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A Day with the Big Cats!

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

Clare Hemington DipCAPBT

Cat Behaviourist & Owner of Honeysuckle Cat Toys

The TV weather forecaster announced that it was going to be the hottest day of the year, with a temperature of 37 degrees centigrade, and what was I going to do? Spend all day in a field with several thousand other people trying to get a glimpse of some wild cats who, if they were sensible would be buried in the shade under several layers of shrubbery.

Back in December 2018 my friend Pauline, as a present for my July 2019 birthday, had bought tickets for the Big Cat Sanctuary’s 2019 Open Day which also fell in July, the perfect present for a Cat Behaviourist and I couldn’t have been more excited! Little did we know that on that day we’d be traipsing around with ice packs attached to our backs.

Located in the depths of the Kent countryside, The Big Cat Sanctuary is dedicated to the captive breeding of endangered big cats within the European Endangered Species Programmes. Their eventual aim is to provide animals that can be released back into the wild. It also runs visitor education programmes along with its annual Open Days. So, whilst in theory, I baulk at the idea of cats being kept in captivity, I also think that carefully conducted breeding programmes and education are the most important tools we have in the conservation of these beautiful cats.

So, armed with gallons of water, ice packs, sunscreen, hats and sun umbrellas we made our way down there. Living in Kent ourselves, we thankfully didn’t have to spend too much time in the car and arrived not long after the gates opened. This meant we were able to view the cats without too much shoulder shoving.

Having said that, I did have to climb up onto a chair in order to see the first cat of the day, a kindly looking lion called Kasanga.

Adult Male Lion

The fact that I nearly fell off the chair had someone commenting that Kasanga may well have assumed that lunch was coming early…

Our next stop was to see Maya, a simply stunning Jaguar. Maya’s mother was unable to feed her after she was born and she was hand reared by Giles Clark, Director of The Big Cat Sanctuary. You may have seen the story of how Giles raised Maya in his home in the BBC documentary ‘Big Cats About the House’.

Maya the Jaguar

Being hand reared she loved a stroke and tickle just like our own family felines.

Jaguar and keeper
Having a tummy tickle...

We then moved on to see a beautiful but somewhat restless White Tiger called Narnia.

White tiger
Too hot!

I was really hoping to see some of the smaller wild cat residents such as the Fishing Cat, Pallas Cat, Servals, Jungle Cat and Rusty Spotted Cat. I’d even taken with me the largest slice of honeysuckle wood I had in the hope of offering some novel scent enrichment to one of them, but the blistering heat kept them out of site, that and the fact that some of them are nocturnal.

The cheetah had a similar idea, however we could just about make him out as he lounged in his den…

Cheetah sitting in shade
Spot the Cheetah...

Thinking we were running out of luck with the cats, we decided to visit what some might think an odd choice of exhibitor at a wild cat sanctuary – birds, or to be more accurate, hawks. The Hawkinge centre is a bird of prey centre where you can also try your hand at falconry. They’d come along with some of their birds in order to put on a flying display, but once again the extreme heat prevented this and so they were very sensibly kept in the shade. I was however able to view them close-up and although the owl, hawk and eagle were very beautiful...

... I’ve always had a penchant for vultures, so when I saw Maggie, I fell in love.

The other feline residents we didn’t get to see were the Centre’s newest arrivals, two cheeky male snow leopard cubs born at the Sanctuary in April as part of the global co-ordinated breeding programmes.

Snow Leopard Cubs with Mum
Snow Leopard cubs, yet to be named!

However, we were able to view two more incredibly striking white tigers.

Having no success in the raffle draw, we decided to call it a day. It was a shame that there were many cats that we didn’t get to see but ultimately, as with our own little tigers, it’s all about respecting their welfare and species-specific needs which on this occasion, happened to be shade and privacy! I think we can all understand that.

This mightn’t be the end of my adventures with The Big Cat Sanctuary, I am hoping to be able to donate a honeysuckle log to them with a view to having one or two of their big cats try it out. We’ve started talks, so watch this space!

You can find more information on the work of The Big Cat Sanctuary and its resident cats here.

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