Lions, tigers, caracals, bobcats, servals, ocelots and more: Tourism in Chapel Hill precedes a glimpse of beautiful beasts at the Carolina Tiger Rescue

November 30, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 30, 2013

When I was a child, I went to the zoo pretty frequently with my family. I’ve seen lions and tigers numerous times. But in all those trips, I’d never been within five feet of one of these animals — until Sunday.

My Parental Unit was in town last week. We picked up a copy of the Independent Weekly, which had an insert about Triangle nonprofits; it’s part of a campaign to raise money for 28 different charities. As my parent flipped through it, a listing for Carolina Tiger Rescue stood out.

I knew that there was some kind of sanctuary for big cats in Chatham County, but I’d never seriously considered visiting it. However, if my visitor was enthusiastic about the prospect, then I was up for it. We booked two tickets for Sunday’s 2 p.m. tour.

Chatham is mostly rural — it has about 66,000 residents spread across about 682.2 square miles; the average of 93.1 people per square mile is less than half the state’s overall population density. Carolina Tiger Rescue is located about a 50-minute drive from my urban home in Durham; the preserve is a short distance east of Pittsboro (2010 population: 3,743).

We started the day by heading down to Chapel Hill, which is about halfway between where I live and the preserve, and brunching at Crooks Corner. (It was excellent; I’d never before been to this renowned restaurant, but I plan to return.) After we ate, we had some time to kill, so my parent and I walked east on Franklin Street toward the post office.

We didn’t make it to the post office, but we did stumble across a store called Made in America, which was in the midst of a 70-percent-off going-out-of-business sale. We wandered in, and after some browsing, my parent purchased a matzoh ball candle. When I glanced at the label, I noticed a familiar area code, but I didn’t recognize the manufacturer’s name, and I didn’t see a location for the company. Then I looked it up. It turned out that my parent had traveled hundreds of miles, only to buy a product made less than an hour’s drive from home!

After wandering along Franklin Street for 45 minutes or so, we headed back to the car around 1 p.m. I was a little worried about finding the Carolina Tiger Rescue, but it turned out to be relatively easy. Once I figured out what I was doing vis a vis N.C. 54 and U.S. 15-501 (these roads seemingly always get me confused when I’m driving around Carrboro), there was just one challenge: Finding Hanks Chapel Road.

I realized I’d gone too far when U.S. 64 Business started merging into a highway (U.S. 64 main, natch). I pulled over and double-checked my phone’s map. My mistake was easy to find: I’d missed the turn to Hanks Chapel Road because I’d spotted the wrong sign at the intersection. Somehow, I’d picked out the marker for Riddle Road, which splits off from the west end of Hanks Chapel Road, but missed the one for Hanks Chapel.

Anyway, the animal sanctuary was a short drive down the road, once we actually got on the right road. Perhaps 15 minutes after we’d parked, my parent and I sat down with about two dozen other people for a briefing.

Our main guide, Tori, told us a little about the history of the Carolina Tiger Rescue, which was originally established under a different name in the 1970s “to breed lesser known carnivores that were keystone species,” as the website states. The organization underwent a few changes over the years before landing on its current name and mission in 2009.

Tori also explained a few rules. Some of them were simply meant to keep us from getting sprayed with lion or tiger urine (the male cats sometimes enjoy targeting visitors). Some of them were meant to keep us from riling up the animals — or from losing a limb or a life.

The key guidelines were simple: Stay behind the rope cordons that separate visitors from the actual animal enclosures; do not touch, lean over or set into motion any of those ropes. Don’t bring any food or drink, except water, into the area where the animals reside. (That rule covers chewing gum, as I discovered just after leaving the visitors center.)

After one last pause for bathroom breaks, we mustered outside in the brisk late-November sunshine. Soon afterward, Tori unlocked the gate leading into the residential area, and we set off.

Carolina Tiger Rescue has about 85 wildcats at any one time. Many of them belong to smaller and relatively obscure species, although they are still beautiful to behold.

The first animal we saw was a caracal, which can weigh up to 40 pounds. They have distinctive ears: long, curved and black-lined, they’re strangely reminiscent of the horns of a gazelle. These help them detect prey lurking in the Northern African and Southwest Asian grasslands that constitute the species’ habitat. Caracals can leap high in the air, which is one reason why they make very capable bird hunters. Their main prey, however, tends to be rodents and small mammals.

We also saw a bobcat, so named because of the species’ nubby tails; a serval named Elvis, a neglected animal that had been hastily surrendered to the animal sanctuary by someone who felt incapable of caring for it; and an ocelot, which is an American species with a beautiful and much-coveted coat that was once threatened by hunting but is now being imperiled by habitat encroachment. There was also a cougar, one of a wide-ranging American species that goes by a variety of names, including puma, catamount and mountain lion, and which sometimes hunts humans and other large mammals.

But the stars of the show were the sanctuary’s tigers and lions. Seeing one of these large, powerful felines in person would be memorable under any circumstances; standing less than 10 feet away from a beast named Rajaji as he nonchalantly strolls up to the fence and huffs at the tour guide was absolutely breath-taking. So was watching Jellybean, a white tiger, simply lounge in his enclosure, or standing just out of arm’s reach as brother-and-sister lions restlessly paced alongside a fence, or as one of them playfully embraced a tree trunk.

As Tori told us about the histories of the individual animals we saw, a pattern emerged: Time and again, people adopted young predators despite lacking the expertise and resources to care for them adequately over their entire lifespan.

Many of the sanctuary’s wildcats had been acquired by private individuals or companies when they were newborns. Even the biggest cats weigh only a few pounds at birth; within six months, however, these predators can grow to be 90 pounds, and they only get larger from there. The Amur or Siberian subspecies of tiger can max out at 650 to 700 pounds.

A number of Carolina Tiger Rescue residents had come to the sanctuary with ingrown collars, meaning that their skin had entirely or partially enclosed bands put around their necks when they were much smaller. Others showed stunted growth and bald patches, signs that they’d suffered from malnutrition and/or been kept in significantly undersized cages. (Incessant rubbing against confined spaces can wear away the animals’ hair.)

Unfortunately, this short-sightedness is hardly limited to a few misguided folks. A 2007 report by the Animal Protection Institute found that only 18 states have comprehensive bans on owning exotic animals such as large cats, bears and wolves; nine states don’t regulate exotic animal ownership, and the rest have only partial restrictions. (Here in North Carolina, the state bans owning deers but is silent on whether homeowners may keep, say, lions.)

Even worse, many of these magnificent animals, which imperil ill-prepared owners, are themselves endangered in the wild. Carolina Tiger Rescue’s website estimates that there are 5,000 to 7,000 privately owned tigers in the United States. Yet only some 3,200 of these cats roam free in nature.

As my parent and I toured the sanctuary, the proximity to these rare and wonderful creatures excited us. We think that my niece and nephew would also be thrilled by the experience of touring the Carolina Tiger Rescue. I’d love for them to do so some day.

I’d also love it if large wildcats were able to thrive in the wild. Unfortunately, unless our species can begin acting more responsibly, it’s possible that in a generation or two, zoos and sanctuaries might be the only place left on Earth to see lions and tigers.

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