How Big Cat Rescue Decides if They Can Release an Animal into the Wild
You might recall the exciting (and emotional) release of two bobcat kittens rehabilitated at Big Cat Rescue (BCR) earlier this year. And, if you're anything like us, you ended up with some questions. How do they decide which animals to release and which animals to keep in the sanctuary? How do they know when they're ready to go?
BCR, an accredited, nonprofit sanctuary nestled into 55 deeply wooded acres near Tampa, Fla., is the world's largest sanctuary and rescue facility dedicated completely to abused and abandoned big cats; currently, over 100 lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats and other species of big cats call it home. Its mission is providing cats in their care the best possible home and helping end abuse and avoid extinction by educating the public about the plight these magnificent animals face, both in the wild and in captivity.
BCR is also assiduously involved in rescuing and rehabilitating bobcats, which are nurtured and carefully prepared for successful release back into the wild whenever possible. But how do they know which animals are ready for release? To learn this and more, we turned to Carole Baskin, founder and CEO of BCR.
Q. How do you determine whether or not to rehabilitate and release an animal like BCR recently did with the bobcats, Copter and Gator?
A. That depends on how they come there. If the animals were pets, they cannot ever be released back to the wild. The only animals we can release back into the wild are cats who were born in the wild. Some of the easiest bobcats for us to rehabilitate and release are the cats who have been injured by a car strike, a hunter or mauled by dogs. Since they were raised by their mothers, they already know how to hunt and stay away from people.
The harder ones are the orphaned kittens. If a mother bobcat is killed and her kittens are left behind, we always try to raise these kittens in a way that we can release them back into the wild.
Q. If the animals cannot be released, does BCR keep them indefinitely?
A. Once we are confident that a rescued bobcat has been successfully rehabbed and able to take care of itself in the wild, it’s ready for release back into the wild. That’s our happiest day! But if a cat has been so severely injured that it’s unable to hunt and feed on live prey, the cat is fed a special diet of soft food, so [it] cannot be released. Once we obtain clearance from the Florida Wildlife Commission to do so, we will give these cats a permanent loving home. But it’s really very sad when a cat comes from the wild and needs to be caged for the rest of its life.
Q. Do you teach the cats how to hunt and other survival tactics? How do you monitor them to make sure they're able to take care of themselves in the wild?
A. We keep the cats as wild as humanly possible, but it can be difficult if they have had a long recovery from severe injuries and spent extensive time in our cat hospital.
Since they behave differently when humans are around, we watch them with cameras. When they are released into their outdoors enclosure, we use closed-circuit TVs to monitor their progress. [This keeps] contact with humans at an absolute minimum, which is crucial to a successful release.
With these cameras we can observe if the cat is catching [its] own food. We have a tunnel system of long PVC pipes going into the cage in different places. We put rats into the tubes far away from the cat so it doesn’t know when food is coming. The rats may come down the tubes right away or take all day and land in different places, so the cat has to learn how to be on the lookout for food all the time to quickly capture and kill their food, just like they would in the wild. When we see that they are able to do so, they are then ready for release.
The one exception is the kittens who may take a little longer to be released. We need to be sure they are big enough to fend for themselves, in case there are other big cats in the area that may come after them.
Q. Is releasing the bobcats difficult emotionally? Do you worry about their chances for survival?
A. It's very difficult to feel that the animal is really ready to go back to the wild, especially after we have nurtured an animal through such a precarious time. And as much as we want to put them back as quickly as possible where they belong into the wild, it’s scary. It's like sending your first-grader off to school for the first time. And as you open the door to let them go, you worry about them staying away from traffic, coyotes and humans.
Q. Is it easier to rehab and release younger bobcats or older ones?
A. Since older bobcats already have all their survival skills, they are far easier to release. It’s the baby bobcats that worry us the most. They have so much to learn without bonding with humans. It’s difficult to teach them some of the skills their mothers would have taught them, such as hiding from humans, how to catch their food, and how to behave around other bobcats.
Our first choice is raising a bobcat kitten with another bobcat kitten. If there’s an opportunity to raise a bobcat kitten with tested feral cat mother and their kittens that’s our second choice. We sometimes put a baby bobcat into a carrier and take the kitten to areas where we have caged bobcats, to learn about bobcat language and body language by observing them. However, they cannot have personal interaction with them because the bigger bobcats would kill them.
Although bobcat kittens are cute and cuddly, these cats are powerful and dangerous when they mature. They belong in the wild and should never be kept as pets.