Sunday, March 26, 2006

Midnight Rescue

March 22, 2006 11:21 pm: I had just gotten in from a three hour meeting of the Animal Advisory Committee where we had wrestled with the long range goals of Animal Services and how we would be able to stop the flood of animals in the front doors to be euthanized because people didn’t want them any more. How could we fund education and aggressive spay / neuter programs in a county government fraught with cut backs? How could we stop the killing of 34,000 healthy dogs and cats each year in an environment of thought that could only do more of what wasn’t working by building more places for people to bring their pets to die? It was a topic worthy of the energy we had all put into it tonight, but at the end of the night all we had managed to do was suggest that an outside consultant be paid to tell us how to do it and we would leave funding the implementation to another day’s discussion.

Being away from my computer for 3 hours means a pile of emails will have collected and standing at my desk I began to sort through them. I really wanted to go to bed, so not sitting down seemed to me, as if it say, I was not committed to answering all of this mail, but would see if there was anything that just couldn’t wait until morning. Then the phone rang.

The voice on the other end was shaky, female and began, “I got your number from the answering machine, and I’m sorry to call so late, but I have called everyone I can think of and Fish and Game said they would send someone yesterday, but they never did, and the trapper said he will just euthanize the cat, and the cat is scared, and I am afraid he is going to die, and if I let him loose someone is going to shoot him. It’s a big cat. I think it might be a Florida Panther. It weighs 90 pounds, is three feet long, had VERY big teeth and his paws are as big as my hands. I caught him in my garage. He has been tearing up cats in the neighborhood and some are missing. I think he ate them. I caught him in the trap with some cat food. He just fills up the entire trap…”

I don’t know how long she went through her description before I spoke. There was no hurry to speak as she was just flowing with information. I jotted down the details as I silently pondered her authenticity. I have been outspoken against people breeding and selling exotic cats and have committed much of my time to trying to stop the trade. I had become the target of a segment of our society that is comprised largely of drug dealers, criminals and those just too ignorant or uncaring to see that their participation in the industry causes such suffering for the animals. In their chat rooms they had suggested more than once that the only way to stop me was a bullet. Was this call in the middle of the night a set up for just such an opportunity?

Was this woman’s voice shaking because she was lying and involved in something that could send her to prison? The notion of a 90 lb. Florida Panther, in a dog trap, in a garage, in a waterfront community like Apollo Beach, was pretty far fetched. Is that why Fish and Game had not responded, or did she just say she called them first so that I wouldn’t? I queried her more, asking the same questions in different ways. If she was lying she would get tripped in her own tale and if she wasn’t she would surely think that I was an idiot who just couldn’t get the picture.

After a while I decided that no one could have made up a story like hers and told her I would be sending our Operations Manager Scott and our own licensed trapper to see if she changed her mind about wanting someone to come right away. Her only concern was if our trapper was of the same conviction as the one she had called earlier and I assured her that we would not kill the cat. She gave her contact info and it all matched up with the public records. She was in a high rent district that was not consistent with where most of our opponents live. I called Jamie to wake her up.

Groggy she answered the phone. She had been too exhausted to sleep, but had finally managed to drift off when she heard my voice saying, “Get up. We have to pick up a Florida Panther in Apollo Beach.” She said to wait out front and she would be ready in three minutes and she was.

As she climbed into the truck she asked me to repeat what it was we were doing again and why. If this was a 90 lb cat we would have to pick up the van from the sanctuary and have an enclosure ready upon our return. The woman was afraid for the cat because she couldn’t open the trap to give him water and he had been in it for a couple days. We needed a place we could release the cat so that he could stand up (which she also said he couldn’t do in the tiny trap he was wedged into) and get a drink.

As we switched out gear to the van Jamie called Scott to alert him that we needed a cage ready. He prepared our rehab cage because it is far removed from the tour route and the other cats in case this was truly a wild cat and as a quarantine measure.

On the one hour trip to Apollo Beach Jamie and I placed bets as to what was in the trap. Would it be a dog? A raccoon? A neighbor’s oversized tom cat? A bobcat? Partly this was due to the barrage of such sightings that turn out to be such animals and partly in our nervous aversion to what the real implications of this trip could mean to our lives. Jamie was armed with a Mag Light and has become something of an Amazon in strength due to her daily life of outside work at the rescue. I have a history of deflecting harm thanks to an overly protective Guardian Angel and hardly ever even consider my own safety but I worried for Jamie. She is the permit holder to pick up a native animal and had to be there. She knows the element of enemy we are up against. A master of disguise and undercover surveillance she has been face to face with those who use and abuse these animals. If anyone knew the dark void of greed, ego and selfishness that these exotic animal breeders and dealers shared it was Jamie. We were ready for whatever the night might bring.

I was somewhat relieved to find at the end of our route the homes were in the million dollar range. At least gun fire would probably cause an investigation. The caller met us at the door and holding back her dogs waived us to enter the garage. I quickly scanned the room to try and determine if there was anyone lurking and to get a feel for what kind of person we were dealing with. I wasn’t too thrilled with the notion of being thrust into the garage; was that so we wouldn’t make a bloody mess on the carpet?

Opening the garage door I saw the trap that was virtually busting at the seams with brown fur. Glancing around the garage I didn’t see anyone or anyplace anyone likely could be hiding. I know Jamie’s observation skills were far more adept and that she could also go on for hours describing exactly everything in the room to its most minute detail after a five minute visit. The woman rejoined us and shut the door behind her. She was no match for us and I began to un tense every muscle that had been as tight as piano wire for a battle.

She described the cat again; as if we couldn’t see him and detailed discovering the cat a week before and all that she had done to try and find help. Finding no one who cared, she borrowed a trap and set out to catch the cat herself for fear that someone would shoot him. Finally she turned to Jamie and asked, “So, what is it?”

Jamie responded that it was a Jungle Cat and I interjected that it was the biggest Jungle Cat I had ever seen. We gathered a written statement from the woman, interviewed her mother who owned the home, took photos and settled the 26 lb. Jungle Cat into the back of the van for the hour ride home.

2:13 am we arrived back at the sanctuary and the only way to get the cat to the rehab cage is to carry him across 2 acres of underbrush on a foot wide path lit by only a flashlight. I carried the flashlight and Jamie hauled the 36 pounds of cat and trap. Jamie turned him loose in his new enclosure and unlike most trapped cats he just moseyed out of the trap and strolled around the Cat-a-tat checking out the brush bama, the cave and the swinging platforms. She gave him water and secured the cage.

The next day we called Fish and Game, now known as the FWCC, to report the incident. We checked the lost and found while Dr. Wynn checked the cat over to try and tell, without sedating him, if he was a male, neutered or not and what was up with those huge paws? We had filmed an interview for a documentary into the small cat and hybrid cat business and the producer called saying she needed a few more break away shots. I told her about the rescue and offered to let her document what happens when these animals escape.

The minute she saw the cat she said it was a Stone Cougar and that there was a hybrid dealer a couple hours away who was trying to make himself famous by breeding a Chaussie (Jungle Cat / Domestic Cat cross) that looks like a cougar. Purposely inbreeding causes traits such as the polydactyl feet to make the paws bigger and the stunted, dwarf like legs to make the cats’ body style more closely resemble a cougar. The Jungle Cat is used for its brown coloring and hybrids are typically larger than either parent, so this would give the desired size for the pet owner who wants something big enough to beat up the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

This cat’s escape, or release, sums up the hybrid issue. The first generations are large, mentally confused, and often exhibit the worst of both species rather than the best. Hybrids are marketed as being miniature wildcats with all of their beauty and mystique while being easy to keep; eating cat food and using a litter box. What is most often created is a rather ordinary looking cat with no house manners who will fight you to the death for the defrosting meat in the sink. Children and pets are particularly in danger and there isn’t a house that can contain them, or in which anyone who can smell will want to live. They are often relegated to lonely lives in back yard cages or are turned loose to fend for themselves on whatever neighbor’s pets they can catch.

This cat probably sold for $2500.00 and was just a way to make some money to his breeder. This cat once was a new buyer’s prized possession. This cat knew what it meant to live in fear on the street with no one who cared if he lived or died, except for a woman who was determined that he would not be shot for killing the neighbor’s cats. This cat may now spend 20 years in a cage because he is too big and too dangerous to be kept as a pet anymore.

This cat is the one with a story to tell and you can help him tell it: Exotic cats were not meant for life in cages. Please don’t support the exotic pet trade; including the hybrid pet trade.