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Fond Farewells - Daphne brings the story up to date with the account of the last day of her latest visit to Big Cat Rescue, Florida

Day 4

I had waited months to get here and already my last few hours at the sanctuary were ticking away.

Time just flies by when I am at Big Cat Rescue. Being my last day, I was up at 6am and sat on the balcony of the cabin to watch dawn break over the lake at the sanctuary. This time of day is always beautiful here and I always try to see the sunrise on my last day. It’s so quiet, all you can hear is the noise of the various animals, though sadly no more would I hear Sarabi roaring at Cameron across the sanctuary.

Final photo with ‘The Animal Guy’ and friends Shere Khan and China Doll.

I was determined not to get upset when I came to leave later in the day, as it only upsets everyone else and spoils the end of a wonderful time.

I got to the food prep centre at 8am and Scott asked me if I had double-checked ‘The Road’ during this visit.

I told him that I hadn’t on this visit but I had jointly cleaned The Road the day before, working with one of the interns. He then asked me if I would clean this area today. I said, “Yes, of course, who is down working there?” “No one” he replied. “You will be on your own.” I can’t describe how privileged I felt when I was told that. I knew that I would be slower than the regular volunteers – it does take time to really get up to speed, but being trusted enough to be sent out on a whole section on my own was probably the biggest honour that I could be given.

The boys holding paws.

It was vital that I got it right – one wrong move and I would have let Scott down, and more importantly, I’d have let the cats down too. It did take a lot of time, longer than it should have, but it enabled me to talk to all the cats in my care that day as I worked. I found a dead frog in Windstar’s cage.

I also had to fish out an uneaten rat (from feeding the night before) from Crackle the caracal’s pen. The uneaten food had to be recorded in the logbook, just like I do for the school animals. One of the volunteers, Bridget, who had finished her section, came and helped me with the last few cats and we were all done by just after noon.

Video Evolution
My last afternoon was spent taking some photos and video of the sanctuary. This was my sixth annual visit to Big Cat Rescue and each time I have recorded my visit by writing, taking photos and video. However, Scott has never seen any of these, other than a few photos. This time I took all the videos of my previous visits over for him to view at his leisure.

Gracie in her tunnel.

These videos actually document the changes that have taken place since 2001 and include many of the cats that had passed away. Scott gratefully took the videos and also some magazines that had my BCR articles published in them. He planned to watch them on his own, as he knew that some of the video would include some of his favourite cats that have now passed away, and this would possibly be very emotional for him. Without realising it, I had been recording the evolution of the sanctuary over the last few years. It’s always good to spend a little time walking round the place when there are no visitors around.

Lola watching the world go by.

It’s so quiet, just the cats lazing in the sun, having their afternoon siestas – you can hear every sound in the sanctuary. I went off down ‘The Road’, Rainedance was sleeping in her favourite spot in the long grass, Natasha and Willow, the two lynx lazily watched me from their dens, Bailey the Bobcat was busy exploring her pen and came up to greet me as I walked past.

I looked over towards Gracie (Amazing Grace, the Ocelot) and was amazed to see her up in that tunnel area that had been built the previous year to join two cages together. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had seen video of her climbing up and through the tunnel to the other side, but here she was, right in front of my face, lying in the tunnel area. She stretched out, slowly stood up and headed off down a branch into the other cage. Sometimes, you are really are just in the right place at the right time!

Old Favourites
I walked back up the road, said hello to Catrina, one of my old favourite cougars, who looked pretty good considering she is a pensioner.


No sign of Hercules or the female Snow Leopard, Cloe so I wandered on, passing Lola the black leopard. When I first met her in 2001, she hated people walking past her pen and would cower away – now she sits proudly watching the world go by – what a difference time makes to the abused animals living here, being given the special care that they all receive.

Then on to Sylvester, another old cougar - sadly I thought that he seemed to have aged a great deal since I last saw him in August. You know the expression, it’s when the fat behind the eyes seems to have gone and the eyes seem deep set. I took some photos and video, not knowing if it would be the last time I would see him. I then reached the cougar cubs. I had seen them on a number of occasions during my visit, but this was the first time I had been near them on my own. They heard me approaching and bounded up from where they had been playing. Immediately, one of the boys started purring and rubbing the bars of the cage, then he started squeaking at me – it reminded me so much of Kahuna, my huge Maine Coon – he used to look like he should roar like a lion and he had the most pitiful squeak for a voice. After a few minutes, the female, Artemis, wandered off for a sleep, but the two boys just wouldn’t leave me. As I walked down the road along the length of their huge pen they both followed me – eventually I stopped again to talk to them and they sat down together at the edge of the pen, paws touching.

Big Cat Judging
This enabled me to get a closer look at them and it’s where my pedigree cat judging came in useful. I wanted to be able to find out which one had been doing all that purring and chatting with me. Obviously there are no stripes, coat length was the same, as was the general colour. However, there was a difference in the shape of the nose.

The quiet one had a straight nose with a slight bump towards the tip (which reminded me of a Norwegian Forest Cat profile) whilst my chatty boy had a slight dip at the nasal bridge, more like a Maine Coon.

I would ask Scott when I next saw him to see if this identified difference would enable him to tell me which one was which. I spent a lot of time with these cubs, just watching them and talking to them and it really didn’t take long to fall in love with them, especially the purring one! They are truly miracles and if their captive lives here help to publicise why wild cougars shouldn’t be shot leaving baby cubs behind, then it has been a good thing.

On leaving the cubs I headed off down ‘Tiger Row’. Several of the ex-circus tigers were out, and Sarmonti was sitting proudly on top of his den, as if he was just waiting for me to take his photo.
I walked up to see Nikita, who was being a very lazy lion, lounging in the shade of a tree. On past various leopards, then I saw Dances With Wolves, my favourite Canadian Lynx (with the “eat your heart out Maine Coon” lynx tips to the ears) and then round the ‘Little Back’ area to see various bobcats, caracals, servals and civets. Canyon the Sandcat was up in his elevated house, surveying my every move from above. Cameron the male lion was being a real ‘tart’ rolling around in the grass, whilst his friend Zabu, the white tiger was asleep in the den, out of the sun.

I returned to Food Prep and my first question to Scott was about the cougar cubs – and who was who. I explained how I had identified the difference between the two boys (Artemis, the female, is smaller and with a more feminine head shape), describing their nasal profiles and I was shocked when Scott told me that this was exactly how he told them apart too! Orion was the purring, chatty one whilst his brother, Ares, was the quiet one of the pair. Maybe Scott should become a GCCF judge with an eye for detail like that.

Scott and I chatted for a while – put the world to rights, as you do when you get together with an old friend – and I watched him stuff various medication pills into dead day old chicks, ready for the evening feeding. Senior keepers started to arrive for the feeding time and I helped to load up the carts with various meats for the cats.

Final Farewells
Scott went off to feed his cats and I felt very lucky to be able to go on the Front and Back Route to see those cats being fed this time.

The clock was ticking away. I saw Canyon and said my farewell to him. If it hadn’t been for that little Sandcat I would probably never have found this place! We walked past Hercules’ cage – no sign of him which was, admittedly, a huge disappointment to me. I was almost at the end of his cage and I suddenly felt as though something was watching at me.

I turned round to see that Hercules had emerged from his cave and was sitting in the long grass, just staring at me. I walked back, took a quick photo, told him to take care and that I loved him, then I hurriedly left him to catch up with the keepers who were waiting for me, apologising to them for holding them up on their feeding route.

As we arrived back at food prep, a baby black snake slithered across the path in front of me. I wasn’t scared – just excited at seeing my first live wild snake – even if it was just a tiny baby only nine inches long. I don’t think that I would have been quite so confident if it had been full-grown though! Some of these snakes are poisonous.

Back at Food Prep, I cleaned up the buckets, helped to finish cleaning the room and then said my farewells.

This time I did manage to hold back the tears, at least until I had left. I waited for those huge gates to secure behind me before

starting the drive back to Steve and Carol Lawson’s home, just stopping for a few minutes at McDonalds to shed a few tears before driving the fifty-five miles south to Bradenton. Just over an hour later I was back at Steve and Carol’s house – though it seemed a world apart from the life I had just left behind in Tampa.

Heading Home…. Or Not
Friday was spent packing and lazing on the beach before an evening at Cha Cha’s bar drinking rum runners. During the morning I had seen my second snake – a water snake swimming in the lake beside the Lawson’s house. Some of these can be dangerous, but it stayed in the water so I was safe. The following morning I was up early, determined not get emotional. I was fine until Steve got up and said “You’re going today….” and I started crying.

Carol came with me to the airport – the farewell was so hard, it shouldn’t be as we see them almost annually if not more so! There was a slight problem with my ticket – the computer at Newark was down so they couldn’t issue my confirmed seat ticket to Manchester. No problem, just go to the gate at Newark for it, or so I was told….

I arrived at Newark and the gate opened five hours later. I went to the desk to be told that the flight was overbooked though they would get me on as I had a confirmed seat. An hour later, the doors closed and I was told that I had no seat and was stuck in Newark for 24 hours, though I would be compensated and given a hotel room. They had messed up, big style! After a four hour wait at the customer service desk I was told that there were no hotel rooms left, given an airline pillow and blanket and told to sleep on the airport floor! I phoned Steve Lawson, who promptly booked me in at The Sheraton and I then went off to find the courtesy bus to take me there. Wow, it was a wonderful hotel, but I was so drained by this time that I didn’t really appreciate it. Exhausted, I finally got to my room at 1.00am, sat down on the bed and sobbed. I felt so isolated and alone and I started to think my trip had not been worth all this grief. A real alien in New York!

Where The Heart Is…
The following morning, after a few hours sleep I felt a little better. I recharged my phone, video and camera, and then decided to watch the video that I had taken at Big Cat Rescue. As I watched those young cougars following me down the path, chatting and purring, loving all the attention, I felt a warm feeling inside.

Scott ‘pill stuffing’.

Yes, all the grief of being stuck in Newark, New Jersey, had been more than worth it when I remembered my time at Big Cat Rescue. I then switched on the television to hear that severe storms were due to hit the area later in the day and there was a good chance that all flights would be cancelled. I had several hours of not knowing whether I would actually be going home or not, and in fact, didn’t let Steve or the Lawson’s know that I was definitely on my way to England until I was on the plane with seat belt on. I later found out that it had been the worst ‘North–Easterner’ storm in New Jersey for decades, six inches of rain fell that day.

What is it about me and the weather in America? After a very bumpy take-off, we touched down at Manchester airport at 8am the following morning. Steve met me; I changed into my work clothes at a McDonalds on the way back to Sheffield and went straight into work for the day – no sleep, not even having been home first! Adrenalin kept me going though the day – memories of Hercules, Canyon, Rainedance, Catrina and Orion (the new love in my life!) will keep me going until I can save enough money to return to my dream haven, hidden down that narrow dirt track in Tampa, Florida.

Daphne’s special plaque in memory of her favourite big cat friends.

After all the ups and downs, the sadness of seeing various pens now occupied by other cats instead of the old favourites like Sarabi and Scratch, making friends with Orion, watching Scott wrestling with a possum, being soaked in the rain and Hercules coming out to say goodbye as I was leaving, I can only say yet again, the opportunity to share a little part of life at Big Cat rescue has to be the most amazing experience of my life, and I thank everyone at BCR for letting me stay yet again.

May the work at Big Cat Rescue continue to succeed, may they continue to spread the word about why big cats don’t make good pets and carry on educating people about why we should be taking more care of our planet and the flora and fauna with which we share our world. We all need to act today – as tomorrow may well be too late.

* For more information about Big Cat Rescue, visit www.big catrescue.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!