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DAPHNE’S BIG CAT DIARY Part 10
Concluding the account of Daphne’s 2006 trip to Big Cat Rescue, Florida

COMPOSER SIR Andrew Lloyd Webber is reported to be ‘devastated’ after his beloved Turki

Day Four – Thursday, 10th August
I will never forget this day for so many reasons and it will be remembered as one of the most memorable days if my life, for many reasons. The day started badly – I was just about to get up at 5.40am for my usual quiet sit before starting the day, when my mobile phone burst into action with a text message from Steve. It was not good news. I quote “Know it’s early. Critical security alert at UK airports. Reports that up to ten flights were to be targeted using liquid explosive. Chaos at airports all luggage searched no cabin luggage allowed. No new flights being allowed to take off. Hope it all calms down for you coming back”.

Daphne and Scott

I jumped out of bed, quietly slipped out of the cabin and phoned Steve, who proceeded to tell me that news was just breaking and the UK was in pandemonium. I had no access to news – in fact I had seen no television since I left England. To me, sitting on a quiet peaceful morning with the lions roaring down the path, Britain’s predicament seemed totally unreal. But I worried about Steve. I knew that I was safe at BCR, but knew that Steve would be very worried about me and my forthcoming flights both around America and also the last stage home. Neither of us would be really settled until I safely touched down in the UK.

I arrived at Food Prep and discussed everything with Scott. He asked me what I would like to do and I said that I would like to take some video rather than cleaning this morning. I felt that I needed to record some video of me wandering around the sanctuary (morbidly just in case I never made it home). Looking back, that might have sounded a bit drastic, but at the time, not knowing anything about what was happening in the wider world, I wanted to record how happy I was during my visit, just in case… I didn’t tell Scott this, maybe after knowing me for five years he just knew, maybe he just accepted that this is what I always do on my last day, I don’t know, but he was quite happy for me to do this instead of cleaning cats.

There was a great deal of laughter about ‘Bob’ because it was emerging that no one was allowed to take any liquid on board as hand luggage and they kept telling me that I would not be able to fly with Bob and would have to leave him at the airport. It certainly lightened the load on a day when I was genuinely worried about my future flights.

Video Stars

I set off and walked round the site taking video of the cats who were out patrolling their cages at the time. Hercules was really on form. I called him and he bounded over, drooling and rubbing against the wire each time I said his name. This was such a special moment for me and one that I feel very lucky to have captured on video, just to prove it really happened! Not everyone can say that they have had made a snow leopard drool.

That bit done, I went back to find Scott to ask him what he would like me to do next. I was in for a real shock, and it is something that I will never be able to thank him enough for. He asked Matt (a senior keeper – and also married to Jennifer) to take me on a photo shoot while he was checking the mosquito traps. So I got to do some real close up interactions with several cats. I even managed to take photos of Simba the leopard through the cage bars. Most of all I wanted to get a snow leopard photo through the bars, but Hercules dislikes Matt (this was very evident as we went to his cage because he was just so different from when I took that video just an hour earlier) but he loves Matt’s wife, Jennifer! However, the female snow leopard, Chloe, absolutely loves Matt and he looks after her. This was my chance – or so I thought. He called her and she came out of her cave, but instead of standing back to look at us, as she usually did (which would have enabled me to take her photo), she came straight over to Matt and rubbed against the bars. Here I was, less than 3 feet from a snow leopard. The photos had to be taken with the bars on show, but it didn’t matter. I had achieved one of my lifetime goals, to be close enough to actually be able to smell a snow leopard. I will never forget this moment as long as I live. The only thing better than this would be to see one in the wild. I cannot describe the emotion I felt at that point. The rest of the tour was fantastic. I leant so much about the cats that Matt cares for. Most of the cats love cinnamon (and Matt had made up paper bag enrichment using cinnamon for many of them) but Buffy the tiger hates cinnamon and loves cloves, so that’s what Buffy got! It’s no different to your cat at home, some like catnip, others don’t.

Lolly Time!

After the photo tour I went back to work in the gift shop as I hadn’t finished my tasks from the previous day and was busy at work when I got a call from Scott to go to the food prep centre. Scott thought that I might like to go with Barbara (whom I had met during my last visit) to do some enrichment with the small cats. Enrichment was in the form of ice lollies – not Fabs, Mivvies or Cornettos, this was frozen ‘cat lollies’ in the form of mousicles, chicksiclkes and fishicles.

Hercules wanting his head rubbed.

These were frozen water (with a touch of blood there for taste) with chicks, fish or mice in them. Sounds disgusting? The cats love ‘em! We gave out about two dozen to various small cats including bobcats, servals, lynx, Geoffreys cats and jungle cats. Some were obviously waiting until they had defrosted, others just loved to play and chew them from the moment they went in the cage. Each one was recorded as every cat on site gets enrichment on a carousel system.

What fun this was! It was great to watch what each cat did – every one acted in a different way when the ice-lolly was put in with them. I see this on television being carried out for a variety of animals at zoos in the UK –never did I think that I would ever be helping to do it in real life! (Scoot, if you ever read this, please can I help to make some up next time?)

No sooner had we arrived back at Food Prep than Scott called us on the radio with a request to take a bucket sized ‘bloodsicle’ to Bengali (the tiger). We arrived to find Scott, Brian and some ‘yellow shirts’ (keepers) at his pen. Brian had video camera in hand and was shooting film of Scott changing Bengali’s water bowl. By the time we arrived, the well-chewed metal bucket had been changed for a bright sparkly new one (Bengali loves chewing his pail which means that it soon leaks). Bengali was sitting sulking in the back section of his cage – because this cat loves to be at the front showing off to everyone – and the new ‘bloodsicle toy’ was out in his lock-out alongside the new pail.

Once Scott was happy with everything, he left the cage and opened everything up to Bengali. He bounced back into his lock-out (where the new pail and toy were) and sniffed about. Scott started to leave (all this was being videoed) as Bengali was licking his lovely cool bloodsicle – and immediately Bengali turned his attention to the pail. Every Maine Coon lover should watch this video – I swear that having seeing this for myself, as it happened, Maine Coons must be related to tigers!

The food trolley sets off with some interestingly flavoured ice lollies in the bucket.The food trolley sets off with some interestingly flavoured ice lollies in the bucket.

This tiger then turned his attentions to the pail. He pawed at the water, other leg pawing at the ground, just like Maine Coons do when they drink water. Most Maine Coon owners have seen this very action in their own homes but you will be shocked to see a tiger do just the same. Because he was more interested in the pail than the lolly, he was eventually locked out of this section until his feed time, in the hope that he would have forgotten about the new pail for a little while with food on the horizon.

The Ringlings vet arrived just after we had finished with the Bengali exploit. This lady visits each month to check on all the tigers and leopards owned by the Ringlings circus, which have retired here. This lady looks after all the Ringlings circus animals so can’t be on call for the retired cats at BCR 24 hours a day. She was very pleased with all the cats. I later asked Scott what would happen if one of the Ringlings retired cats suffered an emergency, since it would need immediate attention and she might not be available. He said that there was enough trust between them now that they were allowed to use the BCR vet in an emergency.

It is good to know that one of the USA’s biggest circuses is not only stopping breeding tigers for its own use, but it continues to look after retired animals by paying for them once their performing life has finished. Personally, having seen the ex-performing animals at BCR, I am so glad to see that the trend to have performing animals is diminishing all together in the USA.

Caddy Time

Meanwhile I helped to prepare for the afternoon tour and backed up this one using the golf cart (oh no, another chance to drive a golf cart on the wrong side!) and then went to help in the shop where visitors were buying lots of goodies. At the end of the tour I gave ‘goodbye hugs’ to various people before going to Food Prep for my last feeding tour. This time I went one the centre route again – I chose it as it is probably my favourite tour off the three, if I am honest. It was so hard to say those feline silent goodbyes – especially to Hercules (and I snuck off to say bye to Canyon who was on a different route). By this time my emotions were running riot and by the time I got back to Food Prep I was no use to man nor beast! I will admit – I was totally incapable of cleaning much at all other than a few meat buckets. Scott arrived back from his feed, I wanted a photo of us together for posterity, would have liked one of Sharon with us as well but her feeding route was delayed and the photo doesn’t show the tars shed. Scott told me not to worry, if I couldn’t get home, then I could stay longer (now let me tell you – that was so tempting!) and we said our goodbyes. His parting words were “I don’t know why you are crying – you’ll be back next year!”

I left for Bradenton at 7pm. I stopped on the way out to say thank you to Carole and then cried all the way up the lane, stopped at the MacDonald’s at the top of the road and cried for ten minutes before feeling strong enough to drive the 60 miles south to Steve and Carol Lawson’s house. My four days of heaven were at an end…..

Threats

This year, BCR along with other people, have tried to bring forward laws to outlaw the keeping of big cats as pets. It has led to many changes at BCR and now no visitor is allowed to do what I did in the early days, by feeding, interacting or staying on site at BCR. Individual staff or volunteers, and in some cases their families who had nothing to do with the place and lived thousands of miles away, were personally threatened and there were threats on the cats living at BCR – people threatened to kill the animals by poisoning them, perhaps by breaking in and filling water bowls with antifreeze. In the early part of 2006, Scott did not sleep a single night; he had to parole the site for possible break-ins. Even today, they still patrol through the night, just to keep the 150 plus cats safe!

I know that a few of our members have actually had the opportunity to visit BCR. If you haven’t, then visit the website and take a virtual tour. I promise that you will be impressed!

Five Years On

So, after visiting on a yearly basis for the last five years, what are my thoughts on BCR?
I am the luckiest person in the world – as far as I am aware, I am the only person in the world allowed to go there just for four days and be a real volunteer.

No visitor is now allowed to stay on site, go in with the smaller interactive cats or feed a tiger (as I did in my early visits). I loved doing these things, but it may portray the wrong message to some people. Time after time I heard other visitors saying that they wanted a pet exotic cat and this was wonderful. It always worried me that some would go that extra step and get one – I cannot really understand why any big cat lover would want to keep a wild cat in a house if they really loved the cats for what they are – e.g. servals should be fighting their way through African savannah long grass, not plush carpet. I am glad that they stopped this cat interaction though it actually helped me to form even stronger negative opinions on this subject.

When I look back at my first visit in 2001, so much has changed. BCR is now a really professional establishment, thanks to those who work there, both paid and volunteers. My words for it would be “slick”, “professional”, “knowledgeable” and “approachable”. Its now so green and leafy, so much better for the cats. The buildings for visitors and food prep have also improved so much. As for feeding and enrichment, well, I am far from an expert, but most zoos I have been to could learn so much from what is happening here.

Finally, these people continue to fight the cause. I personally think that Carole and Scott deserve a medal. Carole continues to fight the cause for wild cats being inhumanely kept in captivity. Despite being personally threatened and she works tirelessly to keep everything going and make sure that the cats are safe and well. Scott gave up a well-paid professional medical job for a life of uncertainty to give these cats a chance of a better life.

This man runs and organises the whole sanctuary and knows what every single cat and volunteer or intern is doing at any precise moment. Personally I don’t think that he actually sleeps and I call him the man with 16 eyes!

Certainly he doesn’t have holidays or time off. For him its 24 hours x 7 days x 52 weeks. How many of us, reading this could honestly say we could do that? Not many I guess.

My wish – I love this place but like other volunteers, I now wish that it was no longer needed and the resources could be put into saving wild habitat instead of mopping up people’s “throw away or can’t cope with” big cats.

My old head teacher had a motto – Making Dreams a Reality – and as long as there are the volunteers at BCR working to look after the abused big cats coming in as well as sending out that message to the wider world not to have them in the first place, then there is hope for the future.
Keep up the work, Big Cat Rescue! You are doing an amazing job!

* Next Time: Daphne brings the story fully up to date with the account of her trip to Big Cat Rescue in April 2007