From shows to junkyards, and now home
One of the missions of the Carolina Tiger Rescue is to get people to stop thinking of tigers as things, as property, said Pam Fulk, executive director of the center. “You’ve been out there,” she told a reporter who had taken a tour of the facility. “Didn’t you get a sense that someone was home?”
Touring the site is a humbling experience. It will make you look at your house cats in a different way, and a tour underscores the saying that if these cats had opposable thumbs, we would be behind the protective fences, and they would be feeding us (or perhaps not).
Fulk and her colleagues at the rescue center preach the gospel against using wild cats as entertainment – which Fulk said drives much of the traffic in tigers. Many places that designate themselves as sanctuaries engage in bad practices and are not true sanctuaries, Fulk said. Among the criteria under the federal Captive Wildlife Safety Act, sanctuaries where big cats are kept must be nonprofit, and must not breed cats or profit in any way from trading cats. (Carolina Tiger Rescue meets all three and other criteria.) “One of our goals is to help people understand when a place calls itself a sanctuary, you need to be asking questions,” Fulk said.
Many of the cats the public sees on this tour are rescues from entertainment. While Fulk and Ruth Stalvey, president of the rescue center’s board, are showing a serval, a low, guttural, primal sound emerges from the distance. “Those are the lions you are hearing,” Fulk said.
The lions making the noise are Sheba, a female who on this day is sunning herself, and male lions Sebastian and Tarzan, who on this cool day are on their backs soaking up the sun. (One of the guides notes that Sheba, the female, is keeping watch.)
Sheba was originally used for photo shoots with tourists in Mexico, before she became too big to handle and was rescued. As a young cub, Tarzan had the run of a hotel in Mexico, but later was confined to a cage. Sebastian was used as a prop in a haunted house in Texas. The three eventually were rescued at the Wild Animal Orphanage sanctuary in Texas, but when that facility closed down because of financial problems, Carolina Tiger Rescue gave the three lions a home.
Other animals were either abandoned or were rescued from substandard facilities. Star, a cougar, was confiscated from a zoo in Mississippi after a Humane Society investigation. She is in heat, and she eyes Nakobi, a male cougar kept in a separate enclosure. She rolls over and grooms one of her front paws.
Rajah and Kaela are the “Tar Heel tigers” because they were found on the side of the road between Cleveland and Gaston counties, Fulk said. Kaela had marks that indicated she had been thrown from a vehicle, Fulk said. During this visit, Kaela keeps to herself, but Rajah walks around his space, eyes the visitors with passing curiosity, and gets himself a drink of water.
Then there is Nitro, a blind tiger who was rescued from a junkyard in Kansas. The workers at Carolina Tiger Rescue have cut paths to help Nitro find his way. Discarded Christmas trees have been placed next to the fence to let Nitro know where his enclosure ends. Similar scents are used to help him find his food, and his den box. Nitro does a circuit or two around his enclosure in acknowledgement of his visitors. Then Nitro picks up a chicken that one of the workers has left, takes it to his den, and slowly pulls it apart and devours it. In this imperfect world, Nitro is home.