Big Cat Rescue provides safe haven in Tampa

Jaguar at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

Lisa is a huge fan of cats – big or small. If it were up to her, we’d have a hundred cats. Fortunately, she is OK with having one domestic cat and getting to see big cats whenever we can.

Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, is a different type of cat complex than we’re used to visiting. Big Cat Rescue offers a home to large cats – lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, etc. – that have been abused, kept as pets, used in circuses and other unnatural environments.

These cats are either found, orphaned or relinquished to the sanctuary. A circus sought to have some of their older cats surrendered to Big Cat Rescue, so they could have a retirement home.

White Tiger at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

Big Cat Rescue didn’t start out as the sanctuary it is today. Founder Carole Baskin and her husband bought a young bobcat, after seeing it at an exotic animal auction. The Baskins were looking to purchase llamas. The six-month-old cat was nervous, she said in an article about the history of the rescue sanctuary on its website, www.bigcatrescue.org.

Lynx at Big Cat Rescue

The bobcat bonded with Carole, but not anyone else in the family. This is a common trait among bobcats, we were told. So, her husband decided to buy his own bobcat and raise it.

They located a bobcat “fur” farm in Minnesota. They drove from Florida to Minnesota. They were shocked at what they saw – dead bobcats piled in a corner. They had been killed for their fur. Another 56 bobcats were in cages or crates.

If they weren’t sold, the remaining cats would be killed for the soft fur on their underbelly after they turned a year old.

Carole was visibly shaken, she said. They ended up buying all 56 cats and taking them to Florida. They had about 40 acres of land they had previously purchased. They started keeping the cats there. The sanctuary now has 67 acres.

Relaxing at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

They cared for the animals, eventually buying more that were in bad condition. Their plan was to sell the cats to what they thought would be good homes.

The Baskins’ views started to evolve as they realized people who had purchased some of the cats were asking to return them because “they weren’t working out.” She also recognized a lynx they had previously sold at an auction. The cat was thin and scared, she said.

In the mid-1990s, Carole acknowledged that raising and selling exotic cats was wrong. She started having the ones at the sanctuary neutered and spay. During this time, her husband became seriously ill. He likely suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He left home one day, not to return. This was a personal torture for her, Carole wrote.

The sanctuary paid for their last rescue cat in 1998.

Cougar at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

Big cat rescue is currently home to about 100 big cats. Most live in large kennels by themselves. Some of the cats have been paired with another of their species because they are willing to socialize with each other.

The sanctuary is a no-touch facility. The animals are fed through caged feeding troughs. The only time they would be touched is for medical purposes. They are sedated first.

Working on enrichment at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

The cats’ personal areas are large enough to allow them free movement and areas to hide from the public when they don’t want to be seen. The cats we saw during our tour were OK with having humans nearby.

Cats receive treats – called “enrichments.” They are usually spice-covered cardboard tubes that they can lick and play with.

Treats/Enrichments handed out at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

Residents get to go on “catcations.” The sanctuary has a large cat play area, where cats are moved to for days at a time, allowing them more room to roam and rest in. They are in the process of building a smaller version for the smaller cats.

In addition to caring for the big cats, the sanctuary works to support legislation banning breeding and private ownership of exotic animals. They have encountered a lot of opposition in their efforts.

Big Cat Rescue is accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries (GFAS). It’s one of the largest big cat sanctuaries in the world.

Black Leopard at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida

To be honest, we went in thinking we were going to see some big cats. We left with a greater understanding and appreciation of the animals, and what groups like the Big Cat Rescue do in protecting them.

The Big Cat Rescue is open every day, but Thursday and two holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas). For more information on the sanctuary or to reserve a tour, please visit www.bigcatrescue.org.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Big Cat Rescue for the complimentary tour of the sanctuary. However, all opinions and views are ours.