By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The cat playing with a blue buoy in the video looks adorable and will put a smile on your face, but it is important to remember that Loki is no pet. The 300-pound tiger was, however, being kept as one when he was found living in a cage inside a Houston home one year ago this month.
It was a terrible life, by any measure: the tiger had hardly any space to move inside the cage and he was sitting on rotting meat, mold, maggots and his own waste. His legs were scalded by urine. It was no way for such a regal and majestic animal to live.
Flash forward a year and Loki is now living the good life, as far as can be from the horror of that filthy cage. At the Fund for Animals’ Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, which is now his permanent home, Loki has all of his caregivers’ attention and a spacious habitat that mimics living in the wild as closely as possible.
Loki was brought to the ranch soon after his rescue by the Houston Police Department and BARC, the city's animal service department, and he bore many scars of his past. His caregiver, Christi Gilbreth, who used positive reinforcement techniques to prepare him for any medical procedures, remembers he still acted as if he was in a cage and would not reach for treats higher than a foot or two.
“He had no idea that there was room for him to stand higher and acted as though he was limited in his space. This was likely because the cage he was found in was only waist high where he had limited movement and was never able to stand to his full height on his hind legs,” she says.
He also appeared to have had no previous exposure to a large natural setting, and it took him a bit of time to relax and enjoy swimming, climbing, playing and exploring.
Now, Loki spends his time in the tree- and grass-lined habitat playing and sleeping most of the day, as all cats do.
“He has lots of options to choose his favorite spot in the sun to sleep. Whether it’s under a tree, next to his pool, or up high on a platform, where you can normally find him,” Noelle Almrud, the director of Black Beauty Ranch, tells me.
In the habitat next door is Alex, another tiger with a sad story of his own—he was rescued along with about a dozen other wild animals after their owner abandoned them, without food or water. Tigers are solitary in the wild, and at the ranch, Loki and Alex can see each other but don’t show any interest in living in the same habitat. Our Black Beauty Ranch staff is keeping their options open, though, and Noelle tells me that if they wanted to be together, the staff would work to introduce them, but if they’re happy being apart, that’s fine too.
Black Beauty Ranch, along with the Humane Society of the United States, is a founding member of the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance, an association of more than 20 reputable sanctuaries and partner organizations working to end the exploitation of big cats like Loki and Alex in the United States. Clearly, there are far too many big cats in the hands of people who have no business keeping such large, dangerous animals with complex needs. That's why we are now working to secure passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act in Congress, which would ban the possession of big cat species like tigers and lions by unqualified individuals and prohibit their exploitation by poorly run roadside zoos that allow public contact with big cats. Such facilities’ use of big cat cubs for the public to pet, play with and take photos with is a main driver of our country’s surplus of big cats kept in horrible captive conditions.
At Black Beauty Ranch, as Noelle reminds us, the only interaction caregivers have with the animals is for basic medical procedures and disaster preparedness and response. The animals are trained to stand on a scale so they can be weighed, or loaded into a transport crate or retreat into their dens if they need to be secured in case of bad weather or unforeseen emergency. They will also lean their hip towards the fence for annual vaccinations and the caregivers are now working on doing training for a voluntary blood draw through the tail (which can be accessed through the fence).
“This is their home and we are here to provide the highest quality of life for the rest of their life. But we do it all with the safety of the cats and staff in mind and the training is completely voluntary on the cats’ part,” Noelle says. “We never go in with them, we don’t pet them, we never try to tame them. These are wild animals, and we never underestimate their intelligence or strength.”
Please take a moment to contact your federal legislators and urge them to cosponsor the Big Cat Public Safety Act if they haven’t yet, and do all they can to get it passed
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.