Tampa, Florida – October 2015
It started six months earlier.
Perusing youtube on a slow night, I met Cameron and Zabu.
As I read more about their Disney-esque friendship, I quickly developed a fascination with Big Cat Rescue, the sanctuary where they are housed. Big Cat Rescue is a sanctuary for exotic felines who were abused, abandoned by owners, retired from performance, or saved from dangerous circumstances. The aim is to give them the biggest and most natural environment possible as the cats at the sanctuary wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild after years of captivity. Each cat is regularly given enrichment material: toys such as giant eggs on Easter, pumpkins on Halloween, a splash pool in the summer, etc. They are each also given a “vacation” every year in a larger pen. The sanctuary is 67 acres and usually holds around 100 cats. Their expert PR team regularly puts out videos of their big cats doing cat things like playing in boxes, chasing lazer pointers, destroying toilet paper, and chewing on anything they can find.
I returned to the US at the end of October to spend Thanksgiving with my family and deal with a laundry list of things I needed to handle before I could travel again. That laundry list included attending a music festival in central Florida. This gave me a convenient excuse to visit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa Bay while in the area.
The tour group that day was myself, Hobbes, a handful of other tourists, a bunch of kids doing a school project, and some loser parents who came to an exotic cat sanctuary not knowing what a liger was but thought that I was the weird one for bringing a stuffed tiger. Our guide was an Italian intern with nerdy glasses and the cutest accent found outside of Brasil.
The tour lasted roughly two hours. The guide somehow knew the names and stories of each of the 100 cats, plus had remarkable patience for dumb questions (Why do tigers have big teeth?). The cats were exactly as you would expect cats to be: hiding or perched on top of platforms and completely disinterested in us.
Disinterested, until they met Hobbes.
A couple of tigers caught sight of Hobbes and then followed me around the sanctuary. Despite them being behind a fence and me being a war veteran, I was intimidated. Hiding Hobbes behind my back didn’t seem to solve anything as the tigers just stared at me instead. Their piercing eyes seemed to bore holes straight through me. The tour seemed to freeze as the other tourists realized what was happening and began to stare at me too. I found myself wanting to hide behind something.
Finally, we reached Cameron & Zabu’s habitat. Cameron and Zuba are a lion and a white tiger who were previously owned by a circus. They were forced together by the circus with the hopes of breeding a white liger. When Big Cat Rescue adopted them the organization had planned to keep them separate, but their playfulness together convinced the staff to keep them together. They are now the royal couple of the sanctuary. Three minutes after we arrived, Zabu snuck up behind some plants and pounced on a sleeping Cameron. These sneak attacks continued for five minutes. Their Disney romance alone was worth the price of admission.
10 minutes later, the tour was over. After the standard exit through the gift shop, I began walking back towards the hostel I was staying at. It was quite far away. I had planned to hitch a ride with one of the families on the tour, but the sanctuary’s founder instead picked me up and traded stories with me as he drove me into town.
If you’re a nerd, an animal enthusiast, or just enjoy learning, plan a trip to Big Cat Rescue.