One day, we received a tearful call from a USDA-licensed owner in Ohio asking for help. With pending state and federal legislation, she realized what the future might mean for her as well as the animals she had in cages in her backyard. Though she wanted to provide more for these animals, having just survived the threat of foreclosure, she knew it would be impossible for her small facility to meet the new regulations. She feared that her animals would be confiscated or euthanized.
After researching different sanctuaries, she 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. This is the life she dreamed about for her tigress Nikita and cougar Tasha.
As common with most exotics, hers wasn’t the first home for her either Nikita or Tasha. Nikita, a 7 year old tigress, was first owned by Sam Mazzola, a notorious ex-con who allowed people to wrestle his bears for money, who bred and sold tigers, who exhibited his animals on the road, forcing them to live in tiny, filthy cages.
Mazzola 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. Investigators claim his employees even used a bat on his tigers. And yet, with Ohio’s lack of regulations, it was perfectly legal for him to continue owning some of the most dangerous exotics.
Nikita was used as a photo prop, being put on public display at exhibitions. It’s no wonder she became emotionally scarred from the abuse she experienced. She was chained down to a wooden box for photos, lived on a cement slab in a tiny enclosure with other tigers, was bred and had her cubs taken away and sold off.
Mazzola unexpectedly died after asphyxiating himself. Those who came to rescue his animals found walking skeletons. Nikita had survived living in a 10×10 cage with another male tiger. She was dominant and dangerous, able to fight for the little bit of food they were given. Shockingly, the transport cage Mazzola had put her in was no bigger than a large dog carrier. It was a miserable existence, but she now had a caregiver who took her in, provided her with a clean 15×20 cage, wholesome food and toys. Still fearful, though, Nikita had a hard time adjusting.
Tasha, the cougar, endured a different type of abuse. She lived in her owner’s garage for 9 years. She escaped through a hole in the garage and was almost shot by law officials until she came back on her own, scared and hungry. After that incident, she also ended up at this Ohio USDA facility with Nikita and other tigers. Tasha suffers from leg tremors, a botched declawing on her paws, and impaired eyesight, but is a very sweet, gentle cougar.
Hearing their stories, knowing what they’d been through, we agreed to take them in. We immediately began building habitats for them and networking with other sanctuaries to find placement for the owner’s other tigers. The difficult task of trying to raise $30,000, the initial cost for this rescue, began.
We were contacted by a national TV program with a high profile celebrity wanting to film this rescue. You might think we’d jump at the chance for the publicity, but we always put the individual cat’s needs first. Since Nikita is a fractious, fearful cat and Tasha is terrorized by noises as simple as a lawn mower, we knew the camera crews, forced darting, and days of filming would be the worst thing for them. So, we said “no.”
Most of our rescues aren’t covered by the media. We do what we do best; provide safe passage for animals – desperate for serenity – to their new forever home, usually unnoticed by the press. We thought this rescue would be no different.
But then, help arrived in the form of award winning documentary producer Mike Webber and Tim Harrison, well known star of “The Elephant in the Living Room.” Tim offered to provide ongoing vet care for the cats, some needing immediate dental work. Mike offered to quietly and unobtrusively document the rescue with a handheld camera for future documentary use.
When the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) heard of our efforts, they called offering an emergency grant to help with initial costs for the rescue. Having this team of helpers come together at the last minute was a dream come true for us – and for Nikita and Tasha.
It doesn’t end there, though. The staff of Cedar Pet Clinic Lake Elmo will perform intake exams and spays. Wildcat Haven, Inc. in Oregon has also agreed to take in two more tigers once they raise funds to build pens and arrange transport. Two more accredited sanctuaries have also contacted TWS to help with additional animals, if needed.
The day Nikita and Tasha arrived at the Sanctuary, their story was covered by many different media outlets in Minnesota and Ohio. This rescue helped highlight the captive wildlife crisis we face in this country and the desperate need for federal and state legislation to prevent situations like this from happening in the future.
Though it may only take one person to harm and abuse an animal, like Nikita and Tasha’s first owners, we know it takes a network of people coming together to give these animals a chance to live wild at heart.
We are so thankful for all the members of our rescue dream team and for all those who are helping with donations and sponsorships. Thanks to this team effort, Nikita and Tasha will now live peacefully and happily ever after at their forever home here at The Wildcat Sanctuary.