by Heather Schulman for The New Barker Dog Magazine. This feature story on Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue was first published in The New Barker Dog Magazine, Winter 2015. We are posting the story in The New Barker blog in light of recent reports to the USDA of abuse at another Florida facility, Wild Things in Dade City.
About a year ago, friends suggested that a visit to Dade City Wild Things might be enlightening. My fiancé and I had never heard of it, but based on their feedback, we decided to go. Let’s just say that viewing large, beautiful animals in incredibly small cages, and watching people pay to handle and be photographed with tiger cubs, was not my idea of fun. After that visit, I wanted to know more about the rules and regulations governing ownership of big cats, prompting a visit to Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. It was here that I learned of the issues facing these beautiful cats. A special thank you to Carole Baskin, CEO and Howard Baskin, Advisory Board Chairman at Big Cat Rescue. –Heather Schulman.
Big Cat Rescue, situated on 67 acres in the Citrus Park area, is one of the world’s largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats. It is the home to about 80 lions, tigers, lynx, leopards, bobcats, cougars, servals and other species. They are there for a variety of reasons. Some were abandoned by owners who wrongly thought they would make good pets. Some were abused by owners in order to force them to perform. Others have retired from performing acts, saved from being slaughtered to make fur coats. Still others were rescued as babies after hunters killed their mothers. The sanctuary began rescuing exotic cats on November 4, 1992 and continues to be a leading advocate in ending the abuse of captive big cats and saving wild cats from extinction. Big Cat Rescue is a non-profit 501(c)(3) sanctuary, accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries and certified by Independent Charities of America as a “Best in America Charity.”
Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations allow two tigers to spend their entire lives in a 10 by 20-foot cage (200 square feet). That is smaller than the typical parallel parking spot (nine by 24 feet). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that exotic cats have “sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement.” Federal rules refer to the ability to stand and turn around, not the actual amount of space, and lists factors an inspector should consider in making a judgment. The bottom line is, the minimum standards of care as established, are inhumane. The cats at Big Cat Rescue have “adequate freedom of movement” including the ability to exercise and access to plenty of water. Although the cats have far more space per cat than most facilities, the sanctuary decided to build a two and a half acre Vacation Rotation enclosure. Each of their lions and tigers can rotate enjoying a two-week vacation in an open air space that has a pond, fountain, dens, tunnels, platforms and trees.
Currently, dozens of traveling zoos and roadside exhibitors profit from charging the public a fee to have a one-on-one encounter with a tiger cub. The fees often range from $10 to $500, allowing the public to pet, feed, train, pose, play and even swim with wild and exotic animals. To facilitate these public handlings, tiger cubs are pulled from their protective mothers shortly after birth. This is an inhumane and unhealthy practice that can be very traumatic for both the mother and her offspring. It often leads to lifelong physical and psychological problems for the tiger cub. The USDA bans contact with cubs under eight weeks old while their immune systems are still developing, coupled with a court-affirmed prohibition on contact with cubs over 12 weeks old because they are dangerous to the public.
“The only creature on earth whose natural habitat is a zoo, is the zookeeper.” Robert Brault, writer.
The current system creates an incentive for the endless cycle of tiger cub births, which can result in intensive breeding operations. The cubs are bred just to exploit the four-week window, and then discarded or disposed of after they’ve outgrown their profitable age. The discarded animals end up warehoused at poorly run roadside zoos and pseudo-sanctuaries or in the hands of unqualified people with private menageries. Many other tiger cubs fall victim to the illegal wildlife trade. The important thing to remember is that true rescuers and sanctuaries do not breed big cats. Facilities that breed or subject the animals to the stress of being carted around to exhibit, by definition, are not sanctuaries. Big Cat Rescue does not breed any of the rescued animals that come to the sanctuary. They are neutered or spayed. (Continued on following page)
What can we do to save big cats from abuse? First, never pay to touch or have your photo taken with tiger cubs. Second, do not attend circuses, fairs or attractions that feature a wild animal show. Lastly, please join forces with Big Cat Rescue to end the private possession of big cats. Privately owning exotic animals is currently permitted in a handful of states with essentially no restrictions. You must have a license to own a dog, but you are free to purchase a lion and keep it as a pet. Can you believe more exotic animals live in American homes than are cared for in American zoos?
Big Cat Rescue along with The Humane Society of the United States, World Wildlife Fund, International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Fund for Animals, Born Free USA and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, filed a legal petition — The Big Cat Public Safety Act. It asked the USDA, under the Animal Welfare Act, to prohibit public contact and close encounters with big cats, bears and primates, regardless of the age of the animals.
Let your Congressman know that you would support any piece of legislation that would keep exotic animals from living in America’s backyards, garages and living rooms. Further, you will support allowing people who currently possess these wild animals, to keep them until they die of old age, but not allow them to buy or breed moving forward.
Please make a quick call to your legislators asking them to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act, and send them an e-mail. The only way to stop the abuse of big cats in captivity is to ban private ownership. Trying to “regulate” the conditions under which the cats are kept by private owners is simply impossible. At press time, there were 21 co-sponsors of the bill in the House of Representatives. David Jolly (R-FL) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) are two Bay Area Representatives who support the bill.
Each cat at Big Cat Rescue has its own beautiful story. I noticed that the cats were all very relaxed and calm (not pacing back and forth) unlike the cats I witnessed at Dade City Wild Things. The cats that are nervous around the public are placed away from people touring the sanctuary. In 2014, Big Cat Rescue saved more than 170 kittens; partnering with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay to make certain each was fixed and adopted. If you are looking for something unique and fun to do in Tampa Bay, take a tour of Big Cat Rescue (day tours available everyday at 3 p.m. with the exception of Thursday).
Big Cat Rescue – 12802 Easy Street, Tampa 813.920.4130 – BigCatRescue.org
To read the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act (H.R.1998) go to www.Congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/1998