Big Cat Rescue
By Jana Soeldner Danger
When 17-year-old Carole Murdock took her Himalayan show cat to the vet one day, the doctor was treating a wild bobcat with a broken leg. He had splinted the bone, but couldn’t keep the animal during the three-month recovery period. Would Carole take the cat home till the leg healed and she could be released?
Unlike the way almost anyone else on the planet would have responded, Carole said yes.
That was the beginning of her love affair with big cats. But it was not until years later that they became her passion and her life’s work. In 1992, she and her then-husband, Don Lewis, founded Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, which currently houses 100 exotic felines from 14 different species. It happened like this:
The couple was attending an auction when a man came in with an obviously terrified bobcat draped around his neck. Carole was immediately smitten with the animal’s luminous, golden eyes. “He told me it was his wife’s pet, and she didn’t want it anymore,” Carole recalls.
When a man standing near her started bidding on the cat, Carole warned him that when it grew up, it would become dangerous. What he said next shocked her. “He told me he was a taxidermist. He planned to club the cat to death in the parking lot, stuff it, and sell it as a den decoration.”
When Carole started sobbing, Don started bidding.
When the couple decided to adopt more exotic cats, they drove to Minnesota, where they unexpectedly found themselves in a horrific situation: on a fur farm with a shed full of dead cats, butchered for small patches of belly fur. There were also 56 kittens destined for the same fate.
The Lewises were horrified. “We bought all of them,” Carole recalls. “Then we went home and started building cages.”
They returned to the farm twice more, and for two years in a row, bought every cat there. In return, perhaps miraculously, the farmer agreed to never again breed cats for fur.
Gradually, the sanctuary grew. Don passed away in 1997, and in 2004, Carole married her current husband, Howard Baskin, who helps her manage Big Cat Rescue.
Where do the cats come from?
From private individuals who think it will be fun to adopt an exotic animal and, when the kittens grow up, discover it’s not fun anymore. From circuses that dump them when they grow too old to perform. And from unscrupulous breeders. “People will pay to have their pictures taken with cute little kittens,” Baskin says. “But USDA policy says the cubs can’t be handled when they’re under eight weeks or over 12 weeks. People are breeding thousands of cats for that one-month window.”
Today, the Baskins fight for legislation that prohibits the breeding of exotic cats except by accredited zoos. And they continue to try, with the help of 100 volunteers and interns, to provide quality of life for the cats in their care.
It’s not easy. The cats are wild animals and must be confined to cages, and for safety’s sake, there is a strict no touching rule. “The hardest thing is keeping the cats amused,” Carole says. “But we try to make their lives as interesting as we can and provide some enrichment for them every day.”
Some of the ways include blood ice pop treats, grooming with backscratchers, and bags of catnip. And each cat is periodically treated to a “vacation” on a 2½-acre tract of land with grass and trees.
Carole is also still involved in rescuing injured bobcats. And in some ways, that’s the most satisfying part of her work, because unlike the other cats, they can be released after rehabilitation. “These animals belong in the wild,” she says. “And opening the door and letting the cat go free is the best feeling.”