DAPHNE’S BIG CAT DIARY Part 9
The Maine Coon Connection
By DAPHNE BUTTERS
Day Two – Tuesday 8th August 2006
The following morning I was up by 6am, made my sandwich for lunch and was packed and ready for 7am. Sharon offered me a lift down to the food prep house, but I decided to walk. That way I could see many of the cats on the way, and although it takes about 15 minutes instead of five in the car, it’s well worth the walk.
I was greeted by the various Ringlings tigers, then Nikita and Sarabi the two lionesses, Banjo the binturong, Zeus and Apollo the lynx and various other bobcats and servals along the way. Each one was looking for attention and of course I just had to stop to say hello to them all!
When I was last there, work started at 8am. Now it starts at 7.30am with clicker training for all the cats. This has been a very successful operation and now with the exception of just six cats, all felines on site are now clicker trained. Trainers use a combination of a wooden pole with a piece of meat stuck on the end, which has a clicker attached to it. The cats now associate the clicker with meat so will stand up, sit down and even, in some cases, roll onto their side as the clicker-pole is used.
This enables the volunteer to examine the animal for any signs of illness or injury as it moves around in response to the clicker. Each day, different cats get to use the clicker – but all the cats hear the clicker and come out to see if it is their turn today.
Small and Sweet
Scott asked me to work with one of the interns to help to clean Little Back, where many of the servals and bobcats live and it wasn’t long before I was back into the swing of things, cleaning water bowls, removing uneaten food and searching for hidden poop. This is one of my favourite sections, as I adore the smaller cats. People are so impressed when I tell them about the lions and tigers I get to see, but for me, it’s still the smaller cats that I love most.
Some of them are really curious and come out to see what you are doing; others will just sit and watch you as you work. I talk to them all as I clean them out, saying good morning and telling them all about myself. They might not understand, but a calm friendly voice seems to work with most of them.
During cleaning out, we also monitor the individuals for behavioural patterns. You get to know who normally comes out, who doesn’t, and also it’s a chance to check for any possible injuries, which are immediately reported to Scott. One of my favourites lives in that patch is Dances With Wolves, a gorgeous Canadian Lynx with wonderful tufted ears and toes (Maine Coons eat your hearts out!). After cleaning, it’s time for double check.
This is where you check an area done by someone else; just to make sure that every cat has been done. The layout of the sanctuary is so complicated that it’s not impossible to miss one of the cats, and so a double check is essential for the well being of all the animals. It’s also quite funny that, just like when you clean out a domestic cat tray, your cat will frequently go straight back in to use the clean litter. Some of the exotic cats will also perform this action!
After cleaning, it was time for my favourite job – cutting up those damned bananas! It’s two years since I first performed this task and even after all this time I still have not eaten a banana, though preparing them is so much easier now as there are lots of sharp knives available so no more breaking up with fingers. I had the task of feeding the deer. There is a single deer living at the edge of the sanctuary, not far from our house, and I took a variety of vegetables down for it.
We did actually see the deer in the distance – the intern I was with was very excited at this, as she had not actually seen it before because it is so shy. It must have been my lucky day!
On returning to the food prep, one of the interns who happened to be from Cheshire, England, built up courage to ask me a question. Had I ever written an article for the Maine Coon Cat Club about my trip to Big Cat Rescue when it was Wildlife At Easy Street? I looked at her in total shock. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘how on earth would you know that?’ It turned out that she had bought a Maine Coon from Bill Griffiths just before going to Florida on holiday and he gave her the article about BCR.
She visited the place during her holiday, fell in love with it, and now a few years later was working there for three months, living on site as an intern! Talk about a small world! I felt very honoured that an article written for a club newsletter had ended up with someone actually going over there to work at BCR.
After a quick pit stop for lunch, we were sent to an area away from the main tour section to collect cut grass and remove some trees. These trees were Brazilian Pepper, not native Floridian plant, and they take over the area if allowed to grow.
As you see, working at BCR is not just about looking after the cats! We were armed with large scatters, saws and rakes, and could become quite aggressive towards this pesty plant. I then went to help in the gift shop – a real hive of activity with the phone continually ringing, deliveries arriving all the time with items to check, mark up and get out on display as soon as possible. This goes on all day, even when the gift shop is packed full of visitors.
This is also where all the online sponsorship, thank you letters, flyers and newsletters are sent out. I have never seen so many different postage stamps in one place! These days you do not have to go to BCR or even contact them directly for their sales items as they have many on E-bay. Sharon runs this side of things. Her background is in retail so she is very experienced and she does an excellent job.
Scott has certain cats that he personally feeds each night. Some of these, such as Scratch, Enya, Nikita, Cameron and the cougars, are his ‘babies’ and others are so unpredictable that they are not fed by volunteers. When he asked me if I would like to accompany him, I jumped at the chance to go with Scott on his feeding tour.
To see the love and trust that these animals have for him is just amazing to watch. Nikki the cougar is so funny. She sees him coming on the golf cart and there is a race between a fully-grown lioness and a man on a golf cart each night to see who reaches her feeding post first. In those early days, she would gently take food from him; now she is much more possessive about her meal and will snatch the meat if she can.
I watched Scott feed his brood, then he dropped me off and I joined the central feeding route that included various cougars and lynx. Over the four-day period I watched feeding on all three routes so saw most of the cats being fed. I am not sure which route is my favourite, as some of my special cats are on each route.
Day Three – Wednesday 9th August
I got up at 5.30am and sat outside the cabin to watch the beautiful sunrise over the lake. This was the time of day that I sent text messages to Steve to let him know how I was doing and catch up with the news at home. I have since been told that I should give him the telephone number at the cabin so he can phone me.
This place is getting more like a second home each time I visit! I was down at the food prep centre by 7.20am and was lucky to be invited to watch Jennifer (who was my first-ever tour guide on that night tour back in 2001) showing one of the interns, John, how to use the clicker trainer. John was a big lad and Jennifer said that he had had to work very hard to gain the cats’ confidence because they are so used to dealing with smaller people and some were initially nervous in his presence.
After observing this training we headed back to be given our cleaning section for the day. Once again I did Little Back.
One of the interns I was working with was aiming to become a vet and had applied to Edinburgh University. I do hope that he is successful. After cleaning and then preparing the omnivore food, our next job was to weed an area of ground in front of several cages to tidy it up for a forthcoming event. The following weekend there was to be a wedding on the beach area and it was important that the area looked neat and tidy, especially for the wedding photos.
On completion of this job we were sent right out towards the cabin area (known as outback), to help to clear up grass trimmings from between the various tiger cages. Under close supervision I worked over the fence quite close to the cages, a tiger on one side and a black leopard on the other.
Obviously I was very careful not to get too close to either of them but it was an amazing experience and one that I will cherish for a long time. I felt very honoured to be trusted enough to do this job.
Bones & Rats Night
Sabre, the black leopard, had great fun whilst this clearing was going on, bouncing back and forth. Imagine watching a leopard at play! Whilst it was a fantastic experience, I will admit that it was very hot and sweaty work.
In August you don’t go far without taking lots of water with you, and you just don’t look glamorous at all! In fact Scott said that he can tell who has been working and who hasn’t by the amount of sweat they are producing! Back to the main sanctuary where I helped to organise parking for the visitors’ tour and then went to help in the shop – everything from price labelling items to restocking shelves. It’s non-stop work for volunteers.
Feeding routines have changed since my last visit. Now Wednesday is ‘Bones & Rats Night’ where the cats get bones or rats (depending on their size) instead of the usual meat dinner. Not only does this vary the diet, but also acts as a form of enrichment feeding, especially for the smaller cats who ‘kill’ their rat prey, throwing it around in the air before finally decided to eat it.
The funniest thing was seeing Canyon, ‘my sand cat’, with his rat – it was huge in comparison to him and he threw it, dragged it and jumped on it before taking it off to his tunnel to eat. Once again I got to go with Scott on his feeding route and watched in awe as he interacted with his cats. He dropped me off part-way back and I went on the back route to help on the feeding for the cats that I had cleaned earlier in the day.
One very interesting observation – the smaller cats tend to be much more aggressive than the larger cats when it comes to getting their food! Back at the food prep centre, I helped to clean out all the feed buckets (yes, you get used to dealing with lots of blood and bits of meat very quickly here), emptied the bins and generally clean up before leaving for the cabin. By the time we finished, it had been a 12-hour day. Working here is no easy ride! No eight-hour day with an hour for lunch, but the benefits of being able to work with the cats far outweigh any possible negatives.
My friend Bob
I told Scott that I would be leaving early afternoon the next day to go down to stay with my friends, Maine Coone breeders and judges Steve and Carol Lawson, who live about 60 miles south. Thursday morning would be my last day.
He told me that I would hit all the traffic and should stay until after feeding, leaving about 7pm, and after several others told me the same, I finally made the phone call to Steve and Carol Lawson to break the news to them that I wouldn’t see them until late evening. They were okay about this as they both understand that BCR is so very special to me.
By this stage my small blister had grown to a huge three-inch circular water blister and my ankle had completely disappeared. In fact, it was so big that we decided to name it. One of the interns suggested Bob. Sharon was totally against this but she was outvoted and the ‘Bob The Blister’ name stuck!
Next: Daphne’s visit ends as a Critical Security Alert is imposed at UK airports…