In late February, my wife and I toured the Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Once the Carnivore Preservation Trust, a breeding facility dedicated to the preservation of wild and endangered carnivores, the Carolina Tiger Rescue has since dropped its breeding program due to competition from better-equipped facilities for scant funding. The Rescue now serves as a sanctuary for should-be-wild felines whose personal histories make them poor candidates for wilderness reintroduction.
As our tour group gathered in the sanctuary’s educational room, a red-headed boy — around ten to twelve years old — read a flyer detailing volunteer opportunities from shoveling scat to feeding the cats to office work. “It says you have to be at least sixteen,” he lamented. “Why do you think that is?” His mother asked. The boy thought for a moment and answered, “So you have the critical thinking skills to know what to do if something goes wrong.” It was a strikingly good answer. At ten or twelve, I might have answered, “So you’re big enough to fight-off a tiger if one got loose.”
Our tour guide, Tim, was an aged man of a certain camouflage: brown boats, khaki-colored corduroy slacks, a brown t-shirt with an ocelot printed on the chest, a tan vest, tan Carolina Tiger Rescue ball cap, and an eggshell-white long-sleeve undershirt protruding from the sleeves of his t-shirt and rolled-up to expose the eggshell-white skin of his forearms. Tim passed around a hard and heavy plastic ball. Once a toy for the tigers, the ball was crushed and ornamented by puncture wounds and lacerations. “Strong, aren’t they?” Tim asked, barely disguising a morbid grin.
The name, Carolina Tiger Rescue, is too narrow. Among the sanctuary’s residents was a lion named Tarzan. As a cub, Tarzan served as the mascot for a beach-side resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and freely roamed the resort’s lobby. When Tarzan grew too big to handle (as lions do) and so became a threat to the resort’s clientele, he was locked in a 3x3x6ft cage. Tarzan remained in that cage for two years before finding his way to a sanctuary in Texas and, in 2010, to the Carolina Tiger Rescue. Tarzan cannot stand properly due to his developmental years spent crouched in a tiny cage. Never knowing the wild, handicapped, and unable to hunt for himself, Tarzan will likely live the rest of his days in an enclosure among the piney hills of central North Carolina.
Nearby, an ocelot called Trapper marched along a well-worn trail at the edge of his enclosure, grumbling a constant growl, clearly anxious and unwelcoming. Kaela and Rajah, two tigers rescued as cubs and now full-grown, rose from lounging in the center of their enclosure and loafed toward our group as we approached. They flopped beside the fence, seemingly content to be as near to us as possible. Rajah’s page on the Carolina Tiger Rescue website states, “Rajah is already becoming a personable tiger, eager to say hello to visiting fans.” There is always something off about caged animals. I’m not sure which is more disheartening, the disgruntled or the content.
Throughout the sanctuary stood small enclosures. Empty and carpeted by untrodden grass, these enclosures looked roughly 10x20ft. Someone asked, “What are those pins for?” Without looking from his shoes, Tim answered, “Those are for us. If something gets out, we’ll run inside. It’s never happened but you never know.”
The cougars, Jericho and Star, along the sanctuary tour interested me most. Though now exceedingly rare, these were the cats I could come across on a hike. These were the cats steeped in American lore. My mind immediately leapt to folktales of pioneers whose children, lagging behind the adults, were nabbed by stalking cougars. I remembered the climactic brawl in Where the Red Fern Grows when Old Dan and Little Ann tree a mountain lion and, in saving Billy from the cat, Old Dan loses his own life — a bloody scene that I first read as a child though it has never quite left me.
We first came upon Star basking in the midday sun. Star was rescued by the Humane Society and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks from an unaccredited roadside attraction dubiously called the Collins Zoo. “The condition that the animals are in is deplorable,” said Colonel Steve Adcock of the MS DWFP upon seizing Star and other large carnivores from the alleged zoo.
In heat, Star wailed as we approached but quieted as we gathered before her enclosure. She seemed uninterested in humans. Tramping to and fro among our group was a two-year-old boy dressed like a manikin from Gymboree and capped by a beanie resembling some adorable monster, complete with knitted eyes, teeth, and horns. Complementing Star, the boy was uninterested in cats but greatly bemused by the twigs and pine cones that he rambled upon. As the boy skipped away from the group to seize a wayward stick, Star raised her head. Her slanted, sharp eyes caught the boy momentarily before she lowered her head back upon the warm, sun-drenched earth.
Here, the tour was nearly hijacked by a woman who repeatedly muscled her way in front of the other ticket-holding spectators. Unyielding to hip-high children who wanted a better look, she would stand firm immediately before each ocelot, tiger, lion, caracal, and serval. Stretching her camera over the barrier rope — placed to keep patrons claw-swiping distance from the cats who could fit their paws between chain-link fences — this grown human was the only patron whom Tim needed to remind (repeatedly) to stay a safe and respectful distance from the cats (i.e., behind the damn ropes). The children were far better behaved.
I can’t fault her for enthusiasm, but she had a habit of speaking over Tim. “Cougars are the only cats who’ll attack unprovoked?” Her question was more of a statement, really – a did-you-know? or fun-fact sort of trivial spittle meant to stump the expert and impress everyone else. (But I’ve known fed and healthy domestic cats to kill and discard uneaten anoles and mice when “unprovoked” — unless you consider “existing within claw’s reach” provocation.) It was the sort of nonsense either conjured on the spot or developed in a culture whose exposure to large carnivores primarily comes via zoos or sensationalized documentaries on Animal Planet.
Tim responded diplomatically. “Well,” he said, “who’s to say what a cougar considers ‘provoked’?”
Wary of our troupe, the second cougar on the tour, Jericho, stayed in his hut with his head poking out and his meaty paws resting on the hay-covered threshold. We gathered near Tim. “Jericho doesn’t much care for people,” he said. “This is about how you’ll always find him.”
The little boy in our group grabbed the barrier rope that separated us from the cougar’s enclosure. He walked, heel-to-toe, back and forth, mumbling and singing to himself. He strayed ten feet, then ten yards, from our group before toddling back to his mother. Again, he sallied away along the rope.
Jericho dipped his head as though to minimize his silhouette. His eyes tracked the child. Soon, Jericho’s head, a swaying pendulum, followed the child like a house cat taunted by a feather tethered to dangling yarn.
Jericho sprang. In two silent bounds the cougar was upon the boy. Only a chain-link fence stood between the cat and his quarry. It was easily the most true-to-nature behavior I have ever seen exhibited by a wild creature in captivity.
Seemingly frustrated, the cat paced in-step with the boy as he continued to romp along the length of the barrier rope, blissfully unaware of any threat. Until our group had passed over a hill and around a bend, Jericho’s eyes never left the boy.
The child’s understandably frazzled mother concluded, “It must be his hat.” She fiddled with the knit horns on top. “The horns must make him look like an animal.” Did she think that the cougar had mistook a human for prey? Upon slaying the child, would Jericho have repented such savage transgressions against his evolutionary superiors?
Too often humans say things like, “Bears/wolves/cougars would never attack a human unless threatened or unless you get between a mother and her cubs/pups.” It’s comforting to omit our species from the wild in which we evolved. But the child was food — though food that escaped — little food, more easily taken than the big food who grouped together. The little food wandered from the herd. Its mother did not corral him back into the fold. Opportunity arose.
But who’s to say what provokes a cougar?