IT HAD been sixteen months since my last visit to Big Cat Rescue in far away Florida and as I packed my cases in Sheffield, I wondered how much had changed.
Would all my feline favourites still be there, or would some have passed away in the intervening time? How much damage really had been done with the Florida Hurricanes of 2006? Were they any closer to getting new gates for the entrance?
One of the ‘baby’ Cougars adopted by BCR.
I was up at 4am on Sunday 6th August, leaving the house at 5am to be in Birmingham by 6.30am for the flight at nine. My first flight was Birmingham to Newark, New Jersey, with a three-hour break before my flight from Newark to Tampa. Because I was flying into Newark from another country, I had to go through the usual immigration and customs, then go back through security to find the gate from where the plane was leaving.
I was one of those people chosen for an extra security check, having my hand luggage wiped with special tissues, presumably to check for illegal substances. At the time, I wondered why I had been chosen, but as I went from flight to flight throughout my two-week holiday, I realised that this was a regular occurrence for anybody travelling. There was a slight technical hitch on the runway at Newark as a plane that had parked behind ours had broken down and although this delayed our takeoff, we still arrived in Tampa on time and, amazingly, so had my luggage!
I had booked into a local hotel overnight and was back at the airport just after 7.15am the following morning to pick up my hire car. Now here was the first task of the day - without any instructions I had to get into an automatic car without a handbrake, reverse it out of the rather tightly packed car park, find the airport exit, then Veterans Expressway and the correct exit to Citrus Park and BCR. Once I had actually managed to work out how to get this particular car out of ‘Park’ mode and into reverse, things started to look up. I felt very relieved and pleased with myself when I found the Mcdonald’s at the top of the dirt track which leads to BCR and had made it there by 8:00 a.m.
MaccyD’s then off to work
I grabbed a quick cup of coffee at McDonald’s before driving down that now famous dirt track to BCR. It felt so good to be back! Sharon ushered me through and phoned Scott to let him know that I had arrived. Within a couple of minutes Scott had arrived in his golf cart and he took me off on a tour of the site, a chance for me to catch up with all the news and all the cats. My first question, who was “Are Hercules and Canyon OK?” and thankfully they both were.
In fact, all the old favourites were still there, with the exception of Samantha the old Ocelot, who had died just the previous week. This must have been very sad for Scott, as he had looked after her right from when he started at BCR all those years ago. Our first stop was Scratch, probably one of the oldest living cougars in the world who, despite his ageing years, still manages to prowl around his cage. Just a little way down the path from Scratch was Hercules, and I was so pleased to see him in such wonderful condition.
Chloe the Snow Leopard.
He does look so much better since he was neutered a couple of years ago. Last summer, he was introduced to the other snow leopard, Chloe, and for some considerable time, the two lived together happily, even sharing the den. However, quite recently, when Chloe came into season, they had a bit of a disagreement which resulted in her damaging Hercules’ eye. If allowed to continue, this could have be a serious situation, resulting in one of them being badly injured so the decision was taken to separate them and Hercules is now back in his old cage beside Chloe’s pen.
Down the track past Lola the black leopard and Catrina the cougar (who looked much fatter and actually healthier than when I last saw her in April 2005), on past Sylvester (still loving lying in his tree) and past a wide array of servals.
Our next stop was Cameron and Zabu. Both looked in fine condition, and didn’t resemble those two sorry looking cats I had seen back in the summer or 2004 very shortly after their arrival at BCR from a roadside zoo. The word I would use to describe Cameron now is ‘magnificent’! He has a full mature mane and wonderful size, substance and muscle tone; you can just see those muscles ripple as he walks.
Some of you may remember that these two animals had always lived together and were reunited following Cameron’s vasectomy (a full castration would have resulted in him losing his mane through lack of testosterone). During my visit, Cameron’s testosterone level was a bit of a problem. Zabu was in heat and Cameron was feeling rather fruity and they were undergoing a temporary separation. Scott told me that it is highly likely that they would have to spay Zabu very shortly, so that the two could live together in peace.
However, he was concerned, as spaying a female tiger is no small operation, and it is not without risk. I decided I would contact Scott, in due course, to find out if everything went okay.
We went on round, past the Ringling’s Tigers row and out of the main body of the sanctuary to the ‘outback’ where new cougar family were living.
As we passed Nikita’s pen, I marvelled at how this big substantial lioness had developed over the last five years. When I first saw her in December 2001, she was no more than a cub, with huge swollen lumps at her elbows from spending months lying on a concrete basement floor in a drug dealer’s house, there to protect his drugs haul.
After her confiscation - she had been used to guard drugs from thieves - she was given a home at BCR, where she now has a huge pen to run around in. Looking at her now, you would never guess that she had suffered such a bad start in life.
“We want Scott!”
As we turned the corner, I could hear the three cougars squeakily screaming for Scott, even before they saw him as they could hear the golf cart approaching. I’m not really sure what I expected, since I’ve seen no photographs since they were tiny cubs with spotted coats. Now they really looked like young adult cougars, although they still have a lot of growing to do.
At the moment, they are all legs and ears and reminded me of a typical young Maine Coon, still to grow into his ears and paws.
Artmis, Orion and Ares certainly loved Scott, and all three charged up to the wire caging to greet him. These three arrived at BCR after being saved following their mother being shot and killed by a hunter in Idaho. Big Cat Rescue were warned that they would be lucky to get all three cubs to adulthood as hand-rearing wild cats is no easy task. Prior to their arrival, they had been fed on a wildlife baby formula and they all arrived with runny tummies and sore bottoms. Their diet was changed to goat’s milk and later raw turkey mince.
Cameron the Lion who was ‘feeling fruity’ before his necessary ‘op’.
Hand rearing cougar babies is really no different to domestic kittens, they still had to be stimulated in those early weeks to enable them to urinate and defecate. Two of the cubs became ill and the need for antibiotic administration to overcome various problems also upset their constitutions so it was some time before all three really looked like they would actually make it through.
It was quite obvious that all three adored Scott, and the feeling is mutual. A huge cage, of complicated design in the main body of the sanctuary was being built, incorporating a pool for them, as, most unusually for cougars, they love playing in water. You can see their swimming antics at http://www.bigcatrescue.org/podcats.htm (Cubs in the Pool, under the Big Cat Rescuers section). Unfortunately, direct contact with them is now very limited as they have grown so much that their play sessions are too rough for human contact.
Back to the main body of the sanctuary – the sights, sounds and smells bring back that feeling of familiarity and overpowering emotions. As we passed Banjo the Bearcat, there he was lazing in his tree, exuding that cooking popcorn odour.
There were the usual number of ducks and peacocks, all with chicks in tow, though how many of these would ever reach adulthood is disputable. They are very brave creatures, choosing to live and bring up their young in a large cat sanctuary, but it’s their choice and perhaps it’s safer than the outside world.
I then took my car and luggage to the house I was to call home for the next four days. This property was just being fitted out during our last visit, and is used for the interns who live and work on site.
Things had changed a great deal since I first started visiting in 2001. Visitors were no longer allowed to stay on site and the houses had now been transferred into intern homes. In some ways this is sad as the chance to stay there was what for me, made it so magical way back in the beginning.
However, because Big Cat Rescue is working alongside other organisations to try to get American laws changed to prevent people keeping exotic animals, such as lions, tigers and the cats within the Felis group as house pets, they have undergone a barrage of verbal and written attacks from those who do not want these changes and wish to continue keeping these animals as companion pets. Scott told me that people have gone to some extreme lengths, getting TV time, blocking BCR’s phone lines and even threatening to break in after dark and poison the cats using antifreeze.
He said that he had not slept properly for almost two months in January and February because he spent his nights patrolling the sanctuary to protect the animals in his care. Whilst he said that things have calmed down in recent times, everyone continued to be vigilant.
This was consequently, one of the main reasons why there are no guests staying on site anymore. No one can really be fully trusted any more and that’s a sad fact for those who have been coming for years. In the past I have stayed on site, and thankfully because I have such a long history with the sanctuary, they make an exception for me and I am allowed to live on site.
This is a wonderful privilege for me. A full time staff member, Sharon, permanently occupied the house and at the time of my visit, two interns were also living with her. I was staying in the spare bedroom.
Grace and Favour home
After dropping off my cases in my room, changing into my ‘volunteer’ clothes (my trusted red ‘trainee’ t-shirt, khaki trousers and trainers), Sharon and I headed back to the main area where work was being done on an empty cage. Amazing Grace (an ocelot) had been moved since my last visit and the cage opposite hers was empty so it had been decided that she should have access to this one too.
There was a slight problem – a path between the two cages. How could she get from one to the other without disrupting the path? The answer was to build an overhead cage tunnel. I was put to work by helping to clear the empty cage, get rid of old foliage and ensure that it was safe for her. Meanwhile, Scott and some of the volunteers started to construct the cage tunnel.
By the end of the afternoon, the cage tunnel was in place above our heads, though the two cages were still unconnected as holes had to be cut into each cage to join them together via the tunnel. There was great hilarity as it was pointed out that ocelots do have a tendency to spray and whether Gracie would perform this feline action when someone was walking innocently along the path underneath the cage tunnel at the time she chose to do it.
Fixing the overhead tunnel to Gracie the Ocelot’s cage.
It would be several weeks before I would actually see the finished results, long after I had left Florida for England. The results can be seen at www.bigcatrescue.org/podcats and to watch Gracie climb the branches and walk along that tunnel that I helped to make, brings tears to my eyes. I feel so proud to have been part of the job to bring this little cat more happiness.
Later on Monday afternoon I was introduced to Coleen, one of the two Educational Directors for the site. She works part-time at BCR and part time in a school where she is an educational psychologist. We discussed her schemes of work for BCR’s summer school and how she had engaged the children in learning about wildlife. I promised to let her have details of some useful websites and we had a good exchange of thoughts and experiences of education on both sides of the Atlantic, so similar in many ways.
Then it was back to the Food Prep House, where organisation of feeding was already well underway. The logistics of organising a correct diet for so many cats is huge. On top of this, many of the cats were being wormed. How do you worm a big wild cat? You can’t really hold them down and open the mouth, can you? For many, it’s done by putting the worming tablet into defrosted chicks and giving the whole chick to individuals at feeding time.
There are three different feeding routes – front, centre (or center, as they call it) and back, as well as ‘Scott’s feeding route’. I went with the volunteers who were starting the ‘front’ feeding route. This includes some of the tigers, such as Shere Khan & China Doll. Recently, a new large ‘lock out’ had been built for these two and as the food was put in place and the lock out door opened, there was no sign of Shere Khan. We called and called for him. Eventually one of the keepers found him, some yards away, waiting patiently in his old lock out, wondering why the food hadn’t arrived. Thankfully he did eventually suss it all out and got his dinner.
After feeding, Sharon took me off site to Wal-Mart (ASDA) to get food provisions for my visit and we headed back to the sanctuary. It was to be the only time I left site during the entire four-day visit. If you have ever visited this place, you will understand what I mean when I say that it is almost surreal.
Here you are, surrounded by large leafy trees, palmetto plants, birds and cats of all shapes and sizes, yet it is almost silent, and so very calm. Its impossible to believe that a major highway from Tampa airport to North Tampa runs alongside the premises, its like you really are in a different universe. I tend to sit out on the veranda in the evenings, just listening to the birds and the occasional lion roar – no traffic, no huge numbers of people, no street lights. It really is back to nature.
Back at the house, I showered and changed. I was shocked to see that the spot at which an old fire ant bite had started to swell on previous visits, had become angry, red and blistered.
This was more of a frustration than anything else as I had done everything in my power to prevent it – already taking antibiotic and antihistamines in advance for the ‘just in case’. By the following morning the whole ankle was red and swollen and the blister was growing fast.
I bandaged the area, put on my long trousers, waterproof ankle protectors, tons of insect repellent and headed off to work – praying that the medication would kick in soon. I was shattered – a combination of jetlag, hot humid climate and excitement of being there – so I was in bed for 9.00pm. Three more days of being in my favourite place lay ahead of me, and it was going to take more than a blasted ant bite to put me out of action!
Next Issue: Daphne finds that it’s a small world with a Maine Coon connection…