A Sanctuary of Second Chances

By | April 12, 2007 at 12:19 am | No comments | TWS in the News

By Sharon Schmickle
Star Tribune
Published April 15, 2007

The Wildcat Sanctuary began doing surgeries on cats that experts say never should have been held captive.

Mia, the cougar receives veterinary care at The Wildcat Sanctuary
Tammy Quist, Executive Director, cleans out Mia’s
ears looking for any problems or excess build up.

Before veterinarians removed Mia the cougar’s reproductive organ, she tipped a scale at 70 pounds, less than three-quarters of what a healthy female cougar in captivity typically would weigh. The end of her tail was missing. Two of her teeth were broken.

Mia was so terrified of humans that a team at the Wildcat Sanctuary in rural Pine County couldn’t get close to her without triggering panic. They used blow darts to sedate her.

There is no excuse for the miserable lives that brought Mia and nearly 80 other large cats to the sanctuary hidden in the forests of north-central Minnesota, said John Baillie, a veterinarian from Lake Elmo who joined other expert volunteers to spay Mia and two other cougars Sunday.

Like Mia, thousands of large cats are bred, often illegally, and kept in captivity despite laws in Minnesota and most other states intended to curb the practice. “There are so many of these large cats all over Minnesota,” said Baillie, who has worked since 1972 to rescue and treat such cats.

“People have them in their homes in the suburbs, in back yards, ” Baillie said. “There are tigers in Anoka County. When I was practicing in Dakota County, I saw large cats there. Washington County. Even Hennepin County.”

Many of the captive cats have been abused. Yuma, a cougar from Colorado that followed Mia onto Baillie’s operating table, had been declawed by an amateur using crude tools.

Her paws were so deformed that walking is painful.

Dr. John Baillie works on Mia
Dr. John Baillie flipped Mia on her back before
stabilizing her body on the table for surgery.

The surgeries to spay the cougars were a first at the sanctuary, which built an expanded site last year in Pine County. Closed to the public, the nonprofit operation is the only accredited sanctuary for big cats in the Upper Midwest and one of 14 nationwide. Before, cats needing surgery had to be hauled to veterinary centers.

Recently though, private donors provided $17,500 to build a two-room hospital and buy used anesthetizing equipment. Now the sanctuary is raising money for an X-ray machine.

Mia is one of seven cats that came to the sanctuary in December after Catskill Game Farm in New York closed and put nearly 1,000 animals up for sale. Animal welfare activists bought three cougars, three lions and a leopard that were sent to the Minnesota sanctuary. Tammy Quist, the sanctuary’s executive director, said the cats had been held for some time crowded in horse stalls.

Although the center’s routine is to examine cats upon arrival, then neuter and spay them, Quist put off the procedure for the Catskill cougars until they could gain weight and calm down.

Once sedatives turned Mia limp Sunday, three volunteers hoisted her onto a stainless steel operating table and examined her from ears to tail.

Her moist, black eyes blinked vacantly while they took blood samples, vaccinated her, opened her jaws to check her teeth, inserted a tracking microchip in her back and shaved tan and white fur from her belly.

Once anesthesia was pumping through a tube, her eyes closed to slits. She was ready for surgery.

Mia’s uterus and the blood vessels supporting it were large, suggesting she may have been used for breeding, Baillie said. In the wild, cats normally have litters every two to three years. But in captivity, they often are bred annually to bear litters that can be worth thousands of dollars.

It will be days, though, before test results help fill out the story of what happened to Mia.

She will have a home at the shelter for the rest of her life, Quist said.

But even that is not ideal, Baillie said.

“Ideally, she never would have been born into this situation,” he said.

Sharon Schmickle • 612-673-4432 • sschmickle@startribune.com

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