Memorial Wall includes nearly every cat species
TAMPA, Florida––Visitors to Big Cat Rescue will see almost every species of cat whom anyone has ever raised in captivity.
The cats are without exception kept in exemplary conditions, displaying the relaxed ferocity in repose that most cats take as a birthright.
But visitors will see no “Wall of Shame,” not even for breeders, traveling exhibitors, and proprietors of roadside zoos misidentified as “sanctuaries.”
Mainstream media accounts and the online rumor mill make frequent mention of the “Wall of Shame” purportedly maintained by Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin and her husband Howard Baskin, who directs the Big Cat Rescue legal affairs. Yet that wall does not exist.
There is, however, a Memorial Wall, displaying the name, image, and a brief summary of biographical facts about each and every cat who has come to Big Cat Rescue for a last few months or years of peace.
Carole Baskin can recite by heart the cats’ stories, much as she tells the stories of the 100-odd still living cats at Big Cat Rescue, checking the inventory on her cell phone to confirm their vital statistics.
The Big Cat Rescue cats are, as well as the largest number at any sanctuary, the largest assembly of geriatric large and exotic cats anywhere. Twenty-nine cats are more than 20 years old.
The serval Arizona, 26, is the oldest serval on record, now three years older than the previous record holder. A second Big Cat Rescue serval, Bongo, 24, has also broken the record.
The Big Cat Rescue tiger Flavio, who died at 25, and the bobcat Indian Summer, who died at 23, are believed to have been the oldest of their species––but another Big Cat Rescue bobcat, Pretender, has reached 23, and yet another, Angie, is 22.
Slinking through the grass
Carole Baskin tears up at the statistical reminder that the Memorial Wall will soon be getting longer.
The Big Cat Rescue Memorial Wall might be compared in concept to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., designed by Maya Lin as a combination of trench and slab, but visually it is nothing the same.
Viewed as most visitors see it, from below, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is composed of severe straight lines and is imposing in height. The Big Cat Rescue Memorial Wall is low enough to sit on, meandering in gentle curves through flowering trees––somewhat like a cat, big or small, slinking through grass or bushes.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, though recessed into a low hillside, dominates the landscape behind the Lincoln Memorial. A casual visitor could entirely miss the Big Cat Rescue Memorial Wall. Even seeing it, a visitor might miss the significance of it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is stark and shocking, reminding Americans of some of our nation’s most tragic and prolonged mistakes. The Big Cat Rescue Memorial Wall unpretentiously evokes only the memories of those who knew the cats, big and small, to whom it pays tribute.
Those who should be ashamed
Only in the minds of those who have something involving big cats to be ashamed of is the Big Cat Rescue Memorial Wall truly a “Wall of Shame.”
Unfortunately, most of the cats in those people’s custody are unlikely to ever come to Big Cat Rescue.
Among those people are a galaxy of the most notorious exotic cat breeders and exhibitors around the U.S.––like Tiger Truck Stop owner Michael Sandlin, of Grosse Tete, Louisiana, who has for 28 years exhibited tigers at a gas station and has fought in court and the Louisiana statehouse against efforts to close his facility, beginning with the passage of a 1996 Iberville Parish ordinance against keeping “wild, exotic, and vicious animals.”
At least 13 tigers have occupied Sandlin’s cages over the years. He had four in 2003, but sent three to the Tiger Haven sanctuary in Tennessee after being cited for violations of the federal animal welfare act.
That left a single tiger, named Tony, who remained at the Tiger Truck Stop despite state legislation passed in 2006. The law was eventually upheld, against Sandlin’s challenge, by the Louisiana First Court of Appeals and Louisiana Supreme Court, but was undercut after Sandlin won an exemption from the legislature in June 2014.
Based on information received from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, Carole Baskin anticipated in 2009 that Tony would be surrendered to Big Cat Rescue. She drove a truck to Grosse Tete only to discover that Sandlin had elected to continue his legal battle. Tony is still at the Tiger Truck Stop, and Baskin is still frustrated about it.
1,500 letters of warning
Another Carole Baskin nemesis, exotic cat breeder/collector Catherine Twiss, had 85 big cats when her Mississippi and Arkansas facilities were raided in April and May 1996. Tracing Twiss’ history, the late Don Elroy of the Tennessee Network for Animals found the USDA had cited Twiss in at least four states over the preceding five years for allegedly selling big cats without permits. Big Cat Rescue did receive some of the Twiss cats, and still has some of the survivors.
Carole and Howard Baskin have over the years urged the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to revoke the permits of at least 70 large and exotic cat keepers, breeders, and exhibitors for alleged egregious violations of health and safety laws.
In 2007 the Baskins even sent warning letters to 1,500 neighbors of questionable large and exotic cat facilities elsewhere in Florida, earning the lasting enmity of some, like Vernon Yates of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in Clearwater, who similarly decry wildlife exploitation, but themselves engage in off-site exhibition and handling big cats on camera.
One of the more notorious Florida facilities, Dade City’s Wild Things, became a PETA cause celebré after Good Morning America story in October 2012 broadcast video that Carole Baskin described online as “a tiny six-week-old tiger cub named Tony screaming in misery as he was forced to swim with guests and then a reporter in a swimming pool.”
Baskin had already been denouncing Dade City’s Wild Things for years at www.TigerCubAbuse2.com, and still is.
In one instance, in 2008, Baskin prevailed upon the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office to close an entity calling itself Rescue: Big Cat Organization, which claimed to have operated sanctuaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida since 1985.
The Rescue: Big Cat Organization web site listed 18 staff and presented stories and photos about many purportedly rescued big cats.
But many of the photos were stolen from the Big Cat Rescue web site, as Baskin documented to the authorities. Moreover, the whole operation appeared to have been fabricated in cyberspace by one Heather Southworth, 26, who was arrested after an eight-month investigation for allegedly unlawfully soliciting funds.
Baskin recalls the Southworth case as one of her least stressful, since no large or exotic cats were actually suffering as result of it, except indirectly through the diversions of donated funds.
Clashing with clergy
The Baskins have also clashed often with clergy who use big cats as props either to boost sermon attendance or make evangelical points, depending on one’s perspective.
In 2010, for instance, pastor Troy Gramling of the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Florida displayed “a chained, adult male 500-pound lion on the pulpit in a small transport cage,” Carole Baskin recounted, who “for the length of the sermon paced, moving and rocking the cage back and forth, as the pastor quoted scripture and referred to the lion as a symbol for the devil himself. There were no barricades between the transport cage and the congregation, only a man sitting next to the cage,” namely alligator wrestler and traveling wildlife exhibitor Jeremy Possman, of Predators Unlimited.
Two years later Carole Baskin identified as her “Most Shocking Incident of Big Cat Exploitation” of the month the display of a lion, a white tiger, and several other exotic animals by the Reverend Jim Lavender at the Discovery United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Later in 2012, Carole Baskin wrote, “Believe it or not, Pope Benedict XVI was photographed petting a lion cub in Vatican City when a circus came to town for a papal performance. The photo of the cub that appeared in the National Post clearly showed the cub’s nose was badly scarred and missing fur.”
Carole and Howard Baskin may have conflicted most with Oklahoma wildlife exhibitor Joe Schreibvogel, doing business as Entertainment Group. Inc., G.W. Exotic Memorial Animal Foundation, GW Park, and GW Zoo, among around thirty names in all.
U.S. District Court Judge Mary Stenson Scriven in February 2013 ruled that Schreibvogel had since 2010 infringed on copyrights and trademarks belonging to Big Cat Rescue, by using photos belonging to Big Cat Rescue and a logo similar to that of Big Cat Rescue to promote his shows under the name “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment.”
Scriven at the same time dismissed counterclaims filed by Schreibvogel, and awarded Big Cat Rescue damages of $653,000 plus $300,000 for legal expenses.
Big Cat Rescue has yet to collect.
“After we won the judgment,” recalls Howard Baskin, “we offered Joe generous terms to put an end to the expensive legal proceedings. We offered to let him pay his debt to us over 30 years, like a mortgage, to create reasonable, manageable monthly payments. The conditions were that he had to stop breeding, taking animals offsite for display, and public contact with the animals. He claimed that he could not afford the payments. But for many months since then, he has been paying legal fees that very likely exceed the amount of the monthly payments we suggested.”
Big Cat Rescue now holds liens against a variety of property involved in Schreibvogel’s operations.
While Big Cat Rescue offers guided visitor access, for an admission fee somewhat higher than that charged by major zoos, it is not a zoo, and the Baskins, like most operators for facilities called sanctuaries, insist on the difference. Big Cat Rescue is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, formed in 2007 with support from several national animal advocacy organizations. The Association of Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association, founded in 1992 and 1998, respectively, also enjoy strong credibility among animal care professionals.
But many quasi-sanctuarians, while similarly insisting that they are not running zoos, operate under the umbrella of the Zoo Association of America, formed by merging several other entities in 2005. In Ohio and Arkansas the Zoo Association of America has recently won equal standing with the AZA as a legally accepted accreditation body.
The Zoo Association of America differs philosophically from the sanctuary accreditation associations in allowing a variety of practices which amount to using animals to raise revenue, rather than ensuring that they are not economically exploited. At the same time, the Zoo Association of America differs philosophically from the American Zoo Association in allowing unrestricted breeding.
There are no shortage of critics of the corrosive effects of the rise of the Zoo Association of America on animal care standards, especially within the American Zoo Association, but few of those critics are more outspoken than Carole and Howard Baskin.
“The AZA has always been the gold standard for zoos,” they blogged in September 2013, “but has been challenged by the lack of public understanding of the meaning of accreditation. Much time and money has been spent on branding so that zoo-goers know if they are supporting a good zoo or a bad zoo. There has never been a serious threat to that branding until the ZAA began heralding themselves as an accrediting body.
“No zoo that meets the standards of AZA associates itself with ZAA,” the Baskins emphasized. “The AZA only recommends breeding of exotic cats based upon their genetics, which are managed by the Species Survival Plans. These SSPs are managed by experts for each species of animal. Matings are suggested based upon providing the most genetic diversity and healthy specimens. This is why the AZA does not condone breeding white tigers, white lions or other inbred animals. The AZA does not promote big cats as pets and does not allow the public to handle their big cats, nor do they pimp out the cubs for photo and handling sessions,” all of which are common practices among ZAA members.
“Worst possible message”
The Baskins tends to be most incensed by people who not only breed large and exotic cats, for whom there are no suitable homes, but make money by exhibiting the cubs. Until the cubs exceed 40 pounds, under the federal Animal Welfare Act regulations, or 25 pounds under various states’ stricter regulations, they may be legally included in hands-on petting and photo attractions.
“These images abound all over the Internet and they send the worst possible message,” Carole Baskin says. “The message that people get, when they see someone from celebrities like Siegfried and Roy to backyard zoo patrons touching big cats and their cubs, is that doing so somehow makes you ‘special.’ For people who are not very bright it is an irresistible invitation to hand over their money, or their lives, to have the bragging rights to say that they touched the wild. If it is the only thing in their life that makes them ‘special,’ they will defend their actions and those who enabled their actions, until [and unless] they grow up and discover that it only made them part of the abusive problem that plagues big cats in captivity.”
Meanwhile, “As long as people will pay or volunteer their time to handle big cats and their cubs, the exploiters who profit from it will continue to breed more and more of these charismatic cubs to fill that demand.”
No contact, period
Big Cat Rescue has a large volunteer corps, more than 80 people at any given time, who make behavioral enrichment toys for the cats, manage the gift shop, organize fundraising events, and do a wide variety of other chores around the grounds.
But no one at Big Cat Rescue, including Carole and Howard Baskin themselves, has routine physical contact with the resident cats, or enters the cages. Cleaning and feeding are done with equipment that avoids the risk of contact.
If a Big Cat Rescue cat must undergo a veterinary examination or procedure, the cat is sedated before anyone enters the cage.
Big Cat Rescue frequently hosts photographers, both from news media and for paid commercial photo shoots. Many of the Big Cat Rescue cat enclosures have been designed to enable photographers to capture images suitable for calendars, postcards, t-shirts, and other uses in which the animals appear to be in the wild, without actually putting anyone in proximity to an animal.
Much more attention, though, has been put into giving the resident large and exotic cats at least a semblance of life in the wild. Few of the cats spend all of their time in just one cage. Rather, cages are linked by corridors to other cages, set at angles to each other, offering the resident animals a variety of views, including views of other animals. Most of the cages include trees, or whole copses of trees. Most of the sightlines offer varied backgrounds, within which shifting shadows, vegetation moving in the breeze, other cats in distant cages, and workers on the access paths may present stimulating motion.
Instead of just one place to climb and hide, most of the Big Cat Rescue cats have several. Many share their cages with one or more compatible companions––all sterilized, to preclude any possibility of breeding.
The bigger animals with larger space needs, especially tigers, take turns sharing a large open exercise area, larger than a football field, with a pond. Those who get along well with each other may share the open area for several days.
At 67 acres, Big Cat Rescue is about the same size as many American Zoo Association-accredited zoos, including the well-regarded Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, which is either 56 or 63 acres, depending on which published figure one accepts.
Though the Lowry Park Zoo makes relatively efficient use of space, Big Cat Rescue appears to use a much higher percentage of the available land for animal housing.
Big Cat Rescue does not have the largest amount of land of any sanctuary in the U.S. that houses large and exotic cats, but appears to have the most land actually occupied by the cats. Buffers against encroachment include several tracts of undeveloped property and the Florida 589 elevated four-lane highway.
“Wildlife on Easy Street”
Encroachment was not a worry when Big Cat Rescue opened in November 1992 as an intended breeding compound on 40 acres at the end of Easy Street, a dirt lane apparently named for a long-ago real estate development that never came into existence.
The original name of Big Cat Rescue was “Wildlife on Easy Street,” but Carole Baskin changed it soon after rededicated the facility as a sanctuary, upon realizing that the phrase “on Easy Street,” while catchy, might give potential donors the mistaken idea that the facility does not need money.
Carole Baskin, then Carole Lewis, had already enjoyed some success as a breeder of Himalayan show cats when earlier in 1992 she acquired her first bobcat, Windsong, at an auction. Learning that another 56 bobcats were soon to be killed and skinned at a Minnesota fur farm, Carole and her second husband, Don Lewis, bought the lot.
Initially they intended to breed the bobcats in a misguided attempt to help conserve the species, but within the year they learned the realities of the large and exotic cat trade, and turned instead to rescuing. Windsong, who lived to 19 years old, became the Big Cat Rescue emblematic animal.
By 1996 Don Lewis, many years Carole’s elder, wanted to relocate to Costa Rica. Their relationship faltered.
In August 1997 Lewis’ van was found at a local airport, but Lewis himself was never seen again. He was declared dead in 2002. Carole Baskin inherited most of his $6 million estate. But she had already built Big Cat Rescue into a nationally noted sanctuary of considerable size, with an annual budget of more than $400,000 and net assets of more than $1 million.
Carole Baskin had also come to rethink her initial operation presumptions and philosophy, as she expressed in a January 2004 essay to fellow sanctuarians and animal advocates entitled “It is not their fault for not listening.”
Opened the essay, “If the public is not getting our message, it is not their fault for not listening. It is ours, for inadequately or inappropriately communicating.
“Animal rescue facilities such as mine cannot handle the number of creatures in need of sanctuary when public ignorance fuels the market for an endless supply of cute and cuddly cubs,” Carole Baskin continued. “While every animal we rescue is a sentient creature, deserving of our efforts, we are doing a great disservice to the hordes of animals we cannot afford to take in if we do not devote substantial time to public education.
“Up to my elbows in cat food”
“Seven years ago,” Carole Baskin recalled, “while up to my elbows in cat food, at the end of a long day of medicating and cage-cleaning for more than 100 wild and exotic cats, the director of a large, well-funded charity chided me for my misappropriation of time. He said I should clean myself up and address large groups of people who could help me in my mission.
“At the time I could not imagine how the daily chores would get done if I spent my time talking to people, but little by little, I forced myself to find time at night for letter-writing and to compose articles, a web site, and training manuals and books to reach people I did not have time for during precious daylight hours.
“The results inspired me to become more effective. I noticed that people pay more attention to leaders who are attractive, articulate, and well groomed. I was none of those things. Recognizing that the messenger speaks louder than the message, I lost 60 pounds and threw away all of my stretch pants and t-shirts. I invested in signature clothing that people remember and associate with our exotic cats.
“Being shy and resultantly anti social, I had to learn how to engage others convincingly. I read every relevant book I could get my hands on, attended every motivational lecture I could afford, and tried to learn from observing others.
“I still do all of this because I learned that it works.”
Within the year Carole had married Howard Baskin, described by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton in 2007 as “a semiretired banker with an MBA from Harvard Business School and a law degree,” who “brought a corporate mind-set to Big Cat Rescue,” helping to double receipts from the annual Big Cat Rescue Fur Ball in just his first year of involvement.
But Carole Baskin had already demonstrated a considerable knack for building the business side of Big Cat Rescue––and for coping with emergencies, including four hurricanes in six weeks in August and September 2004.
“The last hurricane took out our main computer,” Carole blogged, “so I am writing on a battery powered laptop. My vision of our parking area is obscured by a tree that has fallen on our E-center,” used for education, entertainment, and special events.”
Having given the Big Cat Rescue generator to another beleaguered sanctuary after the first of the four hurricanes, Carole continued, “We bought another and intended to buy two more, so that there would be one for each of our freezers and one for one of our wells. We discovered that the size of generator that we could afford could not handle even our smallest freezer.”
“Ivan the Terrible”
Worse, “During Hurricane Ivan,” the last of the series, “several trees fell into our open-top cages, including one that fell against the wall of our three-acre cage. The wall held, but the tree created a ramp that could have become an escape route.
“Another tree fell in the servals’ open yard. The good news is that the servals were moved earlier in the week. The bad news is that the tree crashed down across the wall of the empty cage and smashed into the top of Lola’s enclosure. Lola is a fully clawed black leopard who doesn’t like people,” Carole Baskin elaborated. “Fortunately, thanks to last year’s Fur Ball, Lola was among the cats who got a concrete bunker under a hill of earth.
“Cody and Missouri, the mountain lions, had a tree fall on their roof… Consider the heroism involved in blocking the escape hatch on a cage that contains two frightened cougars with your own body,” a practice Big Cat Rescue normally would not tolerate, “while fastening a patch of cage wire in place, in blinding rain and gusts of wind.”
Most of the animals at Big Cat Rescue took cover during the hurricanes, but the tigers apparently just thought it was monsoon season. “The tigers typically will choose to lie out in the open and watch the flying debris,” Carole noted.
(Big Cat Rescue made a video about preparing a sanctuary for a hurricane: BIG CAT RESCUE – Hurricane preparation!!!.)
While Howard Baskin brought some financial acumen to Big Cat Rescue, his most visible contribution appears to be legal and political savvy, helping Carole to turn the corner from mostly rescuing to mostly taking the offensive against the uses and breeding of large and exotic cats that have made the rescuing necessary.
The 2003 federal Captive Wildlife Safety Act, also known as the Shambala Act, had already been pushed through Congress through the efforts of actress and Shambala sanctuary founder Tippi Hedren.
The Baskins have taken a pro-active approach to enforcing it, not waiting for the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to discover violations on their own. Instead, the Baskins initiate investigations of their own all over the U.S., and ensure that USDA-APHIS receives entire dossiers about cases warranting prosecution, not just random tips.
Within five years of the passage of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, the Baskins blogged in 2008, the new law and improved enforcement had “caused such a dramatic decrease in the number of unwanted big cats that we are on the brink of no more abused and unwanted big cats.”
That declaration was premature. Big Cat Rescue is still receiving abused and unwanted big cats, while the breeding and exhibition industry has rallied to try to preserve their industry and way of life.
Carole Baskin’s daughter Jamie Veronica, who grew up at Big Cat Rescue and married volunteer veterinarian Justin Boorstein, might be seen as the second generation of sanctuary leadership. But the Baskins hope that the need for rescue work will be substantially diminished by the time the youngest Big Cat Rescue animals are the ages that the oldest have reached now, and that additions to the Memorial Wall will become steadily fewer.
No shortage of mission
The Big Cat Rescue will not run out of mission. Other nations are also coping with large and exotic cats proliferating and being misused in private hands. Jamie Veronica and Boorstein in 2013 visited Spain to help Stichting AAP, a 37-year-old Dutch sanctuary, to add big cat facilities to a AAP Primadonus, a 400-acre subsidiary in Spain.
As similar needs are recognized and facilities developed elsewhere, Big Cat Rescue hopes to further share expertise.
Meanwhile, there are still several thousand large and exotic cats in inappropriate facilities in the U.S., who may never have places at Big Cat Rescue or on the Memorial Wall, but whom the Baskins never forget.
Jamaka Petzak says
As a longtime admirer (and supporter, when able) of BCR, I can’t thank you enough for this wonderful article. So grateful also for the spotlight on TONY, the “truck stop tiger”, for whom so many of us have been advocating for so long. May he reach the sweet sanctuary of BCR as soon as possible. We will never give up.
Patty Finch says
Excellently researched and very accurate. Thank you!
LaWanna Mitchell says
THANK YOU for this Article. WOW, you sure covered a lot of ground in it and we DO SINCERELY APPRECIATE all the time and effort that went into writing the article. THANK YOU. .