Sunday, November 20, 2011

Big Cat Rescue (photo-heavy)

I took a much-needed girls day today and went into Tampa with a friend to see one of my favorite places, Big Cat Rescue. BCR is a sanctuary that rescues big cats (lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats, etc.) and gives them a good, safe, comfortable home to live out the rest of their lives. They do great work, and I’m happy that I live close enough to visit every now and then.

One of my hobbies is photography, so whenever I go to BCR, I take a ton of pictures. I love cats, and I’m always awed by the beautiful animals there, as well as saddened by some of their stories. But BCR is giving them the best home they can have outside of the wild (where none of them could survive, due to various factors), and it shows when you visit and see how healthy and relaxed the cats all are. In fact, today was a perfect example of just how relaxed: maybe too relaxed at times. The weather was gorgeous, cool and sunny, and this was the first time I’d been there when it wasn’t the height (and heat) of summer. I was hoping the cooler weather would mean more active cats, but it would seem people aren’t the only ones who enjoy sleeping in on the weekend.

Allow my own not-so-big cat, Princess, to demonstrate how most of the cats were spending their Sunday morning:

That was pretty much every cat today, if you could even see them. Some were inside their houses or hiding behind or under bushes. I can’t fault BCR for that: they’re a sanctuary, not a zoo. The cats aren’t there to perform for people, so when you visit, the tour guides make every effort to find cats that are visible and/or awake and moving about, but they won’t guarantee anything. Which is how it should be at a place like that. Many of these cats started out as circus animals, so they shouldn’t have to perform now. That said, there are some that like the attention and are big ol’ hams, so they tend to come out and show off when they hear people nearby.

Now, before I get to the pictures, I feel like I need to clarify something. Most of these photos have obvious cage “bars” in them, but don’t let them fool you. These cats all have very roomy habitats (or, as BCR calls them, cat-a-tats), with lots of foliage, places to hide, things to play with, trees to climb, etc. So if sometimes a cat might look like it’s in a small cage, it’s not. That's just how a particular photo came out, because many of the cats came right up to the edge of their enclosures (or more often, were sleeping at the edge), and therefore the wires are more obvious.

Clicking on any of these photos will bring you to their Flickr page, where you can view them a little bigger.

This is Sundari, one of BCR's leopards. She’s 15 years old, and was only close to us for a few minutes. Unfortunately, in those few minutes, I didn’t realize the shooting selector dial had gotten turned on my camera, and I was shooting  at the wrong shutter speed. The first 4 or 5 shots I took today were all black because of that. By the time I noticed and readjusted, Sundari had retreated to the back of her cat-a-tat, and the best I could get was this shot through some grasses. She’s still magnificent, though, even from a distance.

(I’m doing these in the order we saw them, so it’s going to be a random mixture of species.) Our next cat is Sassyfrass, a 13-year-old cougar (aka mountain lion). He was rescued last year along with another cougar, Freddy, from a private owner who was keeping them (and some other wild animals) as pets. He’d been beaten as a cub by a previous owner, and was terrified of men because of it. Today he appeared happy and healthy. His latest owner's husband was killed by a lion they had also rescued and were trying to keep, and then last year, the wife committed suicide, at which point BCR was contacted to take the cougars. If anything, Freddy and Sassy are prime examples of why it’s not a good idea to keep wild cats as pets. Sadly, there are many other residents at BCR with similar stories.

This sleepy kitty is Reno,  a 16-year-old golden spotted leopard who started life as a circus performer. He was trained to ride in a chariot drawn by a horse: not natural behavior for a wild cat! Because of how he was raised, he didn’t even know how to climb a tree when the circus went under, so there was no way he could go back to the wild. BCR took him in in 2002 along with a few other cats from the same circus. Like I mentioned before, don't let the appearance fool you: he was snoozing at the edge of a large cat-a-tat, and was feeling too lazy to get up and do much more than look at us. We were interrupting his Sunday morning nap.

Jumanji is a 15-year-old black leopard (if you look closely, in the sun you can see his spots) who must love this particular spot in his cat-a-tat, because every time I’ve visited BCR, that’s where he’s been.  One of these days, I’ll catch him when he’s awake. ;)

None of the bobcats were feeling very social today, and the few we did see were pretty well-hidden behind grasses and bushes. This one is Angelica, a 16-year-old who arrived at BCR last year. She’d been kept as a pet, but her owner was in foreclosure and couldn’t keep her any longer. Yet another cat that, while smaller than a lion or a tiger, has no business being kept as a pet. Another bobcat that I wasn't able to photograph well enough was Raindance, who had been rescued from a fur farm.

This black leopard, Sabre, was far perkier than Jumanji. Maybe a little too perky, because he never sat still long enough for me to get a clear photo of him. This was the only clear shot I managed. Not the most flattering, but it’s a good example of a black leopard's coloring: you can see the spots pretty well on his legs. Sabre has been at BCR since he was 3 years old, when he was boarded on what was supposed to be a temporary basis (again by someone who was keeping him as a pet). The owners never returned to pick him up, so BCR gave him a permanent home.

Here is one of the most awake cats we came across today, Enya. She’s one of the hams, a cougar (possibly Florida Panther?) and was born at the sanctuary 14 years ago. She was very happy to see the tour group, pacing along the edge of her cat-a-tat and purring (cougars are one of the few big cats that can purr). It was a real treat to hear in person. Isn't she beautiful? She spent a little time playing with a tube that was hanging in her cat-a-tat, but I wasn’t able to get any clear shots of it. The shadowy light combined with her quick movements didn’t make for easy focusing.

Enya, having a drink.

At this point in the tour, we heard something else pretty impressive: a lion roaring. Just ahead was the cat-a-tat for my favorite odd couple, Cameron and Zabu. We’d hear him roaring again later on, though he was quiet when were were in front of him.

Isn't he beautiful? Cameron and Zabu, a white tigress (sadly, she was sleeping in her hut and I wasn’t able to get any photos), were raised together at a roadside zoo in the hopes they would mate and produce white ligers (a liger is an unnatural breed created by crossing a tiger and a lion). He’s 11 years old and came to live at BCR with Zabu in 2004. Because the two cats were bonded, they were fixed and given a large cat-a-tat to share. Cameron, rather than being neutered, was given a vasectomy so that he wouldn’t lose his glorious mane. (Neutered lions lose their manes.) BCR frequently posts photos and videos of all their cats, and the videos of Cameron and Zabu are always my favorites.

My, what big teeth you have!

At one point, Cameron got up and went over to where Zabu was hiding, but she was apparently very dedicated to her morning nap and refused to come out and play with him. Poor Cameron.

This was another little ham, Rose the Caracal. 14 years old, she’s friendly because she was initially raised as a pet. But because of this, she didn’t learn things she should have, like how to groom herself. She was one of the hits on the tour, due to her beautiful markings, striking black-tipped ears and playful nature. She gave us a little show, rolling around in the grass and doing her best to look as cute as possible.

See? Cute!

What a pretty face.

The photo op that almost wasn't. Nikita, a very large and impressive 10-year-old lioness, was sleeping in her night house when we arrived, and didn’t seem like she had any intention of coming out. But eventually, she decided to grace us with her presence and came out to sit on top of the house, where she pretty much posed for the next 5 or 10 minutes. She’s gorgeous, but like many of the cats, has a sad story. She was found in a drug raid, chained inside a crack house where she’d been kept to guard the drugs. She was malnourished and her elbows were swollen badly from living on a concrete floor. She was also declawed, making it impossible to live with other lions, so moving her to a zoo wasn’t an option. BCR took her in and gave her her own cat-a-tat, where she has flourished into a happy, healthy cat.

I wasn't kidding when I said she posed for us. It's like she knew how awesome she was.

Gorgeous eyes.

Still not quite awake, though.

Our first tiger of the tour, Bengali is a 16-year-old Bengal/Siberian Tiger who started out as a circus performer. Like Reno the leopard, he was trained to ride in a horse-drawn chariot.

He was rather vocal, chuffing at us in greeting.

Across from Bengali was Alex, who was rescued from a failed sanctuary in 2008, along with another tiger and a liger. The story of their rescue is at the link there, if you’d like to read about it. All the links, as a matter of fact, lead back to each animal’s BCR page with information about them and how they came to live at BCR.

More tigers, this time a couple (non-breeding: BCR fixes any cats that are going to be sharing a habitat so no breeding can occur). Shere Khan (left), a 17-year-old male Bengal tiger, was bred to be a white tiger, but came out orange and was therefore unwanted. He lived in poor conditions before being taken in by BCR. Our tour guide told us that he initially didn’t adapt well to the new surroundings, until he was given a companion in China Doll, a 17-year-old tigress who had been kept as a pet until her owners couldn’t afford to keep her any longer. She came to BCR as a cub and was given to Shere Khan as a companion. They bonded and enjoy a 3-acre habitat together with lots of room to roam and access to part of a large lake. Today they mostly enjoyed sleeping.

Look at the size of that paw!

Shere Khan eventually woke up long enough to smile for the camera.

China Doll ... not so much.

Back to the smaller cats, our next stop was Amazing Grace, an absolutely adorable 19-year-old ocelot who came over to say hello to us and rolled around for a little while, showing just how cute she could be. She easily charmed everyone.

Her tattered ears are from the poor living conditions she came from, bitten by another cat trying to get to her through a shared cage wall.

A good sign that a cat is comfortable: she shows you her belly.

Not my best focus job, but too cute to leave out.

Our last cat, and another lazy one, this is Tonga, a 14-year-old white serval.

That's it for my photos. As many as there are, believe me, I took a LOT more. When photographing animals, I tend to go with the “take as many as possible, and if you’re lucky, a few will be good” theory. Today, it worked well for me. If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I hope you enjoyed these beautiful cats as much as I did. And if you ever find yourself in Tampa, I highly recommend a tour at Big Cat Rescue.

One last link you might enjoy. Video of the cats enjoying their Halloween pumpkins.


  1. Great article and beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing both.

  2. I enjoyed your post and the photos are fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

  3. To SS and Diane: Glad you liked them. Thanks for reading!