughly enjoyed answering questions on the various cats and the work of the sanctuary. We were standing at one of the tiger pens when someone noticed a Box Turtle about to try to enter the cage. I had the job of grabbing it and finding a safe place to put it, well away from big cats who might just fancy this turtle as a potential meal!
Yes, We Have No Bananas…
For the second day running, I helped one of the volunteers to prepare the food for the non-carnivores. They included the Patagonian cavies, genets, civets and binturongs. The task involved cutting up lots and lots of fruit, especially bananas, fifty or more each time, and to be honest, the whole thing put me off eating another banana. So don’t even think of offering me one when you next see me!
Mid afternoon I arrived back at the food prep centre. The floor was filthy with all the people tramping in and out with muddy shoes during the floods, so I set to and cleaned it. This was very hot work as the centre is large and I only had a household sponge mop. The task took two and a half hours to complete, in temperatures of 30 degrees plus. However, it looked much better once finished – at least until the next downpour took place. I left a donation when I left the sanctuary a couple of days later, with instructions for Scott to buy a proper mop with some of the money. Hopefully it would be waiting for me when I next visited!
Day Four: More Sunshine
My last full day! How I wished that I had another four weeks to stay. The morning was spent doing the standard cleaning routine - except this morning was anything but routine. To start with, I met my first big bullfrog, a huge yellow and brown chap with a very daunting expression. He was massive, and not the prettiest thing I had ever set eyes on. Then Kate noticed a really bad smell coming from Pisces’ pen. It turned out to be a dead rat, one that the Fishing Cat had obviously caught and killed since the clean out the previous day. The stench of rotting flesh was stomach-turning but she managed to remove it and dispose the dead creature. It doesn’t take long in this heat to decompose. For some reason, volunteers were thin on the ground so we all worked together once our individual routes had been completed to do the one outstanding area - the Servals. There are a lot of Servals at BCR, and the number waiting for a place is constantly over 100. Because it is becoming more difficult to obtain and keep the really large cats such as lions and tigers (as the regulations regarding the keeping of big cats are starting to tighten up in the USA) people are now opting for smaller cats such as servals and caracals.
However, there are two things that servals are really good at - hissing and peeing. They spray everywhere, and those cute serval kittens soon grow up to become “hose pipe” cats. Consequently, most people cannot or do not wish to deal with this so get rid of them. Some, such as Frosty the white-footed serval, are quite amiable. Others spit and hiss if you go anywhere near them. Personally I wouldn’t want one of them in my home!
Scott gave me the afternoon off to take photos and talk to volunteers. This was a very bittersweet time for me, as I knew that my time was coming to an end. I was very fortunate to be able to do the “front” feeding section that evening, helping with the big cats including cougars, lions, tigers as well as some of the sandcats, bobcats and lynx. Of the standard feeding routes I did, I think that this was my favourite. Obviously going with Scott to feed his “special charges” was the exception, but that route wasn’t on the main list anyway! Interestingly, the big cats seemed better at taking their food - it was the smaller cats such as lynx and bobcats that snatched the food as it was being put through the bars onto the feeding slab. Feeding complete and all the equipment put away I headed back to the cabin for the last night. I took a slow walk back, visiting several of my favourites on the way. That night I packed my bag, ready for departure the next morning. Again I watched the sun set, accompanied by three swans and two deer that had swum across the lake to graze outside my cabin door. The bullfrogs started singing again, but by now I was getting used to them and their tremendous noise.
Day Five: The Farewell
I was not looking forward to this day, despite the lovely prospect of going on to stay with my close friends, Steve and Carol Lawson. However, I did get the chance to catch up with one of the volunteers who had become a friend over the last three years, Carolyn – at that time heavily pregnant with her second child.
I got my stuff together and went off into the sanctuary for one last time to see all the cats. Just by chance, Hercules’ keeper, Bill was near his pen. As Bill walked up, Hercules ran over to him for attention and I managed to get some good photos.
Bill told me that he used to walk Hercules on a lead around the site but eventually the snow leopard got too strong to handle safely and no longer gets the opportunity to leave his pen. Hercules does have some behavioural problems, the worst being that he will sit and bite his back foot for attention. I told Bill that I had not seen this behaviour since my first visit, and just then, as if prompted, Hercules did just that! He sat with his foot in his mouth, rather like a dog would hold a bone. I took a quick photo and then made a sharp exit, as the only way he will stop once he starts this is to leave the area.
Bill and I spent several minutes talking about the sanctuary. He said that aside from the financial side, the biggest worry was that someone would try to get onto the premises to release the animals. If this happened, then it would be almost inevitable that BCR would have to close. I’m sure that many of you will have seen the news headlines where tigers have been shot after escaping from their owners’ homes.
I bumped into Scott as I wandered round. I became very emotional as I tried to thank him for giving me such a wonderful opportunity to work at such close quarters with the cats. However, as the tears began to roll down my face, he also became emotional and we ended up putting on our sunglasses as we were just making each other worse. He told me to go to the volunteer sign in hut and get the “interactive” keys so I could spend my last half hour with Raindance the Bobcat. He wanted my last memory of BCR to be a good one.
So, I spent my last few minutes petting a bobcat, playing ball with her and taking photos. It was wonderful - just me and a bobcat together. How many people ever get that opportunity in a lifetime? Then I heard the big bell ring. This is positioned on the other side of the main gate and can be heard in most of the sanctuary. I knew that this must be Steve, arriving to collect me. I left Rainy, a huge lump in my throat.
Steve was waiting for me in the parking area, talking to Carolyn. I put my things into the car, pressed the switch to open the mechanical gate and we drove through with the gate closing behind us. I wept silent tears all the way to Sarasota.
I threw my trainer shoes in the bin when I got to Sarasota. Like the two pairs of socks already discarded, they were beyond redemption and it gave me a good excuse to buy some new ones. I also visited “The Red Barn”, a huge market with lots of ‘cool’ cat clothes for sale, so I came home with one or two new outfits to wear.
Each time I visit BCR my love of the place deepens. It really stirs a huge range of emotions, both happy and sad. There is a huge amount of work that takes place just to keep it running, and thankfully a lot of volunteers who help out, some come to clean before starting their day’s work, others rush straight here after work to feed. Many spend much of their free time working at the sanctuary. The work is very hard, manual and physical, even the poop and cleaning buckets get heavy as they are filled with waste. Much of the work might be considered mundane - for me the worst task was cutting up bananas, it seemed to take forever to get enough prepared. However, the benefits far outweigh the down sides. To be in close contact with such beautiful cats, to watch their recovery from abuse or injury is so rewarding.
I have watched all my videos, going back to my first visit, and even I can see how some of these cats have dramatically improved. Shaquelle comes instantly to mind. When I first went, he would cower if anyone went near his pen. Now he sits on his rock like lord of the manor. This cat had suffered dreadful physical abuse - he had been a performing black leopard in a Las Vegas nightclub, and when he didn’t to the trick correctly his trainer beat him with a baseball bat. Consequently he suffered broken eye sockets and other injuries to the skull. To this day his eyes still weep constantly and he has a lot of bone scarring to the head. However, the sanctuary and those who work with him have given him the chance to have some peace and happiness. He will now respond positively to humans, rather than cower and hide away. However, he still has a fear of men, although he is quite relaxed around females.
Would I Do It Again?
In an instant! Despite the foul weather for the first couple of days, the huge number of insect bites I suffered, the nasty rash that appeared around my leg and having to throw some clothes away, I would go back tomorrow and do it all again - rain, fire ants and all! In fact, I’m already consulting my diary to see when I have the next window of opportunity... Now, how much would it cost to go for Easter, I wonder?
Almost A First Hand Experience –
I had been home from Florida for just two weeks when I first heard about Hurricane Charley, and the fact that it was heading towards the west coast of Florida and expected to make landfall in the Tampa Bay area. I had a very short message from Carol Lawson in Sarasota, telling me that they had been told to leave the island where she and Steve have their travel agency and get ready for the worst. As you can imagine, the next thirty-six hours went very slowly for me, worried about my close friends, Steve and Carol and also very concerned about Big Cat Rescue. The sanctuary is based in Tampa. What would happen if the hurricane hit them? Would the cats survive? Was this the end of my feline paradise?
I spent Friday 13th August 2004 (that date will never be forgotten) glued to an American news channel, just watching the hurricane’s path as it headed for the Florida coast. At 7pm I made a very quick phone call to Steve & Carol, who were by then holed up in “my bedroom” with food, water and emergency supplies. Carol had cooked a hot meal early in the day, thinking that it could be several days before the electricity was back on and they would have no hot food. I then contacted Big Cat Rescue by e-mail, just to let them know that I was thinking of them. I then sat and waited. The following day I judged at the Chester & North Wales Cat Club Show, but I must admit that my mind was never far from Big Cat Rescue and I went to listen to news bulletins at every opportunity during the day. It was a very long 24 hours. No one was more relieved when Charley suddenly made a right turn and headed into a less densely populated area of Florida.
On Sunday I received the following message. Carole Lewis, founder of Big Cat Rescue, wrote this as she had sat waiting for Charley to arrive. I feel that this is just such a powerful piece of writing that I would like to share it with everyone. Even my head teacher has read it and been moved - and he’s not even an animal lover!
Carole Lewis wrote:
“What happens when 145mph winds and a 12 foot storm surge pass through the world’s largest and most diverse big cat refuge? The newscasters say we will know in six hours. It will be dark by then.
Today, Friday the 13th, Hurricane Charley is headed straight for Tampa. A mandatory evacuation has already sent homeowners in four counties scrambling for higher ground. The gas stations were sold out before noon. The home supply stores were sold out of emergency necessities. The grocery stores were sold out and boarded up. The power company is shutting down power to low lying areas because of the impending tidal surge. The emergency response networks are on the airwaves saying that if you have not left the evacuation areas already, it is too late. They will take your call, but they won’t send anyone to help.
The city looks like a ghost town as windows have been boarded up and everything that might get caught in the storm has been brought inside. The only sounds are the wails of the sirens. At noon the skies are dark, but as still as death.
The eeriness is spread over this normally bustling town like a hot, humid blanket. The winds began to pick up and the first bands of rain have come pouring down. Storm waters began rising up from the manholes in the streets, flooding the roads. The crickets that had been raucous in their warnings are now silenced.
The cats know. They knew the day before. Appetites increased as they sensed the change in barometric pressure. This storm was going to be a bad one and nature had hardwired them to prepare in their own native way. Fill your bellies now and find a dry place to hole up until this blows through.
The cats of Big Cat Rescue had been watching their keepers prepare for this night. The perimeter fences had been shored up and secured in weak areas. Everything in the park had been put up or tied down. The cat’s dens had all been elevated so that even with the horrific rains that were expected and all of the flooding from poorly planned development around us, the cats would have a high and dry spot to ride out the storm. Almost all of the cats had concrete dens now. Even if trees came crashing down around them from the tornadoes that would spin out of the womb of this massive and powerful hurricane the cats had safe places to escape the storm’s fury.
Years of planning and preparedness would pay off. All of the dead trees had been cut down and ditches had been recently dug to be deeper and more efficient. The storm drains had been cleared and soft spots in the sanctuary roads had been filled and reinforced. The tranquilization drugs were in good supply and the staff had been practicing their marksmanship in the event of an escape. The perimeter walls were patrolled regularly every day, so the status of their effectiveness was already well known. The volunteers had been trained and drilled for this day. The cats had been trained with operant conditioning to respond in an emergency situation. The cages had been designed in sections that could be shut down if there were a breach in one portion. The lockouts, where the cats are fed, could be detached and the cats loaded into trucks if that became necessary.
Dual systems abound in case of first line failure. The keepers carry both walkie-talkies and cell phones. There are two freezers, two coolers, generator back ups and the gate operates on power, or manually. There is a pump to keep the lake from overflowing and drainage canals if the machinery should falter. There are safe, high and dry areas for the cats and a way to move them if those fail. There is barbed wire and hot wire, which is supported by solar powered battery back up boxes that are marketed to last five days in the dark. Everything that we could think of had been implemented and practiced for this sort of a crisis. We thought we were prepared. But were we?
Are you ever prepared for what it feels like to tell those you love that we are going to walk around in 145 mph winds, dodging projectiles, to be sure the cats are safely in their dens? How do you tell your family and your friends that to recapture a leopard or tiger means we are all put in harm’s way so that the cat does not escape and become a menace to the neighbours? When you have raised so many of these cats from cubs, or have seen them through miraculous recoveries from the abuse that brought them here, how do you instruct your staff and convince yourself that if the cat is going over the perimeter fence it must be killed?
Nothing prepares you for a day like today.
Note: That was written at 2.00 pm yesterday. Thanks to the collective prayers and visualizations of thousands of our supporters Hurricane Charley diverted and crashed onto shore in a far less populated coastal area. The damage done all across our state was enormous, but nothing like it would have been if this storm had kept to its original path into Tampa Bay. Thank you everyone!”
Many things went through my head during those days. How would I have coped if I had been there when it all happened? Would I have been able to stay to help or would I have been asked to leave? Could I have shot Hercules, my beloved Snow Leopard if he had escaped from the sanctuary? What would they do with the cats if the place was flattened? I had heard Scott telling visitors of how the cat-a-tats (cages) are designed to fold inwards if a hurricane ever hit, but would it work? Since there hasn’t been a hurricane in that area for over eighty years, it had never been put to the test. Once it was all over I felt emotionally drained. It was so hard, feeling totally helpless, some three thousand miles away with no contact to let me know that everything was OK. I cannot describe the relief I felt when I received that message from Carole Lewis.
Things like this make you realise how vulnerable we all are! All that time out in the pouring rain digging drains and ditches ended up being more relevant that I had ever thought it could be!
For more information about Big Cat Rescue, visit their website at www.bigcatrescue.org
Hercules the (almost) Snow Leopard, and his keeper Bill.'
Hercules sucking his foot.
A Tiger being fed.
Daphne (centre) with Scott and Carolyn.
Zabu, one of the BCR’s White Tigers.
Raindance the Bobcat.