Thursday, September 20, 2007

Big Cats: A Photo Essay

On Friday, I was privileged to walk among some real Kings of the Jungle. Accompanying me were Son Three, a couple of dozen fellow Cub Scouts, and various other mothers, all of us weighed down with sloshing bottles and swaying camera bags, clinking our way down the path like Bedouin medicine men following the tribe.

When exotic animals are given up for adoption, generally by people who can no longer keep them as pets, or else rescued from horrible circumstances--an environment that's unhealthy, abusive, dangerous, illegal, cruel--some may wind up here, at Big Cat Rescue. They'll be fed and cared for, and permitted to roam in modest-sized habitats built within the woods north of Tampa. Roam behind wire, that is.

The owners must strike a balance between generating interest and income (thus staying afloat), and protecting the animals, many of which are traumatized by abuse, from too great a disturbance wrought by too many hordes of lively young visitors. So they sort of rush you along, which is disappointing if you're the type who likes to ponder, to really look at the world in front of you, more intently when there is a large jungle creature standing in the middle of it.

The guide told us we might be lucky and see the elusive snow leopard; then again, we might not. It was ridiculously hot, even for a September in Florida; he was far more likely to stay in his cave. And there was this: the snow leopard was intensely shy and traumatized; any upset or threat could send him into a fit of self-mutilation.

We walked toward the first of the wired habitats. This leopard's name was Jade:

We continued along the fenced path that wound between habitats. All the boys loved the South American Cougars; I think this one is Sugar (her brother Shadow looks just like her):

Next, we visited the tiger, and he posed for us:

So did the stunning serval. Her intricate markings were So beautiful, we all kept saying.

I thought to myself, Where is it that she's supposed to blend in? You couldn't take your eyes off the serval. She couldn't go unnoticed:

As we were leaving the sanctuary, one of the guides hissed at everyone to stand perfectly still. The snow leopard had decided to venture outside. Any sudden movement or loud noise could startle him and set off a bout of neurotic behavior and self-harm.

He could have stayed where it was safe and cool, but the snow leopard was drawn outside by something he heard. He trusted the joyful noises; they must have sounded like innocence itself.

Big cats usually stalk into a scene, establishing their dominance, lest anyone forget who's king. The snow leopard crept along the ground, moving toward the still and whispering group of humans and their wide-eyed children, his ears flattened slightly. He looked frightened, or else ashamed.

I'd been hanging back and was at the far end of the throng when told to halt and slowly turn around. The snow leopard slunk along and stopped--just short of the main group, and right in front of me. He stared at me and through me at the same time, and I looked back at him, and there we stood, looking hard and looking back, and not moving.

I lifted my camera slowly, so it wouldn't startle the snow leopard. The guide started to tell me to Move along, yes you, especially you. I quickly took two photographs and walked on.

Splendid, but tragically endangered:
the sad and lovely Panthera uncia, or snow leopard.
It's estimated there are only 4-7,000 of them left.

(H/T Klein's Tiny Left Nut)

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