In August 2015 I embarked on a trip to visit Big Cat Rescue (BCR) and four other animal facilities, most of which are constantly being trashed online by Big Cat Rescue. The other facilities I visited were Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary (BCH), Dade City’s Wild Things (DCWT), Forced Exotic Animal Relocation (FEAR), and The Institute of Greatly Endangered & Rare Species (TIGERS.). I’ve already reviewed the first three of the facilities visited which you can read about in the previous blog posts. Now it’s time for the long overdue blog post on Big Cat Rescue that many of you have been patiently waiting for me to complete. Sorry about that.
Heading down a long narrow road called Easy Street I was able to see just how much urbanization was closing in on Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida. Peeking through a clearing of tall lush trees encompassing Easy Street, stood a building held at bay by a white vinyl fence.
Through the use of Google Maps one can see neighborhoods, highways, expressways, restaurants, stores, and even a mall surrounding Big Cat Rescue. I myself ate lunch at a Chili's that was in walking distance before I began my incognito tour. Scattered along the sides of Easy Street were a couple of houses; some seemed to have gone unkept for weeks and possibly even months.
Entering through the gates of this roadside zoo/tourist attraction I was greeted by a volunteer who gave me a couple of instructions and pointed to the parking lot. Stepping out of the car I could see the gift shop I would have to pass through before beginning my greatly anticipated tour. The area in between the gift shop and entrance gate was swarming with volunteers wearing blue shirts. Some of the volunteers seemed to be clowning around with each other.
At the perimeter of the parking lot were a couple of small buildings that I don’t know the purpose of. Across from that was Big Cat Rescue's small cargo trailer which looked hardly used. When walking towards the entrance of the gift shop I noticed a very familiar banner attached to the white perimeter fence, the same type of fence erected in other sections of Easy Street. Planted in the ground in front of the gift shop was a small yellow sign that displayed the price of admission. $36 for people age 10 and over and $19 for kids under 10 years of age. I should point out that kids are only welcomed on specific tours on specified days of the week. In other words, Big Cat Rescue is not family friendly.
Before being allowed to enter the gift shop I had to hand over my ticket (purchased online) to the lady who was checking people in. I was given a green wristband and was allowed to enter. Part of the path that led to the gift shop was composed of customized red bricks with donor names and messages inscribed on them. Who in their right mind would pay $100 and $200 for a simple brick, I wondered? I definitely wouldn’t.
Decorating the area in front of the gift shop were colorful plants and a beautiful tree that I was half tempted to climb. Posted on the wall outside of the gift shop were a few posters, one of which was a “Release and Hold Harmless Agreement”.
There was a lot of merchandise that could be purchased inside the exotic cat themed gift shop such as clothes, toys, books, photographs, postcards, jewelry, and drinks. The interior of the gift shop was nicely done and it was such a relief to be inside an air conditioned building since it was a very hot day. To the left side of the doorway, hanging on the wall, was a large picture showcasing the "Big Cat Lodge" Big Cat Rescue plans on building in the future. I've touched upon that subject before and still never understood why they plan on spending that kind of money for a building even though they claim their goal is to put themselves out of business. That’s quite a big investment that might be better spent improving the lives and cages of their feline residents.
In the middle of the area near the entrance of the gift shop was a stand full of brochures, Big Cat Times newspapers, and various other reading materials. I grabbed a couple since the lady at the cash register said they were free. I wondered if the cost to create those is considered an “education” expense, since education and cat care expenses are lumped together in Big Cat Rescue's tax forms.
Walking a bit further down to a different section of the gift shop I came upon a counter that had a small book titled, “Weddings at Big Cat Rescue”; another commercial enterprise offered for money. On the shelves next to that were plaques that could be bought for quite a large sum of money, $500 to be exact. If I recall correctly, towards the wall opposite of the counter were books and a toy figure called "Crazy Cat Lady". Not entirely sure what kid would want that but cat people will be cat people, I suppose. Before I could look at anything else a volunteer asked me to go to the seating area located outside behind the gift shop as the tour was about to begin.
Before taking my seat I was handed a small blue audio device and a pair of cheap light blue earphones which were the miserably uncomfortable rounded type. While seated I noticed that Big Cat Rescue’s version of their "history and evolution" story was hanging on the wall. Most of you know the lies contained in their highly "evolved" version of their story.
We were then told to pay attention to the video that was about to be played on the small television hanging on the wall of the gift shop. The video was narrated by Jeff Kremer, Director of Donor Appreciation, and gave the “dos” and “don'ts” of the tour. One “don't” was not to touch the barrier between you and the cat enclosures because they have metal points sticking out of them. Why didn’t they just correct this problem before some clumsy person trips and falls on them, possibly injuring their eyes or worse? It's not as if this facility doesn't have millions in the bank that could be used to insure the safety of it's visitors. They aren't serving much purpose as barriers anyway as I found out after accidentally leaning against one. The whole thing moved and felt as though it would fall down if I had put too much weight against it.
After the video concluded the tour guide tested out the audio system to see if everyone was receiving audio through the devices we were handed. These audio recordings and headphones are relatively new and probably became necessary when different tour guides would be caught telling two different stories about the same cat. The tour began as we walked closely in between two sections of a bobcat's enclosure, ducking under a small tunnel walkway connecting the two sections together.
If I remember correctly, there was one guide leading us around the property while two others stayed behind our group making sure we don't wander off. Apparently that meant we could wander anywhere in between them which of course, I did. They offered a golf cart to accommodate people incapable of being able to walk throughout the 1 ½ hour tour which I thought was a great idea.
The first enclosure we were led to belonged to a cougar named Reise, if I’m not mistaken. The enclosure itself seemed cheaply constructed when compared to the big cat enclosures I saw at Big Cat Habitat. The cage was cylindrical and built entirely from cattle panels that were held together by metal ties called hog rings. The walls were stabilized by panels on the roof of the enclosure stretching from one side to the other. The enclosure seemed to only be secured to the ground by being buried. How deep though? I can’t know for sure for this specific cage but by going off of the specifications of a video they made about a different enclosure it should be buried 8 inches (2 squares) in the ground (start the video at 7:00). I couldn’t help but wonder if tree roots affect the sections buried in the ground. Speaking of trees, there were trees poking through cut-out holes in the roof which I thought was odd. Nothing about the enclosure resembled a facility that rakes in millions of dollars a year. It seemed like something the average Joe could put together without too much effort or money.
The cougar hopped off of its grassy stone-like platform and walked to its small wooden platform, laying down looking at its visitors. The cougar’s only shelter seemed to be a dog igloo that was covered with algae and a den located inside the stonelike platform it was previously perched on. The guide played Reise’s audio story which was transmitted to the listening devices we had been handed. Listening to the story was problematic for me because the earphones kept falling out of my ears. It was hard to keep them in place due to sweat. After all, it was a hot and slightly humid day. The discomfort of the plastic earphones pressed inside my ear and the low quality sound weren't making things any easier. The audio stories they play of the cats are the same ones that can be found on Big Cat Rescue’s cat biography section of their website.
After listening to the story and staring at the cougar for a while in awkward silence we then moved on to the next exhibit which was a bobcat enclosure. The bobcat's enclosure was constructed the same way as the cougar's enclosure. Its enclosure was teeming with overgrown vegetation and had a large rotting tree laying on the ground. The bobcat was sleeping, ignoring the large tour group currently gawking at it. Its house was different than the doghouse the cougar was given but was still unimpressive. Inside the cage was a rocky wall that seemed to have lacked surfaces for a cat to lay on but it would have been a nice addition if it had been better built and maintained. The guide played the bobcat's audio story and then we moved on.
We walked past a couple more of the same oddly built enclosures that seemed to be empty unless the cats were just hiding in their doghouses. To the side of the path were a couple volunteers standing around talking, presumably taking a break from their work. The area they were standing in was really muddy which explains why they were wearing rubber boots. Numerous yellow Tidy Cats buckets were littering the ground likely used for whatever the volunteers were currently doing.
The next exhibit we saw belonged to another cougar named Mac; same cage design as the previous cats. This time the housing wasn’t a dog house but an oddly shaped stone-like den. I say stone-like because I’m not entirely sure what material it was made of. Mac was drinking water when we intruded on him. His story was played and then we moved on as he walked away, briefly stopping to relieve himself.
This can go on and on so I’ll speed it up a bit. For this portion of the tour all of the cages were constructed the same way. Overgrown weeds, trees poking out of the roofs, excess surface water, mud, and dirty dog houses were a common occurrence. We were led to a cat, quietly watched it while its audio story played, the guide reiterates its story, then we move on to the next cat on the tour path.
Moving on, the next cat we saw was a serval. The serval was taking shelter from the beating sun under its small wooden platform. There was mud and small puddles of water on the outskirts of the cage. Its house was a small underground den which I assume must contain water since it had rained a couple days before.
As we were continuing down the trail we passed by a sleeping cougar named Narla and a couple other enclosures that we didn’t get to stop and check out. The enclosure we did stop at belonged to another serval. Like the previous serval, this one was resting underneath its wooden platform. There was muddy water surrounding part of this cage too. Looking at the markings left on the wooden supports of the platform it seems as though there had been a lot more water in the cage that had since receded.
We walked past more cages and even more standing water. Wearing sandals at Big Cat Resuce after a downpour seems like a bad idea. Who knows what possible diseases one could catch if they were to accidentally step in a puddle likely contaminated by runoff containing cat feces.
We stopped at yet another serval cage. Unlike the previous ones, this serval was resting on its wooden platform. I suspect it wasn’t lying in the shade underneath due to the muddy terrain directly beneath its platform. I also happened to notice that the overhead cattle panel stretching from one side of the cage to the other had metal prongs facing downwards right above the platform. Just like how the barriers have metal points facing upwards that the pre-tour video warned us about.
After looking at that cat and hearing its story we then turned around behind us to a bobcat cage. We couldn’t really see the bobcat up close though as it chose to keep its distance slightly away from the tour path and the caging obstructed our view.
Continuing onward down the path we stopped at yet another serval enclosure. One would think a facility named Big Cat Rescue would house mostly big cats as their name implies, but that is not the case. Before we stopped at the serval enclosure I couldn’t help but notice the cage right beside it. That cage was really flooded. So much so that there was only an island with a dirty doghouse in the center of it. I could only imagine how bad it must have been before most of the water dried up. The cage we were currently looking at was flooded as well. The serval was resting in thick vegetation a foot or so away from the dirty flood water.
After passing by another cage we were able to see a large enclosure Big Cat Rescue had been working on for several months. The unfinished enclosure is supposed to be like their highly publicized “vacation rotation" they have for their big cats, except this one is meant for their smaller cats.
Why does Big Cat Rescue waste so much space for this one enclosure cats only spend two weeks in when they could just increase the size and structure of their primary enclosures? They proudly claim to have over 60+ acres of land so why aren’t they taking full advantage of it? They have more than enough room and money to give all of their cats large well constructed enclosures. I can only speculate that they just want to garner attention by showing off this cage like they did for their larger cats “vacation” enclosure. (The slideshow photo above that was presented by Big Cat Rescue makes their motive pretty clear)
When they finish constructing the large cage they will likely take pictures of their smaller cats in that cage instead of the smaller cages the cats actually spend their entire lives in. I also assume that it's another way to make their donors feel like their donations are actually being used for their cats even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. So far the cage seemed to look loosely held together and very unsecured but then again, I can’t say for sure what the end result well be.
Moving on we stopped at another bobcat enclosure that contained multiple bobcats. The dog house in that cage was buried partly in the ground. That to me seems like a bad idea because rain water could easily seep into it leaving nowhere for the cats to take shelter from the rain and water. In that cage was a large tree that was wedged in between other trees so the bobcats could have something to climb on.
To the side of that enclosure was another cage housing a hybrid cat. The cat was a cross between a serval and caracal. Speaking of hybrids, Carole purchased many hybrid cats that she hoped to breed when she was known as Wildlife on Easy Street but now claims that they are dangerous to neighbors and the environment and should be banned. Part of its cage was teeming with scrubby-looking overgrown vegetation that definitely needed to be trimmed, but I assume it's that way so BCR can take pictures making it seem as though their cages are "natural".
We walked past more cages and buildings until we stopped at a couple cages housing leopards most of which were purchased, bred, and born at BCR. One of the cages was constructed slightly different than the rest I’d seen so far. It had thick poles presumably making the cage more secure. I wondered why they did that for this cage and not for others. Maybe that particular cage had a higher chance of falling apart?
Walking back to the buildings we had just passed we stopped at an enclosure belonging to a lioness named Nikita. Her cage was located to the side of one of the buildings near a parked truck. Her area seemed to have been previously flooded if the large puddle of water was any indication. After getting permission to get closer to the cage I was able to get a better look of Nikita who was just sleeping in the middle of her cage all by herself. I wonder why animal rights activists aren't petitioning to relocate her to facility where she can live in a pride and not be lonely.... like they did with an elephant in a certain zoo. I guess since BCR is a 'sanctuary' it's acceptable to house a lion alone. I also saw a small camera that allows people to watch Nikita live.
We walked past more cages and when closely inspecting one I saw a dirty metal water bowl. I wondered whether or not that is a common occurrence. There is absolutely no excuse for a multimillion dollar sanctuary with a hundred or so volunteers to have even one dirty water bowl. According to a 2014 inspection report, FWC listed dirty water bowls as one of the many problems BCR had to correct. One of the pictures FWC took of a water bowl seemed to hint that it hadn’t been washed for quite a long while.
We were then led to a black leopard named Jumanji. He was resting on top of his wooden platform. The ground beneath his platform was soggy and muddy. There was also surface water standing in some parts of his cage. I’m very well aware of Jumanji and his true story which has been omitted or altered several times, so I was not the least bit surprised that his audio story made no mention that he was born at BCR and was the personal pet of founder Carole Baskin's daughter, Jamie Veronica. I also didn't expect that his story would include the fact that Jumanji attacked a woman resulting in 451 stitches.
We then stopped for a couple minutes at the memorial wall located near Jumanji’s cage. It was interesting to read the names of so many dead cats that we now know were bought or born at BCR.
We passed by more cages and ended up at a tiger's enclosure. Finally, an actual big cat! Kali was the tiger’s name. Her enclosure was decently built when compared to the previous ones I'd been seeing throughout the tour. Well, at least part of it was anyway. The larger section that had open space and an unobstructed view of the sky was definitely a step up from the other cat’s cages as well as the section of the cage Kali currently rested in. Her pool water was pretty dirty looking when compared to what I saw at Big Cat Habitat. In one of BCR’s videos they said they pump in the water from their pond into the pools for their cats that they sometimes swim in and drink from. The pond is a former borrow pit located near a busy expressway so who knows what chemicals have seeped into it. Frequent flooding further adds to the possible health hazards. If that’s not bad enough the pools are then drained back into the pond. A very strange cycle indeed but at least the pond made for good scenery, although it’s likely problematic during the rainy season.
Walking a little bit down the path encompassing the pond we stopped at an enclosure housing a lion named Cameron. He was busy relaxing on his wooden platform not really paying much attention to the onlookers currently staring at him. I thought it was really odd that he had no mane adorning his giant head because that’s the mane feature that stands out when you see a male lion. I later read that the male's mane will disappear if the lion is neutered.
His enclosure looked fantastic. It was clean, had lush grass, and seemed solidly built. It was spacious, though, nowhere near the size Big Cat Rescue's videos make it out to be. There’s not many bad things to say about it apart from the dirty-looking pool and the lack of enrichment but then again, male lions are typically lazy and most big cats sleep 18-20 hours a day.
Zabu, the female white tiger that shares the same cage with Cameron more than makes up for the lack of enrichment but at the time of my visit, she was separated in a different enclosure. I wondered why they were separated. We had to turn back so we weren't able to see Zabu.
Further down the path, towards the vacation rotation, a veterinarian was checking on the cats currently turned out there. I assume they didn’t want any distractions and they were probably filming. Why are people even allowed to view the cats in the “vacation rotation" enclosure? It’s supposed to be a vacation, after all. I would have thought that would entail having the cats take a break from being gawked at by day tours, night tours, keepers tours, VIP tours, children tours, feeding tours, weddings, parties, and some other commercial events I've probably left out.
When walking back the way we came I saw the section on one of the cat’s pool where the water drains into the pond only to be pumped back in. The water that was near the drain looked really nasty.
Skipping more cages we ended up at enclosure belonging to a another black leopard named Sabre. He is the father of Jumanji after being bred with a female black leopard named Lola back when Carole used to breed her cats. He was also bred to Nyla to produce Sundari. Sabre's cage was like the others. The platform, although dirty, was well designed to accommodate his age. As expected, there was of course no mention of his breeding history in his audio story.
When walking to another cage I saw one of the long poles BCR volunteers use to pull out feces from cages they are trying to clean. It seemed not to have been used lately though since it was surrounded by deep water. We retraced our steps back to a leopard's cage we previously passed up. I think it was the same one we passed up a while back but It’s kind of hard to tell since I was standing in the middle of a wire jungle. Nothing about this place seemed well thought out or organized.
We passed by more cages. One of the ones I passed by had rust starting to develop. We stopped at an orange water dispenser to rehydrate but I declined because I had no idea where the water came from. A bit further down the trail I saw the solar panels that BCR had installed near their pond. I also saw a small wooden building to the side of a cage across the trail from the panels. That building was likely one of the bed and breakfast cabins used for their previous operation; letting people pay to sleep with one or two of their declawed cubs unsupervised. Back across from this building was a bobcat enclosure that two bobcats called home. For some reason part of this bobcat cage was taller than the rest. It also contained two dirty looking pools with a small waterfall. I assume that it used to be two separate cages but was later joined together to create one enclosure. One of the bobcats was sitting by the fence wall looking at us. We heard their stories and then our attention was shifted to the structure that contained one of the wooden cabins I mentioned.
That building was called the Kitten Cabana. One volunteer went in and started presenting some of the kittens that were in there while another told us about their program for helping stray kittens. I find it odd that there are so many unwanted kittens that have no mother caring for them but I have no clue if that’s a common occurrence.
We were then led to an area that had many benches side by side in two rows. That was likely used for special events such as weddings. There were two large toy balls that were battered and chewed up by the big cats. We were told a story about how BCR was told that the balls were indestructible but their cats proved the company that made them wrong.
We walked past a couple more cages until we reached a large enclosure belonging to a tiger. His enclosure was one of the very few large ones BCR provides for their cats. In front of that enclosure were two sections of the memorial wall. One section had domestic cat plaques and the other were plaques for deceased big cats.
After viewing the tiger’s enclosure we were then led back to where we began the tour. We passed by a couple more cages until we stopped in front of a transport cage that was located to the left of where we began the tour and to the side of the cougar cage that we first stopped at. The cages behind the transport cage were flooded on the sides. It was clearly obvious that the cages were previously flooded but the water receded leaving behind large pools of water and lots of mud. The volunteer that was currently lecturing us about how wrong it is to own big cats was wearing muddy boots for precisely that reason. Anyway, getting back to the lecture. The gist of what the guide was saying basically came down to how exotic cats kept as pets often live horrible lives before ending up at places like BCR, if they’re lucky. She illustrated that point by asking us what the cage before us was. I answered it was a transport cage but the guide went on to say that most tigers kept as pets live in cages the size of a transport cage for their whole lives. She even said people don’t even have to feed their pet tiger or treat it right. I have since been told that these transport cages are for just that....transporting cats on the road....and that there are laws against abuse or neglect of animals in every state in the country.
Our guide asked the tour group for a volunteer for her demonstration that involved someone “being the tiger” which consisted of standing in a small square of cattle panels.
At one point during her presentation she was stopped mid-sentence by a plane flying over head. We were just standing their for a while in awkward silence until it flew far enough away from us. Then she resumed saying how they have a section in the gift shop were we could call our representatives to tell them to support a ban on the private possession of exotic cats. She went as far as to say we could call multiple times using different voices.
While she was talking I and many others couldn’t help but notice the cougar we first saw on our tour was now nervously pacing in circles. It was going around its stony platform and entering it and exiting it before going around it again. The guide noticed that she was losing our attention to the cougar so she asked us to pay attention to her for right now then we could look at the cougar. Examining the cougar’s cage I saw erosion occurring where the cage was buried in the ground. Some of the soil seemed to have been washed away exposing some of the caging that was buried. There were sharp points from the buried panels sticking out of the ground. This was the multimillion dollar sanctuary abused exotic cats ended up in if they were "lucky"?
That concluded the tour and we were asked to hand in the audio players while we got to keep the ear phones. I handed in my blue audio player and walked underneath the bobcat walkway that now had a bobcat lying down in it, to the gift shop where I exited. I thought it a good move to put the entrance and exit through the gift shop so you can spend your money coming and going. At the same time I thought it sad that money was obviously spent on the gift shop that could have been better spent improving the cat enclosures or solving the drainage problems.
If you’re ever in Tampa, Florida looking for a place to spend time with your family I recommend not going to Big Cat Rescue. They're far from family friendly and there will be no time to spend with the cats since you are just led from one cage to another. Also if you have a kid under 10 years of age you would have to go on a certain day that allows kids of that age group. If you’re looking for somewhere educational, again, BCR is not the answer. The tour was far from educational since it was composed of just walking from cage to cage listening to the tedious (and mostly deceitful) audio stories of their cats with a couple of quick Wikipedia facts thrown in and a lot of animal rights propaganda. It was very boring and there weren't many good photo opportunities, unless you want a picture of a cat with nasty caging ruining the shot.
The recorded biographies that are supposed to tear at your heart (and purse) strings had no affect on me because I already knew the truth about the origins of these cats from hours and hours of research. Nothing about BCR seemed representative of a facility that rakes in millions of donor dollars a year.
I don’t know how people leave BCR feeling as though their whole world has been changed, as many reviews have said. That leads me to believe these people have never been to a good zoo or the review is a fake written by one of many die-hard BCR supporters who believe what they are told without question. Nothing about BCR stood out from the other facilities I visited on my exotic animal adventure. Some of these other facilities I visited were way nicer than BCR and two in particular did a much better job in educating the public about the animals they exhibited. That’s saying something because Big Cat Rescue routinely bashes all but one of the facilities I visited, claiming to be superior to all of them. Politics aside, study the photos I took at BCR, compare them to those taken at other facilities, and tell me who does the better job of housing big cats.