TAMPA — Big Cat Rescue, the sprawling 67-acre Citrus Park sanctuary that is home to more than 100 lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats and other wild felines, was issued a warning by state wildlife officers after someone submitted a photo of a staffer allowing a leopard into a caged area with an open top.
The complaint was filed by Vernon Yates, a wildlife trapper and rescuer from Pinellas County who also runs a shelter for big cats and other species. He said the photo was taken by an unidentified person who either volunteers or works at Big Cat Rescue.
“There is a person who works there who from time to time, calls me with stuff that goes on there,” said Yates, who owns and operates Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Seminole. “I usually laugh it off. I say, ‘If you ain’t got proof, it never happened.”
Yates said he received the photo and sent it on to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“Florida statutes clearly state you can’t put leopards in open-top cages,” Yates said. “Leopards are cunning and they are superb climbers and if a leopard gets out, we all know who they’re going to call to catch it. Me.”
In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Yates was critical of Big Cat Rescue and its founder and CEO, Carole Baskin:
“It is shocking that Carole Baskin and Big Cat Rescue would endanger the lives of their neighbors as well as their own employees and volunteers in this way. It is shocking that they would endanger the life of the leopard itself in this way since there is a very real risk that the leopard would be hurt or killed if it had escaped. “It is ironic that Big Cat Rescue frequently criticizes other zoos claiming that Big Cat Rescue is better able to handle exotic cats.”
Baskin admitted wildlife officers came out to look at the cage last week but shrugged off the complaint, saying other wildlife caretakers often take aim at a Big Cat Rescue. She said that’s because they’re jealous that her sanctuary keeps cats in large environments that are similar to their habitat and they’re upset that Big Cat Rescue is leading the charge to pass a federal law that would clamp down on big cat breeding, abuse and the keeping of cats in small enclosures.
She said the state inspectors last week told her there did not seem to be anything wrong with the two-and-a-half-acre pen, dubbed the Vacation Rotation enclosure because cats are rotated in and out of the area.
“They issued a warning, not a citation because they believed it was clear that no harm was intended and no harm would have come of the situation,” Baskin said.
She said the law changed after the enclosure was built. The change now requires enclosures to be topped if leopards are to be kept there. At the time the enclosure was built, it met all the state requirements, she said.
Baskin filed a petition for an exemption. In the petition, she described the enclosure as large enclosure which has a 15-foot fence with a 5-foot cantilever leaning inward at the top and encircling the pen. At the end of the slanted portion is a “curtain of wire.”
“If a cat were to climb, upside down, for the five feet of the cantilever,” she wrote, “this draping of a wire panel keeps them from being able to get a paw out past the wire and over to the top of the cantilever.”
She also said the leopards who are rotated in the pen have been declawed, including the one depicted in the photograph.
“That leopard can’t even climb up on a foot stool,” she said. “He’s already back in his own enclosure, which is 1,200 square-foot cage with a roof over it.”
The larger enclosure is an open space through which the cats are rotated, she said, to give them a two-week change of scenery and a little more room to prowl around. Until she hears about the exemption, leopards will not be allowed back there, she said.
Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit that began rescuing exotic cats 22 years ago, is an accredited sanctuary for exotic cats that is home to about 100 lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and other species, most of which have been abandoned, abused, orphaned or retired from performing acts.
Baskin said other wildlife keepers filing complaints on Big Car Rescue is nothing new.
“Every week or so, I get some false complaint,” she said. “I have to address it, and lots of times I have to respond to the media as well. It’s just ridiculous.”
State wildlife officers declined to discuss specifics of the matter.
“We issued a warning, not a citation,” said commission spokesman Gary Morse. “The warning just says they have been warned and this needs to be fixed. It’s just a record that we talked to them and that there is an issue.”