In 1993, Carole Baskin and her family traveled to Minnesota to purchase their second bobcat kitten. They had bought their first from an auction the previous year, and kept it in their home as a family pet. But what they found instead was a “fur farm” where cats are harvested for the sale of their pelts. This was Carole’s first exposure to the cruelties of the exotic animal trade, and helped her realize that big cats don’t make good pets.
Appalled at the conditions of the cages, and knowing most of the cats would be slaughtered, Carole and her late husband, Don, purchased all 56 baby bobcat and lynx, packed up their caravan with the cats, and headed back to their home in Florida. For the next two months, the Baskins cared for the kittens out their house, bottle feeding them every two hours. Baskin fully acknowledges her initial fault with keeping a bobcat for a pet, and has since founded Big Cat Rescue.
“That began years of long hours,” said Baskin, “hard work, learning, heartbreak over what we found many animals enduring, often by trial and error, to get the sanctuary where it is today.”
Now, nearly 20 years later, Big Cat Rescue has evolved into the country’s largest accredited animal sanctuary, dedicated exclusively to conservation, rehabilitation, and education. They shelter over 100 big cats on 55 acres of land, which represent 14 of the 35 wildcat species. As a sanctuary, they do not buy, sell, trade or breed their animals.
Big Cat Rescue accepts as many exotic cats as it can afford, but due to the high cost of food and medical treatment, which on average can be upwards of $10,000 per cat, they are forced to turn away close to 150 animals every year. As a result, Baskin shifted a large part of the organization’s focus to public education and animal rights advocacy.
The education program, which is co-directed directed by Willow Hecht and Dr. Beth Kamhi, has worked with local Tampa, Florida schools to create lesson plans, and also arrange for students to visit the sanctuary. Big Cat Rescue also offers popular onsite summer camp programs for children of all ages.
Jeff Kramer, director of donor appreciation, also helps with education outreach by speaking at local schools. “It’s not just to teach them scientific lessons or about species information,” said Jeff Kramer, “but it’s really to teach them about the bigger picture, which is having respect and compassion for all living creatures.”
In addition to cat rescue and education programs, the organization is a major advocate for animal welfare issues. “The exotic animal trade in our country is approximately a $2 billion annual business,” said Kremer. “The sanctuary is working to educate people on these issues, and empower them to make a positive change.”
Big Cat Rescue does this by sharing news alerts about inhumane legislation, such as the recent “Pay to Play” bill that exploits young cats by putting them on display for photo opportunities, and providing ways to contact local and national officials.
But even with all that Carole and her team do, they are always sure to thank their supporters, often with a timely, personal touch. For donations made during 2011’s holiday season, Kremer personally sent over 250 handwritten thank-you cards to each donor who gave $200 or more.
“Big Cat Rescue is incredibly grateful for its supporters,” said Kremer, “whose donations enable the sanctuary to continue to make a positive difference in the lives of animals around the world.”
To donate to Big Cat Rescue, visit their fundraising page here.
All photos courtesy of Big Cat Rescue