Big Cat Rescue is an accredited sanctuary home to 100+ lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, servals, caracals, lynx and many other species of wild cats and wild cat hybrids. Feeding time is the best part of their day and what we feed is a critical factor in maintaining their health and keeping our vet costs low. The sanctuary started in 1992 and everything we know now about caring for big cats was learned through trial and error.
In the beginning we fed chicken leg quarters, chicken necks, chicken gizzards and chunks of red meat, but we quickly learned the necessity of adding vitamins, minerals and calcium as the diet was insufficient for maintaining healthy teeth and bones. With cats who ranged in size from the 3 pound sand cat to the 750 pound tiger it was a feat of mathematical genius to properly work out the correct ratios for each cat species and then account for the difference in the individuals ages, health and energy expenditure needs. We wanted something more balanced and a number of products claimed to be, so we tried them.
We tried Zoopreme, a canned diet, but the cats hated it and we noticed that when we rescued cats who had been fed Zoopreme, they always looked thin, bare coated and listless. Back in the 1990s Purina came out with Mazuri Zoo Diet, a dry kibble that appeared to be the perfect blend but the cats wouldn't eat it. We even ground it with raw meat to make it more palatable, but could never get the cats to accept more than a 50/50 blend and some wouldn't even tolerate that. I can't remember all of the products that came and went, and mostly were thrown away because the cats wouldn't touch them, so when Dr. Marty Dinnes from Natural Balance asked us to try his Zoo Carnivore diet, we were less than thrilled at the prospect.
We gave it a try and much to our amazement, "Mikey liked it!" Thinking it was a fluke, we were pretty sure that on day two the cats would turn up their noses. The Carnivore Formula was developed, researched and tested by leading zoo animal keepers, nutritionists, and veterinarians. It is a fresh-frozen beef diet is made from high quality beef processed in a state inspected plant under stringent sanitary conditions. Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet contains a zoo animal vitamin-mineral premix, which includes vitamin E, niacin, vitamin A and taurine - particularly important nutrients to felidae. The diet is nutritionally complete and needs no additional supplementation; it meets all dietary requirements for felids and does not contain meat by-products or grains such as corn, wheat, rice or barley. It was just too healthy for them for them to continue liking it, we thought.
Days turned into weeks and the cats were eating it…no, the cats were devouring it. They loved it!
That was back in 2005 so the diet has proved the test of time, in that the cats still like it and within just months we could see visible improvements in their coats, the shine in their eyes, and the fact that most of our cats live into their late teens and early twenties when most big cats die around the age of 10 to 12. We also noticed that our vet bills began decreasing by a staggering $20,000 per year.
Despite the quality of the food, it was limited in that it is a ground diet and the cats both like the experience of crunching their prey and the scraping of the bones they eat is what helps keep their teeth clean. We had begun to feed whole prey to some of our cats in 2000 with the arrival of sand cats who really liked day old chicks. We found that if cats were sick and needed to get pills the most effective way to trick them into eating their medication was to stick the pill in a dead chick. The chicks were a high source of calories for growing, orphaned bobcats that we return to the wild when grown, and to other cats who weren't feeling well enough to eat during an illness.
We feed 500 lbs of raw meat a day and that is expensive enough with the prepared diet running somewhere around $1.50 per lb. plus shipping from CA. Feeding whole prey is far more expensive with a rabbit costing around $9.00 to feed just one small to mid size exotic cat. We offer dead whole prey and bones one night per week to the big cats for a variety of reasons.
1. The gnawing and crunching of bones helps keep the teeth clean.
2. The fur and feathers left on the carcass encourage playing, leaping and other activities the cats would do in the wild.
3. The ingestion of fur and feathers helps clean out the digestive tract.
The bigger cats wouldn't be happy with just one rabbit for the night, so they get ribs with meat on the bone to keep them occupied until the next night when they get a full feeding of the Carnivore Diet.
Two reasons that we do not feed a whole prey only diet are the expense and the fact that it is hard to find much other than chicks, rats, mice and rabbits and a cat's diet in the wild would be more varied than that, so we risk not meeting their nutritional needs. The larger cats would eat hoofstock in the wild, but it is not safe to offer road kill, or downer cattle who are dying from who-knows-what and cutting up whole cows requires a chainsaw and is pretty messy and unsanitary.
While we are on the subject of whole prey; the only time we feed the mice, rats or rabbits live is when we are preparing native bobcats for release back to the wild. Most of the cats we rescue are non native species and have been captive bred for use as pets, props or worse. They can never go free because they have been imprinted by humans and / or are non native to Florida. In the cases where bobcats have been hit by cars or orphaned we are able to raise them, away from humans, and when they are healed or grown we return them to the wild. These cats must be able to find and kill prey animals and we have a very elaborate system for enabling that training. In essence, live prey is introduced into a "subway" system that exits into the rehab cage and the bobcat must always be on the alert for when a mouse or rat might show up.
Big Cat Rescue depends entirely on volunteers for feeding and cleaning our cats' enclosures and most of us are "bunny huggers" who just couldn't bear to watch what a captive cat would do with live prey, so that is the main reason for only offering it dead. We can't even kill the animals ourselves, and thus buy them from suppliers to the snake industry who raise and kill them humanely and send them to us frozen.
Before discovering Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet we knew that, aside from old age, the most common cause of death in our cats was from cancer. The beef and chicken we had been feeding were raised for human consumption and between the hormones, antibiotics and preservatives that went into making that a profitable industry it had become the kiss of death for humans as well as animals. According to our vet, the cats just have shorter life spans, so we see the results of ingesting all of these toxins in a shortened time frame.
That troubling knowledge led to my biggest failure ever: organic chicken farming. I decided we would raise our own free range chickens on an all natural diet, with lots of sunshine, grass under their feet and non toxic care. I was many months into the project before discovering that a chicken raised for human consumption in traditional (albeit unhealthy methods) can be big enough for slaughter in under 3 months, but a chicken raised naturally takes about 9 months. Not only that, but the nine month old chicken, who has not been injected with hormones, grows up to be a bird that can fly well because it is lean, well muscled and has glorious feathering, but there isn't much for the cat to eat of him. On 45 acres we just couldn't even begin to raise 500 lbs of meat a day this way and had to admit defeat. When you factor in the cost of the land, heating lamps, chicken night houses, staff and grain, the cost of providing such a natural diet becomes outrageous and again, provides only one form of food, whereas the cats need a varied diet.
We feed the cats 6 nights a week and fast on Sundays. A lot of zoos fast several nights per week, but I believe that is to accommodate keepers more than anything else and do not recommend it. We do not fast youngsters, the very aged, or ailing cats. The reason we fast at all are that in the wild cats usually do not eat every day and in captivity will often chose one day a week or so that they don't eat. The first sign of illness is usually inappetence and because cats are hard wired to the notion of "survival of the fittest" they are often dead within 48 hours of their first sign. By choosing Sunday as the fasting day we can be more assured if a cat doesn't eat during any other day of the week that something might be amiss.
We worm our cats monthly with Ivermectin for worms, ear mites and prevention of scabies and quarterly with Panacur for the worms that Ivermectin doesn't affect. If we offer this on a Monday, the day after fasting, we are more likely to get the dose into the cats, than if we let them decide which day to avoid eating.
Even though the Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet is balanced and all the cats really need, we recognize the fact that these cats were never meant to be bred for life in cages and if you are going to spend a lifetime behind bars, for a crime you didn't commit, then there ought to be some perks in it. We do a number of things to alleviate their boredom, such as providing enrichment twice a week and operant conditioning, but nothing means more to the cats than getting a treat with their meal. They love things that crunch, ooze and can be heartily ripped to shreds, so along with their main meal they almost always get some tidbit of chicken leg quarters, chicken necks, organ meats, or a chunk of beef.
Approximately 75% of our population is over the age of 15 (90 in cat years) and each one has their own level of activity and personal metabolism that makes it necessary to cater individually to their needs. In the wild a tiger can eat 60 lbs at one sitting, but they usually only catch something once a week. In captivity a 500 lb lion will usually eat about 15 lbs per night, whereas a 20 lb bobcat will eat about 3 lbs per night. Bobcats are more active, spend a lot of time climbing trees in their enclosures and burn more energy than a lion who sleeps 20 out of 24 hours in a day.
Natural Balance® Zoo Carnivore Diet comes in 5%, 10% and 15% fat content blends which makes it easier for us to keep the cats at optimum weights. Visitors always comment, when they see the cat's birth date signs on their Cat-a-tats, that they never would have guessed the cats to be so old. Right up until they die they typically have glossy coats and bright eyes.
When a 150 lb cat, who can spring 20 feet in a bound, is ready for dinner, it can be feeding frenzy if we don't prepare in advance. Our Cat-a-tats are 1,200 square feet for a single cat, up to 1 and 3 acre enclosures for two altered cats to share. We do not breed and do not force cats, who are solitary by nature, to share cages. Each enclosure has a "lock out" which is a small box that the cat can be fed in and which has the water bowl, elevated so the cats do not pee in it, and a guillotine door. This is the first step in their operant conditioning; learning that the word "lock out" means come to the box and get a treat. By shutting the cat in the box we can enable the vet to get a good look at all sides of the cat and by shutting the cat out of the box we can safely clean the water bowl, food platter and, in the case of aggressive cats, can put the food in before opening the door to the cat.
The cats are fed at dusk because this is when they would naturally hunt and it gives them all night to eat without attracting flies and ants. The cages are cleaned at daybreak so it minimizes a pest problem. Sometimes the cats get what our vet calls "fast food" which is the natural wildlife miscalculating their own agility as they fly or slither through our cats' grassy, tree shaded environs. As enrichment the volunteers will sometimes stock their pools with fish so that they can do a little fishing themselves, or the fish will be offered dead to those without pools because taurine is critical to a cat's health and fish are a natural source even though their prepared diet is certainly sufficient in taurine.
On a hot day you will see Big Cat Rescuers enjoying a popsicle while watching their beloved cats licking their own Sardini Martini Pops, or Blood Cicles. Even the rats we raise for our rehab bobcats get in on the fun with their own Grape Pops. Our "rat room" is the Disney version of rat farming with habi-trails, wheels whizzing and rats pigging out on their own home made specialty treats. The cats' frozen treats are made from the blood that drains off the meat during the thawing process. The food arrives frozen and is kept in walk in freezers that can store 20,000 lbs of food. Each day the next day's food is brought into a walk in cooler that is larger than my first apartment, where it is laid out on stainless steel tables to thaw. The racks are morgue tables and the blood drains into five gallon buckets. The volunteers bring in yogurt cups to create their concoctions and freeze the blood and sardines, or pieces of meat for the smaller cats and bigger containers for the big cats.
Unless a cat is in renal failure you almost never catch them drinking but clean water is crucial. The bowls are dumped, cleaned and refilled daily with well water. In some cases, such as the snow leopards and sand cats who have almost no immune system, we provide bottled water each day. The bowls are elevated, in a caged box attached to the end of their lock out box, because in the wild cats urinate in streams so that predators and prey alike are unaware of their existence. The box is elevated above their tails, but not so high as to be hard to reach for a drink.
Another form of enrichment is to give the cats a bag or box with something unexpected in it. This can be anything from pumpkins, to pineapple to banana leaves, spices, catnip or just about anything else that a cat might safely destroy. Anything we put in the cage runs the risk of being ingested so we have to be very careful to remove staples and tape. Even things you would never dream a cat would eat, like a tire, has to be carefully chosen. Although a lot of places do offer tires to big cats, we have known of cats who chewed off pieces and died, so we do not give them anything more indigestible than boxes. The balls we give our big cats have a four inch sidewall making it impossible for them to bite off pieces. The smaller cats get smaller balls, but still proportionately safe in their construction. Big cats are big chewers so we have to carefully monitor things like hammocks and platforms and even the bushes in their enclosures to be sure they aren't gnawing off pieces and eating them. One of the most common problems we see is from cats chewing on sticks and getting a piece wedged across the roof of their mouth. It isn't until they begin drooling that we will notice it. We have created a spoon, bent in half and attached to a stick that we use to trick the cat into opening wide for a treat, and then can pull out gently raking the roof of their mouth to dislodge the stick, but sometimes it is really stuck in there and requires anesthetizing the cat to get it out.
Big cats do not deal well with anesthesia and it builds up in their kidneys over time causing renal failure. This is why our cats are not knocked down unless it is a matter of life and death and why we supplement their diet with crunchy bones to clean their teeth. Our operant conditioning, which is teaching the cat to do something we need for medical reasons, by offering a reward is a very important part of what we do to keep our cats healthy. The cats love it because there is no punishment for getting it wrong and they are smart enough to always want to be the best at it that they can. To prove their mental capacity they will often go through the entire repertoire of commands they know as soon as they see the keeper coming. They will do stand, sit, right paw, left paw, right ear, left ear, open mouth and give me your tail in rapid fire succession that to the casual observer must look like some kind of cat dance.
As the cages are cleaned each morning the volunteers are tasked with laying eyes on every cat but often all they see are eyes peering back from the darkness of their caves or way up in the trees. At feeding time everybody is up, awake and trotting about in high expectation of what the menu will include. This is perfect time for us to be able to see the cats in action and assess their overall health and condition more fully. It's their happy time of day and ours too.
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue Dec. 11, 2010