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Rescue Big Cats and Save Exotic Felines

by Katherine Noyes
The Challenge

Exotic big cats such as lions and tigers are banned as pets in almost 20 states, but many thousands of such cats are still currently kept captive in America. Sadly, the majority of these big cats do not live in accredited zoos; rather, many languish in small cages in private basements and substandard roadside zoos, or are penned outside gas stations as a lure to attract customers. Ninety-eight percent of big cats are likely to die within two years of being bought as "pets."

Throughout the world, meanwhile, a combination of habitat loss and hunting — including "canned hunts," through which tens of thousands of animals are shot each year for sport — has cut big cat populations dramatically. The number of tigers in the wild, for instance, has been reduced to just more than 3,000 worldwide, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Three of eight tiger subspecies were already extinct by the 1980s.

Big cats kept as pets and as roadside attractions suffer from frequent abuse as well as poor diet, inadequate veterinary care and genetic ailments caused by inbreeding through the exotic pet trade, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Breeders of these exotic felines — which also include lions, leopards, cougars, jaguars and cheetahs — frequently operate in a fashion much like puppy mills, focused entirely on profit at the expense of the animals' well-being.

While young big cats are notoriously cute, they always remain wild animals, and are highly dangerous when kept as pets. Some highly publicized attacks on humans in recent years have underscored the dangers of trying to keep big cats as pets. For many pet owners, what start out as adorable cubs soon become unmanageable big cats, causing the owners to get rid of them however they can. Unfortunately, that often involves selling them back to breeders to produce yet more saleable cubs.

While the U.S. Captive Wildlife Safety Act now bans the interstate sale and transportation in big cats, exotic felines face still overwhelming threats worldwide. Big cat sanctuaries around the world focus not just on providing lifetime care for abandoned and abused big cats but also on conservation efforts and educating the public. By spending your vacation at a big cat sanctuary, you can help create a brighter future for exotic big cats worldwide.

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  • Peace River Refuge and Ranch offers a variety of volunteer opportunities as well as four-week internship programs. Volunteers at this Florida sanctuary are responsible for their own accommodations.
  • The Cat Survival Trust in Hertfordshire, England, cares for about 40 big cats including pumas, caracals and snow leopards. Adult volunteers are welcome for as much time as they can spend; accommodations and meals are available.
  • Help save endangered big cats in South Africa. As a volunteer you will feed, interact, and care for cheetahs, lions, leopards, and more. You also may help with general maintenance and lead tours and game drives. Your accommodations and two meals a day are included during your minimum two-week stay. 
  • The Cheetah Conservation Fund, based in Aledo, TX, offers volunteer opportunities in Namibia and Kenya for tasks ranging from general administration and education to animal care. A mandatory donation covers all living expenses, training and supervision.
  • African Impact's Mara-Naboisho Lion Project is a full-time project that allows volunteers to be involved in lion monitoring, demography, and studying the animals' habits and preferences. Accommodations and three meals a day are included. Minimum stay is 2 weeks.
  • If you love lions, then LionsRock in South Africa offers a four-week minimum opportunity. You will help improve the living conditions and conduct research on the 80 lions, tigers, leopards and other large cats that populate South Africa's largest big cat sanctuary. Brand new accommodations are included.
  • For those with more time to donate, three-month internships are available at the Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge in Tyler, Texas, and at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL.

After your vacation is over (assuming you don't decide to extend it indefinitely!), many of these organizations offer opportunities to help them from your home with fundraising, education and publicity. Big Cat Rescue's AdvoCats program, for instance, offers a multitude of ways you can help from home.

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