What started out as a surrender from a private owner, ended up exposing the hard truth of the wild animal industry as a whole. Once again, we’ve learned how quickly one decision can change the fate for a tiger caught up in this cycle of exploitation.
When we’re called upon to accept cats into our Sanctuary, it’s rare that we’re these cats’ second home. They’ve usually been through so many and so much before making their way to us.
Take, for instance, our newest white tiger Callie from New York. On the surface, this started out as an owner-surrender from a man who’d fought very hard for years to keep his big cats. But there was so much more to Callie’s story.
The Big Cat Crisis
For Callie, this was just another bend in the road of her life journey. This time, it could’ve ended badly for her again. Her owner could’ve given or sold her to a roadside attraction, another private owner, a breeder, an exhibitor, or even worse, to a taxidermist. Thankfully, her current owner wanted what was best for his cats so Callie ended up with The Wildcat Sanctuary, a home she’s always deserved.
But, even after new cats arrive, we like to know as much as we can about them so we can tailor a behavioral enrichment program that addresses their individual needs. Knowing where they’ve been throughout their lives helps us know why they act the way they do. So, we set about searching for as much background information as we can about them.
And it’s not easy! Though in many states you’re required to register and have a license tag for your domestic dogs, that’s not the case with exotic cats. Federally, there is no microchipping and no master database for individual animals.
This is the reality in the exotic animal world and why exotic cats are bred and disappear so easily in this broken system. Trying to track down Callie’s past took a lot of investigation, like solving a mystery. And what we found was shocking!
Uncovering Callie’s Past
Years ago, Calcutta (now known as Callie) had been used, even as an adult, as an exhibit cat at fairs and festivals by the Ashville Game Farm in New York. Though Callie had grown to several hundred pounds, she was still being used to draw paying customers in for photographs. When she scratched a 4-year-old child across the face, resulting in 14 stitches and a series of rabies shots for the child, her owner was found guilty of faking insurance documents and was fined for endangering the public.
But this was just one more incident in a long list of injuries and escapes charged against her owner. The Ashville Game Farm was in New York, yet the owner had also been caught by CBS INSIDE EDITION’s undercover report (VIDEO) selling off zoo animals at an Ohio exotic animal auction. These are auctions where, if you can pay the price, you can take home an exotic animal, whether it be for hunting ranches, taxidermy or backyard cages. These animals disappear, rarely tracked again, being transported all over the country.
It’s suspected that these auctions are where many big cats go, after they’re no longer profitable as a pay-to-play exhibit or the cats are no longer manageable. It’s a virtual dumping ground for unwanted exotics.
Zanesville, Ohio Tragedy
It’s sad that a child had to be injured in order to set things in motion that would wind up saving Callie’s life. The state forced Ashville Game Farm’s owner to give up his big cats, including Callie. She was taken in by Steve Salton and moved to his New York backyard facility. One of Ashville Game Farm’s cougars ended up at Jungle Experience Zoo in New York, a place with a long history of violations, license suspensions and lawsuits.
The most shocking thing we learned was that most of his other cats went illegally to Terry Thompson in Ohio. He was the infamous owner who later released dozens and dozens of exotic animals in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011. Authorities had no other choice but to shoot these animals when Thompson committed suicide there that day. Tragically, Ashville Game Farm’s cats were among those who died that day at what’s now called the Zanesville Massacre.
If not for that fateful day, when Callie went to Steve Salton instead of Terry Thompson, she would surely be dead. Instead, she lived the next eight years with Salton until he faced legal zoning battles over ownership of his big cats. Salton’s township ordered him to remove his cats or face jail time. After years of legal wrangling, he agreed to surrender Callie and his other cats to The Wildcat Sanctuary to ensure their safety.
Callie has had quite a journey and doesn’t know how quickly her fate could have changed. She is one of the lucky ones who landed at an accredited, premiere sanctuary where she’ll spend the rest of her life happily living wild at heart. Most don’t. This is the price so many cats pay when you agree to pet, play, or photograph a wild cat. For them, it could be death or a never-ending journey of life in cage after cage after cage.
If you truly love animals, we hope you’ll help us educate others that the uncontrolled breeding must stop and tougher regulations must be passed regarding private ownership. It’s the only way to ensure cats who weren’t as lucky as Callie won’t continue dying in the dark.