Nikita closeup


We received a tearful call from an Ohio woman asking us to help her and her cats.  She is a USDA-licensed owner who was committed to providing a home for her cats, but realized what the future would mean for her and the animals she had in small cages in her backyard.  Though she wanted to provide more for these animals, she struggled financially to keep up and was fearful she couldn’t meet the regulations new legislation required.  She researched different sanctuaries and contacted The Wildcat Sanctuary because she felt we could offer what her animals deserved – a home for life, where they wouldn’t be uprooted again and where they would have the open space she couldn’t provide for them. Sadly, the story of her animals and what they’ve been through is as heart wrenching as many of those who died that day in Zanesville, Ohio.  And, like most others, hers was not their first home.

Before arriving at this woman’s home, Nikita was a white tiger cub bred and sold at a very young age, taken far too early from her mother.  She was expected to earn her keep by playing with people and posing for pictures – all for money.  When most tigers outgrow this stage, they’re used to breed and bring other helpless cubs into the world to suffer the same fate – and bring in more money for their owners.

Who was Nikita’s former owner?  He was Sam Mazzola, an Ohio breeder, exhibitor, and ex-convict.  Mazzola’s history of abusing animals was notorious and well documented.  He had been in prison for cocaine and steroid trafficking, was arrested for illegal gun possession and sentenced to court-ordered anger management.  He claimed to have been arrested hundreds of times.

And yet, in Ohio, it was perfectly legal for him to own some of the most dangerous exotics. Besides Nikita and other tigers, he owned bears, lions, wolves and coyotes and would proudly show off the 2000 stitches from injuries inflicted by his wild animals.  Nikita grew up in a small, cement slab cage with a few other tigers and was forced to fight for her food.  She became dominant and dangerous.

Mazzola’s animals were big business for him.  His bears were forced to bring in money, $1000 a fight, by wrestling people in bars, clubs and fairs.  He claimed that over 22,000 people had wrestled his bears since he started the business over 25 years ago.  He bragged about being a tiger/bear wrestler himself.

But that part of his business ended in 2010, when Iroquois, one of Mazzola’s bears, mauled and killed a caretaker who suffered 600 wounds during the attack.  The victim’s family demanded Iroquois be put down and threatened to charge Mazzola with reckless homicide.  He then filed bankruptcy.

But there were other ways Mazzola found to make money with exotics. He would travel around with them, putting on exhibits that would bring in over $20,000 per event.  Investigators claimed his employees used a bat on a tiger at one of his exhibits.  Could Nikita have suffered blows like this?  Sadly, we’ll never know the horrors she endured while with him.

In 2012, life changed for Nikita.  Mazzola died and his death was no less controversial.  He was found wearing a mask, chained and handcuffed to a waterbed, asphyxiated by a foreign object in his throat.  Authorities finally stepped in, divided up his animals, and sent them to other facilities.

That’s how Nikita ended up at her next Ohio home.  Though a caretaker at Mazzola’s compound claimed to care for her, he never visited her.  At 7 years old, she was now living alone in half of a 20×30 backyard cage, but she still looked over her shoulder, fearful of what might happen to her.  Today, though, she is finally safe to be wild at heart at The Wildcat Sanctuary.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) heard of our efforts and called offering an emergency grant to help with initial costs for Nikita and Tasha’s transfer to The Wildcat Sanctuary.

Nikita and Tasha’s story touched hearts across the country and was covered by several media outlets.  Watch the story of their arrival at CBS, FOX 21, ABC, Ohio 10TV, and IFAW.

Read the full story here.

These are photos of Nikita enjoying her early days here at TWS – finally at her forever home!

Nikita closeup   Nikita on platformNikita checking out smellsNikita by logs





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Nikita’s rescue was covered by the news media nationally.  Below, you’ll find a list of articles that detail a lot of what we went through in order to bring Nikita here to her new home at The Wildcat Sanctuary.

Former owner tells Nikita’s story

Confessions of a Big Cat Owner – video interview with Nikita’s former owner

My life in captivity – through the eyes of Nikita, the tigress

Law prompts Tiger Paws owner to find new homes for her big cats

Big cats seek sanctuary in Northern MN at The Wildcat Sanctuary

Big cats leaving Ohio for new home

Federal legislation seeks to protect big cats, as tiger and cougar are rescued in Ohio

With increasing regulations on the horizon, a responsible big cat owner takes action

White tiger, cougar taken to MN Wildcat Sanctuary in preparation for proposed exotic animal bill

Tiger, cougar coming to the Wildcat Sanctuary

Exotic animals from Ohio bound for Minn. sanctuary

IFAW Field Update – Ohio big cats Nikita and Tasha are on their way home to The Wildcat Sanctuary

Federal exotic animal laws could be changing, big cats arrive at The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, MN

Lion, tiger moved from Ashland, Ohio to The Wildcat Sanctuary in MN

It took a dream team to help Nikita and Tasha from Ohio

The Wildcat Sanctuary has 2 new family members – NBC interview with Tammy Thies


Aging Tigers Can’t Stay at Tiger Paws Rescue Center – PHOTO SLIDESHOW

Tiger Rescue Center Closing After 20 Years – VIDEO REPORT


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