Purring pumas, plucky possums and an alien in New York
IN EARLY November 2006, less than three months since I was last at Big Cat Rescue, I booked my next visit – for the Easter holidays, April 2007.
From that day forward I counted the weeks and days until my return (in my eyes) to heaven – a.k.a. Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, Florida. For any wild cat lover, this place is an awesome environment – never will you get as close to so many different species of wild cat as you do here – everything from huge tigers to tiny Geoffreys Cats.
If you visit this place, you will stand just a few feet from some to the largest captive lions and tigers you can see in the world. How many times have you visited zoos and seen cats pacing up and down or hiding away, not happy individuals – and even then, the cats on exhibition were few and far between? Here you will see lots of happy individuals – ready to greet you with purrs (or in the case of tigers, ‘chuffs’), rubbing their cage bars, obviously recognising their keepers and showing everyone attention.
Isn’t this something that we as true cat lovers really want to see – happy, healthy, well loved animals? Above everything else, this is what makes Big Cat Rescue so special. It would be better still, to see these animals in the wild, doing what comes naturally, though for the cats at Big Cat Rescue this will never be possible as they just wouldn’t survive because they have all lived as captive animals.
It was with great relief that my plane touched down in Sarasota, Florida on Sunday 1st April (I have had problems with flight connections previously) – my bags arrived safely, and I spent the next week doing my tourist bit – I visited an agitator breeding area, drank cocktails at dusk and lazed by the beach on the Gulf Coast – idyllic environment, though I must admit that a tiny part of my brain was always fifty-five miles north at Big Cat Rescue (BCR).
Day 1 - Amazing Man
My friends and hosts Steve and Carol Lawson lent me their car to drive up to BCR and I left their house at 6.40am on the Monday morning. I had to be at BCR for 9am sign in. In major rush-hour the 55 mile journey can take two hours, but today I was lucky – just 1 hour and 10 minutes, enough time to grab a coffee at the MacDonald’s at the end of their road before driving down the secluded dirt track to the sanctuary.
As I approached the gates I recognised the person on the gate – in six years this person had never done the gate when I had entered – it was Scott, Operations Manager, the man who runs the sanctuary! It was impossible to hug him from the car so I parked up and headed back to greet him.
This man is amazing – his animal handling is outstanding, his ability to talk like a trained professional TV presenter is incredible (to the point that he has been invited to be a paid guest taking part in a special Animal Planet advert) but most of all, his cat knowledge is probably second to none of the planet – I even phoned him for extra information when I was doing my Big Cat Studies course.
Most of all – quite remarkable really – he knows what every one of his volunteer staff are doing at any particular time – I just don’t know how he co-ordinates everything with such unbelievable efficiency. I parked the car, left all my stuff in the boot and ran back to greet Scott. His first question – “Have you got your red shirt on under your sweatshirt?”
“Of course” I answered, “Ready to start work when you are.”
He had so much to tell me – the Animal Planet video had arrived and the first thing I did was watch the pre-issue version that had been sent to him. It was amazing – I really don’t know how he must have felt. He had been flown to Los Angeles, given a fancy hotel room for two nights, spent an hour in the studio recording his section and then flew home. When the video came out there he was, in the same advert as Jane Goodhall, Jeff Corwin and other TV presenters. Apart from a young child, he was the only one in the advert who was not a regular TV presenter. This must have been a real boost for him.
I feel that Scott knows that he can talk fluently on matters close to his heart but I think that he really doesn’t know how good he is! You can make up your own mind – he has featured in most of the BCR videos (details at the end of this article).
I spied my plaque – I had left money last year to sponsor a cat and told them that they could put the plaque anywhere they had some space. However, I was very pleasantly to see that it had been put on Windstar the bobcat’s cage, right outside the Visitor’s Centre for everyone to see. Scott teased me, saying that it had been specially polished for my visit.
When I was asked what I wanted on the sign, I thought for a moment – whose memory would I name? – Stripies, Yankee, Merric, Meggie, Hunky – the list was far too long, so I made a different type of statement. This would cover all areas. It would remind those at BCR that I think of them all the time, remember cats and friends no longer around and hopefully touch the hearts of people as they read it. It’s there in the photograph…
Food Prep… again
After watching the advert Scott took me over to the Food Prep building, told me that everything was still in the same place and left me to prepare my equipment for cleaning. I was surprised at how quickly it all came back – where to clip the plastic ‘poop collecting bag’ in my bucket, which tools to collect and how to make up the bleach solution.
Then we went off to the ‘Serval Area’ so that I could start cleaning. On our way we passed the cages where Scratch and Squeaker (cougars – also known as pumas or mountain lions) had lived – now habited by a binterong and another cougar, then we stopped to see Hercules, the snow leopard. Lucky for me he was out and about, coming over to see me. Scott said that he had been a naughty boy recently – biting his foot again, for attention. With this in mind, though I saw him on a number of occasions during my visit, I never stayed to talk to him for long. Thankfully he didn’t ever perform this negative act in my presence.
Next stop was the three rescued cougar cubs – well, you could hardly call them cubs any more as they were huge! They bounded over to Scott, recognising his voice, very excited to see him. Their cage ended at the start of the serval section, so I got out of the golf cart and climbed the barrier to meet the volunteer who was already working in the serval section. It doesn’t take long before you are back into the swing of things.
In less than an hour after my arrival I was back working with the cats again. Most of the Servals just sit and hiss at you as you clean the cage, but one, Bongo, will follow you round, rubbing the bars and purring for attention. Tempting though it might be, no touching is allowed, and all poop is removed using a long pole which is manoeuvred though the cage bars. We never go in with any of the cats, for any reason.
The sanctuary is split into named areas – The Road, Servals, Little Back (probably named because it is at the back of the sanctuary) and Outback (way out from the main body of the place). Some of the layout had changed since August, sadly partly because of the deaths of some of the cats over the last few months. In particular, two of their really old cougars, Scratch and Squeaker, had passed away, but the big shock was Sarabi.
Sarabi was a massive lioness, one of the visitors’ favourites, a very impressive twelve year old who had been at the sanctuary since she was a cub. Her DNA had revealed that she had many of the traits expressed by rare Barbary lions and consequently may have been of value to the species. Scott told me that she had come into heat and stopped eating, which was perfectly normal for her.
The worry started when she came out of heat and still refused to eat. Very quickly it was decided that a closer inspection was required so she was sedated and examined by the vet. A lump was found in her abdomen and they suspected that she had been bitten by a snake, though a sample was sent away for analysis to check. The results devastated everyone who works at Big Cat Rescue. Sarabi had cancer and so the decision was made to put her to sleep.
Losing these three cats in such a short period of time was a huge blow to all the volunteers. Even for me, who goes just once a year, it was heartbreaking to see their cages with different animals in them.
Rain stop play
Having finished cleaning the Servals, we had the job of double-checking ‘Little Back’. This means that we check all the animals in an area cleaned by someone else – making sure that no animal has inadvertently been missed during the cleaning procedure. Whilst the ‘Servals Section’ has servals, ocelots, a few bobcats and civets, Little Back has lots of bobcats, lynx, caracals and binterongs, so plenty of diversity.
We had almost finished double-checking when the rain, which had been threatening all morning, finally started to pelt down. Everyone, except me, was very excited – it hadn’t rained in weeks – I was thanked for bringing some English weather with me. As you can imagine, I wasn’t too impressed with the change in weather! It was like déjà vu – I’ve been though this before during visits to BCR and ended up digging ditches and drains to stop the flooding! In fact, the combination of bad weather and the low number of senior keeper level volunteers on site on my first day of 2007 led Scott to make a decision to feed the cats at lunchtime and close the sanctuary for the day.
The dreadful weather meant that there would be no afternoon tour for visitors – not a good thing, as it’s the visitors paying for tours that keep the sanctuary going. I was very lucky – Scott invited me to go with him to feed his cats including Nikita the lioness, Enya the cougar, Cameron and Zabu (male lion and female white tiger) and of course his special babies, the three cougar siblings, rescued after their mother was shot and killed in Idaho by a hunter.
Boy, these three cats had grown such a lot since August. They had now been moved to the main body of the sanctuary, into an enormous cage area consisting of nine joined cages, each one slightly different, including a pool for them to play in, dens, trees and foliage. We then fed the cats in Little Back. Well, Scott fed them and we watched from the safety of the barriers since only senior and fully trained keepers can go over to the cats at feeding time – they can become very possessive and aggressive at food time, a bit like a litter of kittens who have just got the taste for meat, all swearing and claws out!
Canyon came out to grab his food – totally unimpressed with the rain! (At least I had something I common with one of the cats!). All finished, feed buckets cleaned and I was off to the cabin where I would be staying for the next four days. I phoned home to let Steve know how my first day had gone. Of course, this was over the Easter break when England was suffering a heat wave, so as you can imagine, Steve took great joy in telling me how sunny and hot it was whilst I looked out of the window on heavy non-stop rain.
Day 2 - Rain, rain, go away!
The following morning it was overcast but not actually raining so initially I was quite hopeful that the day wouldn’t be too bad. However the promising sky didn’t last for long and by the time I was heading out to clean cages it was already starting to rain again. Once again I worked in the serval section, which actually includes Nivarna the ocelot and several bobcats. I worked with a young man called Glynn, who had been promoted to a ‘yellow shirt’ (keeper level) since we last met in August.
Glynn is at university, studying biology and wants to go on to do animal research in the wild when he finishes. The experience he is getting at BCR will certainly look good on his CV when the time comes to apply for jobs. By the time we had finished and double-checked ‘Little Back’ we were truly bedraggled and soaking. Scott had left site for the day – he now actually gets a small amount of time off each week if possible – and Brian told us that the decision had been made not to run an afternoon tour unless the weather improved.
Quite a lot of us headed off to two of the serval cages. Both Tye and Frosty had been moved out whilst their cages were undergoing essential maintenance. This includes work on the cage wire, clearing the ground inside the pen by removing old dead leaves and twigs and planting new ferns, grasses and palmettos. Lots of dead leaves were raked up and loaded into bags to be taken to a compost area – you would be amazed at how many bags you can fit on a golf cart! New plants were dug up from other areas and planted in the cage.
It was all starting to take shape when thunder and lightening started and we had to leave the cage. A couple of years ago, one of the cougars, Casper, was struck down and killed while he slept in his cage during a thunderstorm. Now no one is allowed to work inside cages when this type of weather starts, it’s just not safe, so we all stopped work and had lunch.
The weather did not improve during the early afternoon. By this time my trousers were dripping in water, so I changed in to shorts – at least its not freezing when it rains in Florida. I then went off to help in the gift shop – writing ‘thank you’ letters to people who have made donations to the cats. Big Cat Rescue values every donation and many thank you letters need to be written to thank these people for their generosity.
A special event was taking place on site on Tuesday – a Rotary Club Meeting with a tour of the sanctuary. The rain did ease off and we got a message from the organiser (Carole’s husband, Howard) requesting three golf carts for people to be taken on the tour and I was asked if I would drive one of them. Much hilarity – reminding me about how to drive the golf cart, which side of the road to drive on (reminding me that Americans drive on the right side of the road) and how to stop the vehicle. I had the oldest golf cart – and to be honest, though we did our best to clean it down, it was still wet from moving the bags of leaves earlier.
We all drove out to the meetinghouse, though actually my vehicle ended up not being needed, so I drove back to the main area.
This enabled me to help with the feeding route instead and I went to watch cats in the front and centre areas being fed. This included Hercules, who couldn’t wait to have his tea and didn’t care that it was raining – guess that the water doesn’t penetrate his thick coat easily. Back to the food prep centre, buckets and equipment cleaned, floor cleaned, everything put away and then it was off back to the house to get a shower and my clothes cleaned up for the next day.
Day 3 - Playing possum
I got up early and headed outside to inspect the sky (by this time I was beginning to feel like a television weatherman), to find that it was cloudy and overcast, though it actually felt a little warmer and more humid than the previous two days. I phoned Steve, only to be told that the fantastic weather in Britain was set to stay until the weekend. Whilst on the phone, Steve used the Internet to check the weather in Tampa and he told me that it was due to be much better, sunny and warm, in the 80s. Thankfully this did prove to be the case and by mid-morning the sun had come out, staying there for the rest of my visit.
A little while later I drove down to Food Prep, had just passed the tiger section and stopped at the t-junction when I saw something out of the corner of my eye – striding along towards me was Scott. Nothing unusual in that, after all, he does live there – until I tell you that he was carrying, at arm’s length, a possum, holding this vicious wriggling creature by its tail. I gave him a quizzical questioning look, and seeing that he appeared to be in a hurry, I left him to his possum wrestling and drove to the food prep centre.
He arrived at the centre a little while later and told me that he had been called to one of the bobcat cages where a possum had managed to get in. He expected it to be dead, but this female was still very much alive and she also had babies in her pouch. I regretted not having stopped the car to take a closer look, especially since I had only ever seen these nocturnal marsupials (the only American marsupial) lying dead on the side of the roads. He told me that the babies kept trying to get out of the pouch and he had had to push them back in.
Since the animal did not appear hurt, he released it near the edge of the sanctuary, in the hope that its experience of meeting a bobcat face to face would put it off further nocturnal expeditions into cats’ cages. Over the years I have seen Scott undertake numerous tasks including various wild animal rescues, but possum wrestling is a new one on me. She was certainly a very plucky individual and this is actually one of the abiding memories I have of this visit.
Scott asked me to work with one of the interns on The Road section. It had been a couple of years since I cleaned this section and I must admit that it is one of my favourites, since many of the original interactive cats live there, including Raindance, Windstar, Moses and Little Feather the bobcats, Esmerelda the serval, Natasha & Willow, the lynx. Nowadays, there is no interaction and you can’t actually touch these cats, even thought the cage bars, but it’s wonderful to work so close to them as they rub up against the cage, looking for attention. They love to be talked to as you clean them out. This section also includes Amazing Grace (Gracie) the ocelot.
It’s all about nasal passages
Those of you who read the last instalment will remember that during that visit I helped to put up an overhead tunnel to connect two cages together to give her more space. This was now all in place and I had seen video of her going between the two cages, but she didn’t do it while I was cleaning her out.
She was too busy following us round, checking that we had found all her hidden poos! In this section there are also two rather cheeky lynx – Apollo and Zeus. These two boys take great delight in trying to frighten the volunteers by bounding towards them, making unearthly noises which can be rather scary unless you are prepared for it. I was quite excited as I managed to find pooh in almost every cage – I must have been getting better at it! We then double-checked the serval section, another opportunity for me to have a chat with Bongo, the affectionate, cage- rubbing serval.
I had just finished cleaning my ‘cleaning equipment’ when a golf cart pulled up alongside me, Brian, with Scott in tow, armed with video camera. “Daphne, a question for you, how many feet is 3,000 metres?” Scott asked. “Roughly about 10,000 feet, why do you ask?” I answered. “We are making a video about the snow leopard and want to get the height range right” was the answer.
“Don’t forget to include the bit about the enlarged nasal passages for increased air uptake at elevated heights where the oxygen levels are low” I said jokingly.
“Not sure that our potential audience will understand that” Scott replied, tongue in cheek. Imagine my pride when I viewed the video and that information was there!
Because the weather had improved we were able to return to our serval cage landscaping job. Planting finished, we decided that Tye’s cage needed a log or two and found several which were suitable.
One of these was set close to the cage bars since this will enable volunteers to use it as an enrichment tool, both as a scratching post and also by spraying perfume on it to try to entice Tye to climb it. Since Tye is a fully clawed serval (he has not had his claws removed, unlike many of the cats at BCR), he is quite capable of climbing. Perhaps he’s just lazy, or perhaps he doesn’t know that he can physically climb, but either way, he has never climbed.
It is hoped that the introduction of this log will encourage him, just another way of trying to enrich the lives of these cats. When we had finished, the two cages looked really good and within the next few days both servals will be moved back to their pens – I hope that they approve of what has been done for them.
Bones and rats night
After lunch I did at little shopping at the BCR shop, and then went back to Food Prep to see what was going on. I then went into an area that I never though I would ever enter – the huge three-acre cage where Shere Khan and China Doll, (two of the larger tigers on site) lived. Now before you all think that I have completely lost the plot, let me tell you that actually they weren’t in the pen at the time.
They had been tempted into their smaller lockout cage using food, and safely locked up before we all went into the main area. The plant, Deadly Nightshade had been growing in their pen and they had started chewing it, so it had to be removed. This was successfully done and while we had the pick-up van out, several braches were cut off some to the palm trees that were growing close to the administration building. In Florida, with the combination of heat and rain, plants grow very quickly and people who work here have to be experts in horticulture as well as animal care.
By this stage it was really starting to warm up. Our next job was to count out the food for the evening feed. As I said in a previous issue, Wednesday is bones and rats night. The smaller cats get rats, the larger cats get either bones or rabbits. I will stress that these animals are not killed on site, but are bought in frozen, just like people buying mice or rats here fore their snakes and reptiles.
Set out in trays in the food prep were lots of defrosting rabbits and rats and our job was to count out individual defrosted creatures and put them into buckets for each area of the site. Once again I was invited to go with Scott on his feeding route. Nikita the lioness didn’t seem too impressed with her rabbit that night, whilst Enya was pretty pleased with her dinner.
Typical, Cameron the male lion was very interested in his rabbit until Zabu (his white tiger friend) was given hers, then of course he decided that her rabbit looked more interesting than the one he had. Typical – how many times have you seen this at home with your own cats?
The cougar trio were all very possessive over their ‘prey’, running off in different directions so they could have their rabbit to themselves. Scott teased one of them by pretending to steal it from them, but the cougar was having none of it – the only time during the four days that I saw the real ‘wild side’ to these three cats. A sharp reminder that whilst they can appear cute, they are still wild animals and certainly not to be messed with.
Proper English, Mun
We got back to the prep house, and once again I took quite a lot of teasing about my use of words such as plaster (they call this band-aid or elastoplast), and ‘me mate’ meaning my friend and ‘bait time’ meaning lunch break. However, after some training, several of the volunteers and Scott himself cam now speak some ‘proper English’! I mopped the floor – this is one job that I feel I just have to do before I leave the place each year. (It’s a long-standing joke between us about the quality of the mop and bucket). I then left for the day.
My final notes in my diary for Wednesday say “Today has been a happy day – probably in part because the sun shone and we had no rain”.
* For more information about Big Cat Rescue, visit www.bigcatrescue.org. Don’t forget to go to their ‘podcats’ section to see a wide range of videos featuring the cats in their care. I can definitely personally recommend the Snow Leopard Spotlight Species video!
* NEXT: Daphne brings her Big Cat Diary up to date with the concluding chapter of her 2007 visit to Big Cat Rescue