A Haven for Big Cats
When one thinks of the “number one thing to do in Jacksonville” as ranked by TripAdvisor, visiting a big cat sanctuary probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But according to Curt LoGiudice, founder and executive director of Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, visitors have given his facility that top ranking since 2012. “Thank goodness it’s been a huge hit for people to be able to come in and enjoy the animals. From all over the world I see comments from people actually planning their itinerary to make this a stop on their vacation,” says LoGiudice.
I meet with LoGiudice and the sanctuary’s volunteer and business partner coordinator, Jordan Joseph, on a sunny fall day to get up close and personal with the sanctuary residents, which currently include twenty-eight tigers, two lions, three leopards, three cougars, one bobcat, and a number of “honorary cats” (among them foxes, coatimundis, and horses). It’s obvious that both LoGiudice and Joseph are incredibly passionate about their responsibility for these majestic animals. “It’s really rewarding caring for them. They are family members to us,” explains Joseph. LoGiudice goes further, saying, “Anyone that has animals has a huge responsibility, just like having children, except animals need even more of our attention.”
When asked how he first got the idea for the sanctuary, LoGiudice says that he has always been around and had a deep respect for animals; but “it all started with dogs.” He began training and working with them and realized that he “seemed to have a touch.” He then purchased five acres at the sanctuary’s present location on the north side of Jacksonville in 1986, and “before I knew it, I had organizations calling to ask if we had room for big cats because they were hearing about the care and capability I had in caring for animals.” The sanctuary has now grown to over two-hundred acres and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Its mission is “to provide a safe, loving, and forever home to endangered big cats and to educate the public about their plight in the wild and in captivity.”
None of the animals at the sanctuary are bought, sold, or traded. Although some of the animals were bred in the past, as of 2004 the ranch adopted a no-breeding policy. LoGiudice and Joseph make it very clear that the primary purpose of their facility is the rescue of big cats from other facilities that are no longer able to care for the animals. “We are kind of like a retirement home. It’s like someone that would be kind enough to go around to all of the dog shelters and take anyone that has been skipped over – mostly the older dogs. That’s similar to what we end up doing,” explains Joseph. “We really don’t have to seek animals, they just find us.”
As we tour the beautifully maintained sanctuary, I am astonished by how each of the residents seems so eager to greet both LoGiudice and Joseph. Many of the cats run up to rub against the fenced enclosures as they exchange chuffs (a friendly vocalization made by pushing air through thenostrils in tigers and through the lips in humans) with their caregivers. “Chuffing is like an aloha, or hi – it’s very important to the animals,” says LoGiudice. He throws a pumpkin into one of the enclosures that houses three tigers. (This group of two brothers and a sister are referred to as the “cheese heads” because they came from a facility in Wisconsin, and they are appropriately named Colby, Monterey, and Brie.) “They won’t eat the pumpkin, they just play with it. They like to take it to the pool because it floats.” And sure enough, Monterey grabs the pumpkin and carries it into the pool located at the back of the enclosure, seeming to delight in dunking it over and over again in the water.
Watching the cats playfully interact with LoGiuduce, Joseph, and each other, it’s hard to remember that although all of these magnificent animals are captive bred and have never been in the wild, they are still incredibly powerful and can be dangerous. The lioness, Nyra, seems to want to remind us of that as she looks directly at us and loudly roars while seeming to protect the pumpkin that Joseph tosses to her. Even though she is almost twenty years old, Nyra still has quite a formidable presence.
By Eva Dasher / Photos by Miguel Emmanuelli Photography