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There's No Kibble Served at the Big Cat Rescue

Updated: Saturday, June 01, 2019 05:13 PM
Published: Saturday, February 05, 2011 01:37 PM
Written by Carole Baskin

What began as an intervention into fur farm auctions in 1992 has grown into the Big Cat Rescue, an accredited sanctuary home to more than 100 lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, servals, caracals, lynx and many other species of wild cats and wild cat hybrids. Feeding time is the best part of their day and what we feed is a critical factor in maintaining their health and keeping our vet costs low. The sanctuary was founded in 1992, and everything we know now about caring for big cats was learned through trial and error.

In the beginning, we fed chicken leg quarters, chicken necks, chicken gizzards and chunks of red meat. We quickly learned the necessity of adding vitamins, minerals and calcium, as the diet was insufficient for maintaining healthy teeth and bones. With cats that ranged in size from the three pound sand cat to the 750 pound tiger, it was a feat of mathematical genius to properly work out the correct ratios for each cat species and then account for the difference in the individual's ages, health and energy expenditure needs. We wanted something more balanced, and a number of products claimed to be, so we tried them.

We tried Zoopreme,® a canned diet, but the cats hated it and we noticed that when we rescued cats that had been fed Zoopreme,® they always looked thin, bare-coated and listless. Back in the 1990s, Purina™ came out with Mazuri Zoo Diet,® a dry kibble that appeared to be the perfect blend, but the cats wouldn't eat it. We even ground it with raw meat to make it more palatable, but could never get the cats to accept more than a 50/50 blend. Some wouldn't even tolerate that. I can't remember all of the products that came and went and mostly were thrown away because the cats wouldn't touch them. So, when Dr. Marty Dinnes from Natural Balance asked us to try his Zoo Carnivore Diet, we were less than thrilled at the prospect.

We gave it a try and much to our amazement, "Mikey liked it!" Thinking it was a fluke, we were pretty sure that on day two the cats would turn up their noses. The Carnivore Formula was developed, researched and tested by leading zoo animal keepers, nutritionists and veterinarians. It is a fresh-frozen beef diet made from high quality beef processed in a state inspected plant under stringent sanitary conditions. Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet contains a zoo animal vitamin/mineral premix which includes vitamin E, Niacin, vitamin A and taurine, a particularly important nutrient to felidae. The diet is nutritionally complete and needs no additional supplementation. It meets all dietary requirements for felids and does not contain meat by-products or grains such as corn, wheat, rice or barley. It was just too healthy for them for them to continue liking it, we thought.

Days turned into weeks and the cats were eating it…no, the cats were devouring it. They loved it.

That was back in 2005, so the diet has been proven through the test of time. The cats still like it and within just months we could see visible improvements in their coats, the shine in their eyes, and the fact that most of our cats live into their late teens and early twenties when most big cats die around the age of 10 to 12. We also noticed that our vet bills began decreasing by a staggering $20,000 per year.

Despite the quality of the food, it was limited in that it is a ground diet. Cats like the experience of crunching their prey, and the scraping of the bones they eat is what helps keep their teeth clean. We had begun to feed whole prey to some of our cats in 2000 with the arrival of sand cats who really liked day-old chicks. We found that if cats were sick and needed to get pills, the most effective way to trick them into eating their medication was to stick the pill in a chick. The chicks were a high source of calories for growing, orphaned bobcats that we return to the wild when grown, and to other cats who weren't feeling well enough to eat during an illness.

We feed 500 pounds of raw meat a day to our big cats, and that is expensive enough with the prepared diet running somewhere around $1.50 per pound, plus shipping, from California. Feeding whole prey is far more expensive, with a rabbit costing around $9.00 to feed just one small to mid-size exotic cat. We offer whole prey and bones one night per week to the big cats for a variety of reasons:

  • The gnawing and crunching of bones helps keep the teeth clean.
  • The fur and feathers left on the carcass encourage playing, leaping and other activities the cats would do in the wild.
  • The ingestion of fur and feathers helps clean out the digestive tract.

The bigger cats wouldn't be happy with just one rabbit for the night, so they get ribs with meat on the bone to keep them occupied until the next night when they get a full feeding of the Carnivore Diet.

Two reasons that we do not feed a whole prey only diet are the expense and the fact that it is hard to find much other than chicks, rats, mice and rabbits. A cat's diet in the wild would be more varied than that, so we would risk not meeting their nutritional needs. The larger cats would eat hoofstock in the wild, but it is not safe to offer road kill, or downer cattle that are dying from who-knows-what. Also, cutting up whole cows requires a chainsaw and is pretty messy and unsanitary.

While we are on the subject of whole prey; the only time we feed the mice, rats or rabbits live is when we are preparing native bobcats for release back into the wild. Most of the cats we rescue are non-native species and have been captive bred for use as pets, props or worse. They can never go free because they have been imprinted by humans and/or are non-native to Florida. In the cases where bobcats have been hit by cars or orphaned, we are able to raise them away from humans, and when they are healed or grown we return them to the wild. These cats must be able to find and kill prey animals, and we have an elaborate system for enabling that training. In essence, live prey is introduced into a subway system that exits into the rehab cage and the bobcat must always be on the alert for when a mouse or rat might show up.

Big Cat Rescue depends entirely upon volunteers for feeding and cleaning our cats' enclosures, and most of us are bunny huggers who just couldn't bear to watch what a captive cat would do with live prey. That is the main reason for only offering it dead. We can't even kill the animals ourselves, and thus buy them from suppliers to the snake industry that raise and kill them humanely, and send them to us frozen.

Before discovering Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet, we knew that, aside from old age, the most common cause of death in our cats was from cancer. The beef and chicken we had been feeding were raised for human consumption. Between the hormones, antibiotics and preservatives that went into making that a profitable industry, it had become the kiss of death for humans as well as animals. According to our vet, the cats just have shorter life spans, so we see the results of ingesting all of these toxins in a shortened time frame.

We feed the cats six nights a week and fast on Sundays. A lot of zoos fast several nights per week, but I believe that is to accommodate keepers more than anything else. I do not recommend it. We do not fast youngsters, the very aged or ailing cats. The reason we fast at all is that in the wild, cats usually do not eat every day and in captivity will often choose one day a week or so that they don't eat. The first sign of illness is usually inappetence. Because cats are hard-wired to the notion of survival of the fittest, they are often dead within 48 hours of that first sign. By choosing Sunday as the fasting day, we can be more assured that if a cat doesn't eat during any other day of the week that something might be amiss.

Even though the Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet is balanced and all that the cats really need, we recognize the fact that these cats were never meant to be bred for life in cages. If you are going to spend a lifetime behind bars for a crime you didn't commit, then there ought to be some perks in it. We do a number of things to alleviate their boredom, such as providing enrichment twice a week and operant conditioning, but nothing means more to the cats than getting a treat with their meal. They love things that crunch, ooze and can be heartily ripped to shreds. So along with their main meal they almost always get some tidbit of chicken leg quarters, chicken necks, organ meats or a chunk of beef.

Approximately 75% of our population is over the age of 15, which is 90 in people years, Each one has their own level of activity and personal metabolism that makes it necessary to cater individually to their needs. In the wild, a tiger can eat 60 pounds of food at one sitting, but they usually only catch something once a week. In captivity, a 500 pound lion will usually eat about 15 pounds of food per night, whereas a 20 pound bobcat will eat about three. Bobcats are more active, spend a lot of time climbing trees in their enclosures and burn more energy than a lion that sleeps 20 out of 24 hours in a day.

Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet comes in 5%, 10% and 15% fat content blends which makes it easier for us to keep the cats at optimum weights. Visitors always comment when they see the cat's birth date signs on their Cat-a-tats, that they never would have guessed the cats to be so old. Right up until they die, they typically have glossy coats and bright eyes.

When a 150 pound cat that can spring 20 feet in a bound is ready for dinner, it can be a feeding frenzy if we don't prepare in advance. Our Cat-a-tats are 1,200 square feet for a single cat and up to 1 and 3 acre enclosures for two altered cats to share. We do not breed and do not force cats, who are solitary by nature, to share cages. Each enclosure has a lock out, which is a small box that the cat can be fed in, and the water bowl is elevated so the cats do not pee in it. Also, there is a guillotine door. This is the first step in their operant conditioning: learning that the word "lock out" means come to the box and get a treat. By shutting the cat in the box, we can enable the vet to get a good look at all sides of the cat. And by shutting the cat out of the box, we can safely clean the water bowl, food platter and, in the case of aggressive cats, can put the food in before opening the door to the cat.

The cats are fed at dusk, because this is when they would naturally hunt. It gives them all night to eat without attracting flies and ants. The cages are cleaned at daybreak so as to minimize a pest problem. Sometimes the cats get what our vet calls "fast food," which is local natural wildlife miscalculating their own agility as they fly or slither through our cats' grassy, tree shaded environs. As enrichment, the volunteers will sometimes stock the cat's pools with fish so that they can do a little fishing themselves, or the fish will be offered dead to those without pools. Taurine is critical to a cat's health, and fish are a natural source even though the prepared diets are certainly sufficient in taurine.

On a hot day you will see Big Cat Rescuers enjoying a popsicle while watching their beloved cats licking their own Sardini Martini Pops, or Blood Cicles. The cats' frozen treats are made from the blood that drains off of the meat during the thawing process. The food arrives frozen and is kept in walk-in freezers that can store around 20,000 pounds of food. Each day, the next day's food is brought into a walk-in cooler that is larger than my first apartment. It is then laid out on stainless steel tables to thaw. The racks are morgue tables, and the blood drains into five gallon buckets. The volunteers bring in yogurt cups to create their concoctions, and freeze the blood with sardines or pieces of meat for the smaller cats, and bigger containers for the big cats.

Unless a cat is in renal failure, you almost never catch them drinking water. But, clean water is crucial. The bowls are dumped, cleaned and refilled daily with well water. In some cases, such as the snow leopards and sand cats that have almost no immune system, we provide bottled water each day. The bowls are elevated in a caged box attached to the end of their lock out box, because in the wild, cats urinate in streams so that predators and prey alike are unaware of their existence. The box is elevated above their tails, but not so high as to be hard to reach for a drink.

As the cages are cleaned each morning, the volunteers are tasked with laying eyes on every cat. Often, all they see are eyes peering back from the darkness of their caves or way up in the trees. At feeding time, everybody is up, awake and trotting about in high expectation of what the menu will include. This is perfect time for us to be able to see the cats in action and assess their overall health and condition more fully. It's their happy time of day and ours, too.

At home, I have a Bengal Cat hybrid who was dumped at the sanctuary due to the fact that male or female, neutered or not, almost all early generation hybrids spray. She lives on my porch because of her refusal to use a litter box, and because at the sanctuary she would have been confined to a cage. She prefers a raw diet, but my two domestic cats, who live inside, are on a special wet food due to problems they have with crystals. Recently, I have been thinking I should switch them to a raw diet as well. In a former life, back in 1979, before I became aware of the vast numbers of cats killed in shelters each year, I used to breed and show Himalayans. My cats were always quick to gain their Champion and Grand Champion status and frequently took Best in Show because of their exquisite condition and playful antics. I credit their good looks and good health to the raw diets that they ate. The raw diets have really proved to be beneficial over the span of thirty years to both domestic and wild felines.

Carole Baskin is founder and CEO ofBig Cat Rescue, the world's largest accredited rescue facility for exotic cats. She and her family volunteer for Big Cat Rescue as unpaid staff and have 100 plus volunteers and 13 interns from around the world. She has run this Tampa, Florida based non-profit since 1992. Be sure to visit theBig Cat Rescue Channel on YouTube!