Lions, tigers, cheetahs and other big cats around the United States are malnourished, abused, and even killed as a product of the big cat trade. Some of these animals begin as pets who are discarded when they grow to be too dangerous to be kept in a private home. Others are show animals at a circus or a zoo. Since viewing these beautiful furry giants is a form of entertainment for people of all ages, it is often forgotten that this is not the lifestyle they are accustomed to. Thankfully, places like Big Cat Rescue in Tampa are sanctuaries for these cats and put them a little closer to the habitats they were meant to live in.
Susan Bass, public relations director at BCR, has been working with the cats for the past five years. Since Carole Baskin founded the sanctuary in 1992, the facility has grown from 45 to 75 acres of open fields, shady trees, lakes and things to climb. Most big cats with the exception of lions, who gather in packs, are naturally solitary, Bass said. However, most cats have a companion in their section at BCR.
“Boredom is one of the things we try to keep away from the cats,” Bass said. “We give them enrichment. One of the things to stimulate their brain and their body, is having a buddy.”
Bass said all the cats have their own story. One lioness, Nikita, was rescued from a crack house in Tennessee, where she guarded the drugs and was severely abused. In addition, her malnourishment was so severe, she was light enough to be picked up by one person. Since Nikita was rescued in November of 2001, she has lived a much more leisurely lifestyle and has reached a healthy weight.
BCR spends about $65,000 per year to feed the cats. All 100 cats feast on about 50 pounds of raw chicken and beef, as well as “moosh,” or ground-up whole animals since big cats eat all parts the animals, Bass said. “The cats eat about 500 pounds of meat per day,” Bass said.
In addition to food bills, it costs BCR $10,000 per cat per year for veterinary care. Since BCR is a nonprofit organization, all of the money used to take care of the cats comes from their donors. 100% of donations go to the cats, while profits from visitors who tour the sanctuary pay for the dozen staff members. BCR has recently upgraded its cat hospital with the help of donors.
Previously, the cats were forced into a transport cage, where they would have to be driven to University of Florida in Gainesville for something as simple as an X-ray. Bass said this process is stressful for the cats and is not something that they should have to go through.
Because so much time and energy is required to take care of the cats, there are always about 100 total volunteers throughout the year. Volunteers are made up of locals and about 10 to 20 interns who stay in dorms on site and work with the cats six days a week. There are also two veterinary volunteers, who work with the cats routinely.
How can people help?
“The easiest and best thing to do is by not doing something,” Bass said, “Never pay to hold, or touch, or have your photo taken with a cub. That is by far, we believe, the impetus for the problem. And if that stops … people will stop making money from them.”
Bass said cats used for entertainment and profit are doomed to spend the rest of their lives in cages.
As far as the FDA is concerned, big cats need only to be kept in a space large enough for them to stand up and make necessary postural movements. Bass said people would be less inclined to participate in the big cat trade if they were forced to keep them in a larger area, because it would cost a lot more.
Bass and BCR have proposed a bill to federal legislation, which they hope will phase out the big cat trade by making it illegal for the public to have direct contact with the cats.