by Martine Colette
A while back, I got a letter from someone who had just been on a tour. Although the woman was fascinated with what she saw, why, she wondered, did we have so many lions and tigers and other exotic cats? The numbers seemed all out of proportion to the other animals who have found refuge at the Wildlife Waystation. Quite a few bears, to be sure, but she was left with an impression of a feline-filled facility. Of course, she is right — we do have an extraordinarily large number of cats residing here and, although chimpanzees and iguanas are now also vying for the title of most animals in residence, the cats still remain the winners.
As we began 1997, we could claim home status to a huge number of African lions as well as populations of tigers, leopards, jaguars and ligers. Many cougars also live here as well as assorted feline species, including servals, bobcats, a caracal, a lynx and an ocelot. And they keep coming, from all around the world, as well as this country. Why so many? Except for exotic birds, which can easily be acquired from most pet stores, cats seem to top the list as most desired of exotic pets. And they’re among the most beautiful and enchanting to look at in display situations. The aura of mystery that has historically been attached to cats naturally enhances their popularity, not to mention the challenge of an animal with a personality so resistant to domination. Their reputation for aloofness can be a magnet for someone who wants to prove his mastery. Who could deny such beauty, or look into the eyes of a tiger and not be mesmerized?
Yet it is their attractiveness and popularity that too often puts both them and their owners or keepers in harm’s way. Because their personalities and behavior patterns differ so little from their domestic counterparts, they often seem deceptively benign. How could one not feel an urge to bestow affection on a beautiful feline, cat-napping while lying flat on it’s back, feet in the air — so sweet, so cuddly. So big! The fact that the animal may weigh over 500 pounds when full grown is rarely a deterrent when someone gets the notion that owning an tiger or lion would, indeed, be a very cool thing. A frequent phrase emanating from visitors to the Wildlife Waystation when viewing a particularly charming scene involving one of the cats, goes something like this: "I just want to give him a big hug!"
Our Tour Guides and other knowledgeable volunteers are quick to point out the likely pitfalls of such an encounter, but, given the opportunity, many — too many — would be hard pressed to resist. And given the opportunity to actually possess such an animal, most such individuals would be equally hard pressed to resist. But, they argue, I’ll get one as a baby and raise it in my house, and it will be just like any other cat, only bigger. The odds are very much against it! Even a domestic cat likes to occasionally take a playful swipe at it’s owner, or the furniture. Imagine if that playful swipe packed a punch strong enough to shatter a bowling ball!
Fortunately, California laws are currently stringent enough to eliminate many prospective exotic animal owners from entering that arena. But people persist in pursuing the fantasy. Until they get caught, or injured, or someone else gets injured, or there is some other incident or close call. And the sad truth is that in many parts of the country, there are few, if any, laws governing the keeping of wild or exotic animals. Aside from their tremendous potential for danger, these animals require very specialized care, from their diet, to the enclosures where they will live. They’re also very expensive to take care of properly. Most Zoos and animal parks only keep on display a limited number of these cats.
With each African lion requiring upwards of $4000 a year to care for, providing food, housing and medical attention, our expenses are astronomical! Unlike most facilities which raise the funds before assuming costly responsibilities, we are often confronted with emergency situations which require an immediate response. We simply don’t have the luxury of getting the money first when our priority is saving the animal. Since we depend on you, our loyal supporters, I hope everyone who reads this will join our Membership Drive and bring in several new Wildlife Waystation Members.
And so, when pet owners no longer can deal with a dangerously large animal living in close proximity with people in a limited space; or road-side displays can’t afford the upkeep or are taken to task by authorities or concerned citizens; or sub-standard zoos around the world are forced to close or diminish their numbers, where do these wonderful creatures go? The Wildlife Waystation, of course