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For exotic cats, a happier home

But Big Cat Rescue would really like to put itself out of business

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2013

Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin and advisory board chairman Howard Baskin say their mission is to care for the 100-plus exotic cats at their sanctuary and to end the abuses that make rescues such as theirs necessary. Amazing Grace the ocelot displays some natural behavior at Big Cat Rescue. Big Cat Rescue, The HSUS, In-Sync Exotics, and the Kansas City Zoo teamed up in May to remove 11 abandoned wild animals from a filthy private facility in Atchison, KanBig Cat Rescue officials believe that exotics like Pharaoh the white serval, who lives at the Tampa-based sanctuary, don’t belong in people’s backyards.

The rescuers could see that the chain-link cages on the farm in Atchison, Kan., were much too small and rickety for the tiger, cougars, and other wild animals they housed.

The animals’ owner had abandoned them in filthy conditions. The ground was not only muddy but covered in feces and urine. There was no fresh water in sight. “It looked like at one time [the owner] had put some straw in the cages, and you could barely even see that,” recalls Gale Ingham, operations manager for the Tampa, Fla.-based Big Cat Rescue, one of several organizations called to Kansas in early May to help save the animals. “It was absolutely disgusting.”

And dangerous, adds Adam Parascandola, The HSUS’s director of cruelty response. When the tiger jumped up on the side of his cage, “the whole chain link would just kind of bow out.”

Authorities arrested the owner on animal cruelty and other charges and seized 11 animals, who were transported to sanctuaries in Kansas, Texas, and Florida. Big Cat Rescue took in two lynx, two bobcats, a bobcat hybrid, and a serval.“They were amazing with the small cats,” Parascandola says of the Big Cat Rescue team, which also included president Jamie Veronica, volunteer veterinarian Justin Boorstein, and senior keeper Barbara Frank. “They were able to net, and safely draw blood, give vaccinations, and remove all of the smaller cats except one small lynx without sedating them. They really know what they’re doing.” (One lynx, who was agitated by the rescue activity, had to be tranquilized because his cage was too small to allow rescuers to net him, Ingham explains.)

Once the cats arrived at Big Cat Rescue’s 55-acre sanctuary in Tampa, Ingham saw a look of wonder on their faces. “They were just awed at being somewhere where there was grass, and fresh water, and lots of room to run and play.”

Seeing animals removed from squalid conditions become happy in their new surroundings is one of the most rewarding aspects of the sanctuary’s work, notes advisory board chairman Howard Baskin, who is married to founder and CEO Carole Baskin. But the organization’s goals go beyond rescues: Big Cat Rescue officials would like to see a nationwide ban on private ownership of big cats, so that animals wouldn’t have to be rescued from irresponsible owners in the first place. The sanctuary is also on a mission to educate people about the problems associated with putting big cats on display or holding them in backyards.

“What is really unique about us,” Carole says, “is that we spend so much time and energy on trying to put ourselves out of business.”

Evolution of a Mission

Carole started the sanctuary in 1993, after she and her then-husband bought 56 bobcat and lynx kittens from a “fur farm” to save them from being slaughtered for fur coats. While such purchases were part of its practices in the beginning, the sanctuary’s philosophy has shifted substantially over time due to what Carole, in a history she penned for the group’s website, calls a “gradual but dramatic evolutionary change” in her thinking.

The sanctuary once sold some of the exotic cats it had rescued, placing them with new owners it hoped would provide good homes. But after seeing many cats returned or abandoned as they matured and became more difficult, expensive, and dangerous to care for, Carole concluded that they should not be kept as pets.Today, Big Cat Rescue is a permanent home to more than 100 exotic cats, ranging from retired performing animals to those whose owners moved, went to jail, or simply didn’t want them anymore. The nonprofit is funded by donations and revenue from tours of the grounds. Since its founding, the sanctuary has rescued more than 200 large cats.

“This is basically a retirement home,” Howard says. The enclosures on the wooded property are designed so the cats can hide from visitors if they choose to—which reduces stress. The sanctuary has enough cats that the people taking tours are bound to see some, and visitors often comment on how content the cats look, he says.

Jeff Kremer, who left the corporate world and now serves as Big Cat Rescue’s director of donor appreciation, says working at the sanctuary is both rewarding and eclectic. “Whether it’s primary correspondence with donors, or helping lead private tours, or helping lift a 700-pound tiger into the clinic under sedation for medical care, we get to do everything.”

But Big Cat Rescue decided years ago that simply rescuing and caring for animals wasn’t enough, says Howard, a former banker who met Carole in 2002. “It quickly became obvious talking to Carole—when I started asking, ‘What are we trying to accomplish?’—that we can’t rescue our way out of this problem.” A limited number of animals can go to the limited number of good sanctuaries, he explains, but thousands of privately owned animals would continue to receive inhumane treatment.Given the number of private owners around the country, enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have a difficult job. As well-intentioned as USDA officials may be, “They have very limited ability to actually take people to court, because they only have a limited number of attorneys and investigators, so they can only do that with the worst of the worst,” Howard says, adding that limitations on USDA legal staff create a huge incentive to settle cases, allowing even chronic violators to keep their owner’s licenses and agree to less-severe penalties.

Big Cat Rescue could have adopted a strategy of taking in numerous additional animals, but that wouldn’t have made a dent in the overall problem, Howard says. Instead, the rescue decided to keep its population stable and build up financial reserves, so it could focus on advocacy work and educating people to not support abusive activities.

Big Cat Rescue’s top legislative priority is getting Congress to pass the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which would essentially ban private ownership and breeding of big cats. The bill died last year but has been reintroduced, and the Baskins are encouraged by the fact that it has attracted dozens of co-sponsors.

“That bill would take care of 98 percent of the problem,” Carole says.

Big Cat Rescue also supports an effort, led by The HSUS, to get the USDA to ban public contact with dangerous wild animals such as tiger cubs—a change that would also curb tiger breeding. Cubs made available for petting, photo opportunities, and even swimming with paying customers lead a “miserable life,” Howard says.

He scoffs at the notion that such bans would amount to taking away people’s rights. “There’s no ‘right’ to take a wild animal that belongs in the wild and have it in your backyard,” Howard says. “… There’s no ‘right’ to mistreat an animal.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.