20 Things I’ll Remember About the Big Cats
1. Big Cat Rescue is a wildlife sanctuary for large wild cats in Tampa. The guides are all
volunteers. Our guide, a young man, shows us a tiger that he jokes is in the Witness
Protection Program. Its ownership is being disputed in a court case, so we cannot be told
details about the tiger’s background story or name. The tiger will be here until the case is
settled and may wind up being returned to an abusive owner.
2. Zoos are designed for the convenience of people viewing the animals. The sanctuary is
designed for the comfort of the cats. Our guide described, but did not show us, one of the
former zoo tigers because it could not tolerate being seen by groups of people.
3. We stop to look at a black panther named Jinx. Our guide explains this is a misnomer—there is no such thing as a black panther. “Black panther” is a generic name used for any big
black cat, but not a distinct species in itself. Black panthers are usually leopards or
jaguars. The name probably came into popular use because panther derives from the
Latin word Panthera, which means big cat.
4. Sapphire, the white tigress here, has crossed eyes and bad eyesight. White tigers are
Bengal tigers, not a separate breed. There are no more white tigers in the wild. All white
tigers in captivity are inbred from a single tiger with that mutation. Most have genetic
defects. Their mothers sometimes kill their white cubs because they can’t camouflage.
5. Some big cats are here because they were retired or cast-off from zoos or circuses, or
were rescued as cubs after hunters killed their mothers. Others were abandoned or
mistreated by private owners who kept them as pets.
6. Our guide warns a man in our group that he is leaning too far over the cage’s fence. Is
this to protect us or not startle the animals?
7. Servals are small wild cats, so they are often crossbred with domestic cats in an attempt
to make a tame but still exotic pet. Our guide shows us Zucari, a confused animal that
acts like a house cat that wants to be petted, but hisses when you try.
8. Tigers lolling in the sun, sleeping away the afternoon, their giant heads resting peacefully
on the packed earth. What is more beautiful than this?
9. Each cat gets to leave its cage periodically and go to a 2.5-acre area for two weeks where
it can run and play. This is called their “vacation.”
10. Our guide points out his favorite leopard.
11. The animals are imposing, but very quiet. Like patients in a psychiatric ward, padding
about, waiting for their meals.
12. Cub breeding takes cubs from their big cat mothers for paid photo ops, later abandoning them when they get too old or large to be cute. One lioness had been forced to unnaturally breed and bear cubs over and over.
13. The lynx with his big pointed ears and slanted sea-green eyes crouches in the shade.
14. Trophy hunting is a business where wanna-be hunter clients pay large sums to stalk big
cats. The cats are raised and fed by humans to make them unwary, so they will come up
to a “hunter,” and be shot. The client will then decapitate it, and display its head as a
15. Big cats are not vegans. Feeding lions, tigers, and leopards is expensive, requiring lots of
raw meat. Blended whole cow smoothie is included in their meal plans.
16. The cats get regular checkups, including dental work. It is not known if big cats
appreciate root canals any more than humans.
17. The staff provides enrichment activities to relieve boredom and encourage natural
behaviors. They give the big cats new foods and toys, and spray intriguing scents. The
cats get giant pumpkins, or “indestructible” balls to play with that soon become battered
and mauled, and large cardboard boxes to investigate (because all cats like cardboard
boxes.) It’s like brief intervention therapy for humans.
18. All the cats have small drinking pools kept fresh from a spring-fed lake and cool rock
dens to lounge in.
19. In the summer, swings are hung for them in the shade and the staff makes frozen
micesicles (mice frozen in ice blocks) for the cats to lick.
20. Will we remember what we have lost when they are gone? What will we have become
when there are no more big cats?
Lorraine Schein is a New York writer. Her work has appeared in VICE Terraform, Strange Horizons, Full Bleed, and Little Blue Marble, and in the anthologies Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana del Rey & Sylvia Plath, and Eighteen. The Futurist’s Mistress, her poetry book, is available from mayapplepress.com.