Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright: A Visit to Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge

Tiger Creek Bengal poised like a housecatIt’s not often that I have an occasion to reflect on 18th century British poetry, but last week I visited some lovely big cats in northeast Texas and found myself thinking of William Blake’s 1794 poem, The Tiger. Just as Blake was moved to write his poem after having viewed such special animals, I too am moved to write in order to share my experience and encourage all to make a visit to see these fantastic cats.

Tiger Creek Entrance Sign

Tiger Creek Wildlife Rescue is located outside Tyler, TX. It offers an amazing opportunity to see thirty-eight magnificent animals, most of whom have been rescued and provided a forever-home. The refuge began in 1997 to offer homes to retired circus animals, wildlife rescues, and especially since the ”exotic market” boom of the 1990s, animals bought as pets who could not be kept. Abandoned, displaced, or neglected big cats from other species have also joined the Tiger Creek family.

Arielle and Don
With head trainer Ariel Klein

Head trainer Ariel Klein shared some interesting facts with me during my visit. There’s a big difference between “tame” and “domesticated” animals. Just because cubs are advertised for sale does not mean they will ever be pet material. These cats are wild, and while they can at times be tamed to the will of humans, they will always be wild animals. Though training does take place in the sanctuary, it is for medical purposes only. Teaching the animals commands so that their health needs can be cared for safely is Ariel’s responsibility, and special tours can be arranged to watch these engaging sessions.

Sakima the Tiger

Many of the animals were purchased as status pets (Michael Jackson’s tiger Sierra now resides here) and as they grew, the enormity of caring for a large wild animal exceeded the ability of its purchaser. Huge cats with huge paws, huge claws, and even more huge teeth have no business living in people’s homes! Sadly, many owners have declawed their big cats or even had their teeth pulled in an effort to reduce damage to their home. But when a cat is declawed, it removes the last joint of each toe, flattening their feet and causing arthritis. Removing the teeth of a creature that naturally eats its prey, bones and all, means nutrition will always be compromised, and bone density will suffer. Some of these cats were even fed a diet exclusively comprised of dry cat food! As you can imagine, many were in dire health when they arrived at the sanctuary. Some are blind as a result of injuries or malnourishment; others have lost limbs.

Tigers in the pool
Tigers in the Pool

The folks at the sanctuary spare no expense in caring for these injured, traumatized cats. In fact, they are in the process of building a larger medical facility with more space for quarantining new animals, which allows more private recovery time for new acquisitions before they join the other residents.

As part of ongoing research at a fellow facility, the Tiger Missing Link Foundation, each animal is tested for DNA markers, sometimes with remarkable results. One cat was found to be a rare Indochinese tiger, a subspecies not represented in captivity in any zoos. In an effort to prevent extinction, every tiger matters, and diversity must be documented and preserved. The Foundation has created a stud book to preserve genetic diversity as part of that goal.

Nishchala the Tiger

Guided tours of the sanctuary take about 45 minutes, after which visitors can stay and observe the animals as desired. A few of the cats are rather shy (Bob the bobcat is blind and likes to keep to himself) but most are easily viewable in their enclosures, taking cat-naps, frolicking in their pools of fresh water, or playing with their toys. Some can be heard to “chuff” a sound made in greeting, others rub their heads along the fencing, marking territory like their cousin the house cat, just in bigger style.

Bob the Bobcat
Bob the Bobcat
Sarge the Tiger
Sarge Chew Toy
Sarge’s Chew Toy

Sarge, a male Siberian weighing in at over 450 pounds, entertains guests by strutting around his enclosure, tossing his favorite toys. The observation walkway in front of his enclosure is decorated with his handiwork, shredded 55 gallon drums, and large galvanized buckets bearing the piercings from his canine teeth, big enough to put a large carrot through.

Serval Kitten
Serval Kitten
Tin Cup
Tin Cup the Puma
Pepe the Lion
Pepe the Lion

Rare golden tabby tigers, white tigers, pumas, African lions, and even Serval babies round out the Tiger Creek family. The cats eat from 10-15lbs of fresh meat daily, depending on the size of the cat. Road kill is never used, nor are euthanized animals suitable, since the drugs causing their demise would harm the cats. Expenses are high, but many opportunities exist to help share the cost.

Tiger Creek Website: http://www.tigercreek.org

To Donate: https://salsa4.salsalabs.com/o/51170/donate_page/donate?track=EW0101

To return to William Blake— after he viewed the tiger’s fiery-colored stripes, the sheer power of its symmetry, and the glinting intelligence of its eyes; as he contemplated the sinewy heart needed to sustain such a beast and the sheer size of the huge paws, he asked the question:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

I know I certainly smiled as I observed the beauty of these big cats, frolicking in their thoughtfully created environments.

To read the whole poem: http://www.bartleby.com/101/489.html