I spent the pivotal summer I turned 21 near a town called Boyd, Texas, surrounded by dust, blood, and tigers. Two-stoplight, big-town Boyd was how the mailman found us, but the sanctuary actually lay closer to Aurora, Texas (pop: 1,000 and home of Tater Junction, the only restaurant for miles). The surrounding area may have been an expanse of Texas nothingness, but 100 yards from my bed a trio of tigers played and chuffed. That summer I learned that lions, like roosters, roar at the sun when it is coming up, though usually I was already working when they started their cacophony. After each hot, sticky day of labor, I would sit next to a cougar, watching the land begin to shroud itself in dusk. When I accepted the position of animal behavior intern at the International Exotic Feline Sanctuary in small-town Texas, I figured, “Well, this will either be good, or be a good story” and it has become one I tell time and again.
Life on the sanctuary was spartan. I was one of six female interns in addition to three employees. Everyone lived on the property. Due to aforementioned proximity to large carnivores, there was no alcohol allowed on site, and the county was dry as well. There were only two excursions to an aluminum-sided bar (The Tumbleweed) the entire summer—both for birthdays, including my 21st, and both concluding far before we were in danger of turning to pumpkins. We had a six-day week, a 5-a.m. alarm, and a $200 monthly paycheck. Though lacking in civilization, there were 63 cats, including lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, bobcats, cougars, cheetahs, and a margay.
My day started around 5 a.m. when I would wake up, throw on soccer shorts and a stained wifebeater, then head to the “kitchen.” Over 400 pounds of mostly-defrosted chicken and ground cow sat in tubs of blood—I say cow because the organs and bones were ground in as well. We portioned the meat into bowls for the 63 cats, added medicine and blood to blend it in (extra blood was frozen for “bloodsicle” treats), loaded the John Deere Gator, and rumbled off to feed the cats. At their enclosures, we shut them in houses to eat while we had the peculiar honor of entering their territory as janitors. Tiger poop went into a special bucket. We picked up their food bowls on a second go-around, which sometimes was still not fast enough to keep the meat from baking in the Texas sun, white maggots squirming under the crust. We washed bowls, dumped poop, and cleaned up spilled blood. When this was completed, we broke for lunch around 10:30 or 11 a.m.
Later, we learned how lucky we to serve ground cow. We visited another sanctuary down the road where the interns strung a dead cow onto a small crane and butchered it. As a special surprise, the cow was pregnant. As an extra special surprise, the well water was out, so they gave us a tour of their facility covered in blood and afterbirth up to their elbows.
Our afternoons usually involved manual labor, such as weed-whacking, painting, or building with concrete. Sometimes we led tour groups around the sanctuary. The other opportunity to interact with humans was going into town to sell tiger poop, as it supposedly deterred prey like rabbits from gardens. Of course we had to make the poop look less like poop, so we set it out to dry and grated it into bags. Then we drove to gardening stores in the area to convince them to sell it. You can imagine how much we enjoyed this task.
The good and bad part about the sanctuary was that it was all about the animals. Our company in the evenings was supposed to be the cats. Seriously: To learn about animal behavior, we sat by the cats in the evenings at a safe distance from the enclosure. Touching was forbidden thanks to a mauling incident a few years earlier, when a tiger pulled a keeper’s arm through a chain link fence, stripping it of flesh. My assigned companion was Dakota. I had no idea what to expect from this seemingly pointless exercise in sitting.
I never thought I would be friends with a cougar, but he quickly became my solace from the heat, misery, and backbreaking work. After the first week, whenever he heard me coming he would chirp a greeting, lumber over to the fence beside me, plunk into the dust, and begin to purr. Dakota had large, knowing yellow eyes, dusty fur, enormous paws, and he often yawned, lolling his big pink tongue out between his whiskers and prominent canines. He was a huge cougar, maybe 150 lbs. of lover stuffed into a lethal killer’s body. Cougars are the largest cat that can purr, and hearing the sound of my housecats come rumbling through this carnivorous giant was disconcerting. We would just sit in peace, taking in the insect chatter of the Texas evening.
Most of the cats in the sanctuary, including Dakota, had been someone’s mistaken attempt at a pet. Some estimate more than 5,000 tigers in the U.S. suffer this fate (compared to 1,098 in captivity and less than 3,000 in the wild). It’s not even illegal to have a tiger as a pet in some places, and they can be bought for a few hundred dollars. People tried to remove their claws or file their teeth to make them tame. When they realize they can’t take care of a wild animal (cost is upwards of $500/month), they try to dump the cats at zoos, which already have too many from extras in breeding programs and don’t want animals of unknown origin (white tigers, in particular, are a sad tale of inbreeding and condemned by the AZA). Sanctuaries take in what they can from zoos, confiscations, and surrenders, but they are overloaded, too. Of all the cats at my sanctuary, only one had a previous owner who visited—a massive lion who perked up whenever he heard a Harley like his daddy drove. The rest were just abandoned. Some had been abused, like the tiger found chained in an apartment for seven days, so thirsty he had broken through the walls to bust a water pipe. The police arrived to investigate a leak and found a starving tiger.
Though the sanctuary took excellent care of the cats, many still exhibited neurotic behaviors like pacing. Other “sanctuaries” end in disaster, like the one in Colton, Calif., where 50 dead cubs were found in a freezer. Some places will breed baby tigers so they can attract visitors and sell cute pictures, then kill the cubs when they get too big. It upsets me to see big cats portrayed as cute in YouTube videos, exotic in Tinder pictures, or dominated in rap videos with a chain around their neck, doubtless from inhumane circumstances. You do not want a tiger for a fucking pet. It is not cool, it is not cute, it is not OK. Yes, I felt a special bond with Dakota, but I had no illusions of being able to take care of him (he had to have several surgeries from his owners feeding him the wrong diet), clean up after him (big cats are more into spraying than litterboxes), or even avoid injury (ask ANY animal behaviorist to show you their scars). Taking care of big cats was dirty, bloody, hard work, and not something to be trivialized. Animals are not here for our entertainment, and they deserve respect.
My internship was depressing for so many reasons. One of the interns, who intended to be a vet but quickly decided medical school was a better choice, surmised that “sometimes the people who work with animals do so because they don’t really like people.” The first intern quit after a month. I lasted two months out of the three, and I think only one intern made it the full length. It was just too hard. My final stop before departing was to see Dakota. Even in the scorching mid-day, he chirped and lumbered over to our spot. Four hours later, I was back in civilization, but my life was forever changed by the wildness I saw.
I wish there were a happier end to this story, but even after eight years I am still making sense of my time at the sanctuary. The experience changed my career path away from biology, but gave me the utmost respect for the people that dedicate their lives to this cause. The one thing I knew going into the internship proved to be true: It gave me a story to tell. I may have toiled in blood and heat, I may have quit, but I know what a cougar sounds like when he purrs.
If you are interested in learning more about sanctuaries, a great resource is Big Cat Rescue. Please consider donating to organizations like the World Wildlife Fund to keep big cats in the wild and out of backyards.