Big cats rehabilitated at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Rescue

Stephanie Mason

A tiger paces in a filthy cage filled with cow carcasses and his own feces. The animal is emaciated and dehydrated. He has no fresh water or place to move.

This particular instance happened about two weeks ago and is what rescuers from Turpentine Creek Wildlife Rescue found as a result of a court ordered removal of the animal from a private owner. According to Wildlife Coordinator Emily McCormack, this is a common occurrence.

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With somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 wild cats kept as pets in the United States, McCormack said that Turpentine Creek is a necessary facility that focuses on rescuing animals as well as educating and informing the public about them.

According to Jennie Willis Marko, instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University, the behavior of large cats makes them destructive and unsafe to people who do not understand them.

“Big cats certainly have more ability to injure people because of their size,” Marko said.

CSU natural sciences master student David Enden works with a number of organizations to help rescue abandoned, neglected, abused and unwanted big cats in the United States.

Photo courtesy of David Enden.
Photo courtesy of David Enden.

Since he was young, Enden has wanted to work with wild cats. When he started working at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, his love for big cats only grew. This was largely as a result of a connection he made with a rescued lion named Thor.

“He is my daily reminder of why I get up after four hours of sleep and keep going,” Enden said. “He is the aspect of my life that will always do that for me.”

Thor is a 13-year-old male lion who was rescued from a private owner who used him in the entertainment industry. He came in to the facility malnourished and in overall poor health.

“Even to this day he is so unpredictable,” Enden said. “One second he can be fine and the next second he will yell at me.”

There is a website for donations to get Thor into a habitat. Enden is working on a documentary that includes his journey in bonding with Thor and other experiences with wild cats he has worked with.

Turpentine creek is one of the top 10 rescue facilities in the country. They receive a large amount of exotic rescue animals from private zoos shutting down or from individuals surrendering their grown animals. McCormack has been part of the process in putting together the Big Cat and Public Safety Act.

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Thurpentine Creek workers follow a “two step back rule.” The natural instinct for wild cats is to pounce on anything that turns its back to the cat. The big cat’s play behavior of pouncing is the same as their kill behavior. “You can be 10 feet away, turn your back, and that cat is instinctually changed. The eyes dilate, they crouch down — you can’t take the wild out of them,” McCormack said. Photo courtesy of David Enden.

“Because there are not enough laws against exotic animal trade, then there is anything from people owning them as a pet all the way to hoarding  which is pretty scary,” McCormack said.

Animals at Turpentine Creek are given regular veterinary care and fed the appropriate amount. Their population of over 100 cats are fed a total of 800 to 1,200 pounds of meat a day. The animals in a habitat are on a ¼ acre of land by themselves.

After wild animals have been brought into the human world, it is important for activity, enrichment and problem-solving behavior opportunities to be a part of their routine.

“I think wild creatures experience life very differently than captive held creatures of any kind,” Marko said. “Our goal of keeping animals in captivity … is to make their quality of life as comfortable as possible.”

Collegian Science and Technology Beat Reporter can be reached at news@collegian.com or through her twitter @StephersMason