Going Places: A Walk on the Wild Side

Visiting the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa puts you next to some beautiful, untamed felines.

BY June 30, 2015


On a recent morning I drove to the sanctuary for one of its 9 a.m. feedings. The rescue organization offers standard day tours as well as after-dark nighttime tours, and both give a comprehensive look at the 67-acre sanctuary. But the cats are not guaranteed. Felines are by nature secretive and can spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping. Just because humans make an appearance doesn’t mean the cats have to show up. The feeding tour, though, is where the action is. Early in the morning, the nocturnal cats are still awake. And hungry. The way i see it, it’s ok to like cats as long as they’re big cats. Lions, tigers, lynxes, panthers. All the ferocious jungle felines. The Big Cat Rescue in Tampa has them, and if you go you’ll see these are no ordinary house kitties.

I joined a group with just four of us on the tour: a big man in a hunting camo hat with a small camera who filmed everything, myself and a young Austrian couple on the last day of their Florida vacation. The woman in the couple, I noticed, wore a romper in cheetah print. A bold fashion choice, given our location.

At the start of the tour, our guide, Desmond—a retired chemical engineer from London—gave us the lowdown on the cats as a senior keeper placed the morning meal in the first cage. Wary and shy, a Canadian lynx named Skipper ate the cubes of chicken and beef in delicate mouthfuls, watching us the entire time, while nearby a Siberian lynx, Zeus, paced in his cage, his eyes flashing.

“That one is very food-aggressive,” Des said, nodding toward Zeus. “We say he eats like Vladimir Putin.”

The Canadian lynxes, on the other hand, eat like Celine Dion.

From Skipper we moved on to Gilligan, another Canadian lynx.

“Look at the beard on this guy,” Des said.

The big guy in the camo hat maneuvered for a better shot.

In addition to the raw meat, the cats at the sanctuary receive two whole prey animals a week—rabbits and bunnies that have been humanely euthanized.

“Gilligan gets a bunny and makes a mess of it,” Des said. “He’ll play with it, strip the fur off.”

The Austrian woman went two shades paler.

The cats receive enrichment food, too—sardini martinis, blood-sicles—plus perfume tubes and spice bags for scent play.

“That’s like catnip to a domestic cat,” Desmond said.

From the lynxes we moved through the sanctuary to the enclosure for Narla, a blind cougar who prefers chicken. Droplets of rain from an overnight storm fell from the tall oaks, raining down on the ferns and tall grasses. Sometimes, Desmond said, vultures will circle overhead.

“Then you really feel like you’re on the African plains.”

I glanced around at our group. I’m not sure we were expedition-ready.

After feeding Narla it was on to Kali, a magnificent female tiger. She chuffed as we approached, a coughing noise that Desmond swore is friendly. He pointed to her muscular shoulders and forelegs, noting that tigers can take down most animals.

“Maybe not a full-grown elephant,” he said. “But certainly humans.”

I shivered as Kali ate, sometimes looking up to eye us. Unlike at other sanctuaries, Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue doesn’t handle the cats. They don’t try to anthropomorphize them.

“They look beautiful,” Desmond said. “But they’re wild creatures.”

That wildness is present everywhere at the sanctuary, in the unseen feline eyes that watch from the bushes and the bloody meat that stands in for prey. The circumstances that brought most of the cats to the rescue are abominable—abuse, neglect, abandonment—and up close you can see how futile it would be to try to domesticate them. They throw off a feral energy that’s captivating but blatantly dangerous.

At the end of our tour, we stopped to feed an ocelot, a small, nervous feline not much bigger than a large tomcat. This one had vibrant green eyes and a stunning coat. Salvador Dalí, Desmond told us, kept one as a pet.

“Aww,” the Austrian woman cooed, leaning in.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to do that,” he said. “Their pee is awful. It will eat through your couch.”

She stepped back. “Eew.”

We circled around to the front of the sanctuary as the tour concluded. From his cage, a large mountain lion with golden fur and matching eyes looked over us, appraising. He made a guttural noise that sounded like the big cat approximation of a meow. Then he turned his regal head and sauntered into the bushes, leaving us gaping. 


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