When in the Tampa/Orlando area in Florida, there are so many attractions and places to visit, many with animals. There’s Disney World, Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and the Tampa Zoo to name just a few. While visiting a friend in Tampa, I definitely wanted to see some animals. Instead of going to the zoo, I opted to visit the Big Cat Rescue animal sanctuary.
One of my biggest struggles as avid animal-lover is the fact that I love to see those beautiful animals up close and personal, but then I feel morally conflicted that the animals are put on display and locked in tiny cages for my benefit. It sends me into a downward spiral where my contributions to places like zoos are keeping these places in business and the animals behind bars. Visiting an animal sanctuary was a good compromise, as the purpose of a true sanctuary is to provide care and a safe home for animals until their natural death.
At Big Cat Rescue, I took two tours. The Keeper’s Tour and the Feeding Tour. At BCR you’re not allowed to tour the premise without a guide. The tours were pricey, but your contributions go directly to helping the cats (it costs over $100 a day to feed one tiger). The actual location was gigantic. It was tucked away down a long dirt road. The sanctuary has over 80 exotic cats ranging from lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats and other exotic cats. Throughout my tours I learned a lot about why the animals were at the sanctuary. Some were rescued from circuses, but the vast majority of cats were originally people’s pets! I could not believe that people in the United States not only think it’s okay, but are legally allowed to have a pet tiger in some states! Many of the cats were donated by their owners after realizing that their “pet” was actually a wild animal and could not be domesticated. One of the lions at BCR was actually purchased by a drug lord to guard his drugs.
^^ (not her cage, just her feeding area/ where they would trap her if she needs medical treatment)
I loved how individualized the treatment was for each cat. Each animal had their own private and spacious enclosure. Most of the tigers were thrilled to have their own space, because most zoo’s and circuses cram them all together in one tiny cage even though they naturally prefer to be alone. Each cat has their own meal plan based on their dietary needs. Older cats that don’t have many teeth left get their meat chopped up into tiny pieces. The staff at BCR take pride in the individualized care each cat receives.
Each animal receives enrichment, which stimulates the animals’ minds. Once or twice a year, each cat “goes on vacation” where they are safely transferred to a huge enclosure where they can roam and explore new scents and terrain. While on The Keeper’s Tour, we actually created enrichment bags for the cats. We filled brown paper bags with various spices, which apparently the cats love to roll around on. And I’ll be the first to confirm, tigers actually do love cinnamon!
The amazing thing about the sanctuary is that each enclosure has a fence in front of it. Preventing the public from getting too close. You’re not even allowed to lean over the fence. This not only protects the people, but also the animals. I learned that to be a true, accredited sanctuary, visitors cannot touch or hold the animals. Even the caregivers are not allowed to touch the animals except for medical reasons. At BCR, the cats have their own dens where they can sleep/hide. In other words, they don’t have to be on display for people if they don’t want to be.
One of the biggest take aways from this entire visit was the fact that there are so many places out there claiming to be sanctuaries when they’re not. No GFAS accredited sanctuary allows the touching/petting or holding of animals. So unfortunately those “elephant sanctuaries” you see people visiting in Thailand are not actually sanctuaries. They are bringing in the majority of their profit by having tourists visit, handle and take photos with the animals –a big heartbreak for me, as its been one of my dreams to visit one of those places.
I’m definitely not here to judge you if you have visited a place like that. Most places like that are good at their scam, meaning they’re very convincing. As an animal lover, I’ve definitely visited zoo’s, swam with dolphins and even rode elephants. Knowing what I know now, I deeply regret my participation in these activities. The only thing I can do now is educate myself and others on the realities of these excursions.
How to tell if a Place is a REAL Animal Sanctuary
Big Cat Rescue not only rescues and rehabilitates these animals, they also fight to put an end to exotic animal abuse in legislation. After my visit to BCR, I realized how ridiculous our legislation is surrounding exotic animals in The United States. Big Cat Rescue is pushing congress to pass a bill called The Big Cat Public Safety Act. It will make the use and purchase of exotic wild cats illegal in the US and contains other important legislation that will help protect these animals.
^^This cage is the USDA LEGALLY APPROVED size for a tiger enclosure in the United States. When not being forced to perform, most circus tigers and pet tigers live out their days in these cages.
If you’re in the Tampa area and looking for something to do, I highly suggest Big Cat Rescue. You’ll be contributing to an incredible organization. If you’d like to join the fight against the use and purchase of exotic animals, there are many things you can do:
Call your local congressmen/ women and ask them to support The Big Cat Public Safety Act
When shopping on Amazon, use Amazon Smile and set your charity to Big Cat Rescue and .5% of all your purchases will be donated to the organization (Link)
Send old electronics and empty toner/ink cartridges to Big Cat Rescue to be recycled (Link)
Help educate others on the realities of zoos and “animal sanctuaries”
Big Cat Rescue Website