Tiger Queens: Not all big cat sanctuaries are like what you see on TV

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Our local big cat sanctuaries are nothing like what you would see on Netflix’s new hit “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

The two big players in the region are Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, not to be confused with the Tampa-based Big Cat Rescue featured in the docuseries, and Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary. Both are nonprofits. Octagon is owned by Lauri Caron, and Big Cat Habitat is owned by Kay Rosaire

But tigers and these sanctuaries have come to the forefront of media and people’s televisions since the release of “Tiger King” a few weeks ago.

The Netflix hit focuses on two rival tiger owners. The first is Carole Baskin, founder of the Tampa-based Big Cat Rescue, a sanctuary for abused, confiscated or orphaned cats, who works with PETA and other animal rights groups to end the trade of exotic cats and also the victim of an unsuccessful murder for hire scheme. She also is accused in the show of killing her former husband, Don Lewis, and feeding him to her tigers.

The second, and the documentary’s prime source of entertainment, is Joe Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a Joe Exotic. Exotic is currently in prison for organizing the aforementioned murder for hire scheme, along with 17 federal charges of animal abuse, but was a former zoo operator breeding tigers at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma.

And he also ran for president, and the governor of Oklahoma, both unsuccessfully. And he was married to two men at the same time. And he’s a country singer. And he has a mullet.

But not all places with lions and tigers are filled with this sort of mayhem.

Big Cat Habitat said some people have had their sanctuary confused with the one owned by Baskin in Tampa.

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White tiger Snow shows teeth while eating a raw chicken at Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary. (Photo by Jerry Beard)

“(We have) absolutely no affiliation or connection of any kind with Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida,” the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary said in a statement Thursday.

The Sarasota sanctuary has over 150 exotic and domestic animals.

“Our mission is not only to provide the best animal care possible but to preserve the human/animal connection in our world,” the sanctuary said.

They also have a violation-free record.

Before the show, Jackie Krohn, Octagon Sanctuary’s marketing and event coordinator, had never heard of Exotic. She has also never met Baskin.

“I hope people won’t compare us to them,” Krohn said. “We don’t breed, we don’t buy, we don’t sell.”

Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary takes in some exotic animals that were mistreated or abandoned. Others simply came from overcrowded but well taken care of facilities, or had well-minded owners whose situations changed to where they could no longer take care of their animals or didn’t have a license to keep them, Krohn said.

Bazu the lion from Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary. (Provided by Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary)

The nonprofit receives most of its animals from FWC and USDA confiscations.

“We keep them forever and we don’t make them do anything for food, we don’t make them perform,” Krohn said. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about saving these exotic animals and giving them a healthy and stress-free environment for the rest of their lives … We’re the wildest retirement center in Punta Gorda.”

At Octagon, some breeding took place years ago by the previous owner, Pete Caron, in hopes to keep the species alive, but never selling them. But since 2005, when Lauri Caron took over, no breeding has taken place at the facility.

The sanctuary is run entirely by volunteers and there is no paid staff.

The sanctuary doesn’t receive federal funding, with all money coming from grants, donations, fundraisers and admission donations. The sanctuary spends over $14,000 a month to take care of its 100+ animals, upwards of $6,000 on raw meat alone. The sanctuary has approximately 13 tigers, five bears, three lions, two ligers, two hyenas, two foxes, two bobcats, a leopard, as well as land tortoises, goats, birds, peacocks and much more.

The animals are a bit spoiled, Krohn said, adjusting their diets to accommodate their changing pallets. Some of the animals that like water at Octagon have pools, with enclosures going beyond the FWC and USDA regulations. They are actively trying to enlarge these enclosures as funds come in. All the animals have toys and the primates even have televisions to watch PBS.

Octagon also has a “very stringent veterinary program,” according to Krohn, because many of the animals have medical issues due to their previous situations or simply because of their age.

Both Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota and Punta Gorda’s Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary are currently closed due to the coronavirus. To stay updated on when they will open again, visit www.OctagonWildlife.org or www.BigCatHabitat.org.

Originally published in the Charlotte Sun on April 5, 2020.

Click here to view the published article.

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