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Big Cat Rescue offers safari experience

Special Correspondent
Published: April 29, 2014
Hal the cougar basks in the sunlight at Big Cat Rescue. HANDOUT PHOTO

CITRUS PARK — Tucked away behind a row of retailers is a 70-acre sanctuary for more than 100 exotic cats, including lions, tigers, leopards and cougars. Big Cat Rescue, at 12802 Easy St., in Citrus Park, was founded by Carole Baskin in 1992 and is the largest accredited sanctuary in the world that is devoted just for big cats, according to Susan Bass, director of public relations.

The sanctuary provides a safe and healthy home for the cats, that have been rescued for a variety of reasons, yet are not able to be released back into the wild.

Accredited by the Global Federation of Sanctuaries and registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity, Big Cat Rescue relies on donations as well as revenue from guided tours to finance its operations. Caring for big cats is not cheap.

“It costs about $10,000 per year for each lion or tiger to provide them with food, veterinary care and habitat maintenance,” Bass said.

Guided tours are the most enjoyable way the public can help the sanctuary raise needed funds to keep its big cats fed, housed and healthy. The hour-and-a-half tours take place each weekday — except Thursdays — at 3 p.m., and on weekends at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The guided tours allow the public the opportunity to see the big cats up close.

“You can get as close as three feet from the cats if they are right at the edge of the enclosure,” Bass said. “We are not like a zoo, so when you come to Big Cat Rescue, you have to stay with the guided tour and can’t wander around by yourself. Because our cats have very large, leafy enclosures, with a lot of trees and dens where they can sleep or hide, you will only see the animals that want to be seen that day. That means that every time you come to Big Cat Rescue, it’s going to be a different experience.”

Those who want to explore the deeper workings of the sanctuary can take one of the other tours offered, including a feeding tour, a photo tour, a private tour, a keeper tour or a field trip. There are special tours just for kids, and those so inclined can schedule a party or wedding at Big Cat Rescue. Details for the tours are on the sanctuary’s website.

Along with lions, tigers and leopards, Big Cat Rescue is home to cats rarely seen in zoos. Currently, the sanctuary is home to 14 species.

“We have some unusual cats that people don’t know about or see very often, such as African servals, caracals, jungle cats, Geoffroy’s cats, sand cats, bobcats, lynxes and ocelots,” Bass said.

According to Bass, all animals in captivity are subject to boredom, seeing the same things every day, so Big Cat Rescue recently opened 2 1⁄2-acre area for “vacation rotation.”

“We rotate the cats in and out of the new section for two-week vacations,” Bass said. “They have a new area to explore. There are several platforms for them to lounge on and a pond. Unlike most cats, tigers like to swim. It’s been going very well and the animals really love it.”

That sort of concern for the physical and emotional well-being of the cats has helped Big Cat Rescue to develop into an innovative and highly respected sanctuary, despite some early unintended missteps. It has been certified by Independent Charities of America as a “Best in America” charity and has been given the highest rating of four stars by Charity Navigator.

Along with providing a safe haven for rescued cats, Big Cat Rescue is heavily involved in teaching the public about the plight of these animals, both in captivity and in the wild. The sanctuary works tirelessly to advocate for changes in federal and state laws that make it easy for individuals to purchase and keep exotic cats as pets. Bass points out that as many as 10,000 to 20,000 exotic cats are currently being kept as pets in the United States, despite the fact that they do not make good pets.

“Our biggest dream at Big Cat Rescue is actually to go out of business because there will no longer be a need for us to have to rescue and take care of cats that have been abandoned or abused,” Bass said.

The Big Cat Rescue website offers several opportunities for individuals to help the sanctuary, whether it’s getting involved in advocacy work, volunteering time at the shelter, purchasing items from the gift shop or visiting the cats on a guided tour.

“Sanctuaries like ours are generally full, and every year we have to turn cats away,” Bass said. “It’s really sad that it’s easier for people to get a lion or tiger cub over the Internet or from a dealer in America than it is to go to the Humane Society to adopt a puppy or a kitten.”

For information on Big Cat Rescue, call (813) 920-4130.