TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — It’s the end of an era on Easy Street in Tampa.
Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue will transport most of its cats to a wildlife refuge based in Arkansas, and Baskin and her husband, Howard, will sell the property once there are no cats left, Howard Baskin said in a press release Monday.
Sending cats to Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge will allow the rescue to cut overhead costs and “devote the remaining resources of our sanctuary to the ‘in situ’ projects being conducted around the world to avoid [big cat] extinction,” Howard Baskin explained.
He noted that the cub petting industry has gradually declined over the past 11 years thanks in part to the rescue’s efforts in lobbying for the Big Cat Public Safety Act (BCPSA), which prohibits the private possession of big cats and restricts direct contact between them and the public.
“In particular, some of the “stars” of the Netflix series Tiger King have fallen from the sky, so to speak. Largely as a result of Big Cat Rescue’s efforts, Joe ‘Exotic’ Schreibvogel and his successor Jeff Lowe no longer have big cats,” Howard Baskin wrote. “What this means, importantly, is that over the next decade almost all of this privately held population of cats will pass away. Within a few years after that they will all be gone and there will be no more cats living in miserable conditions in backyards.”
Baskin said over the past few years, his rescue was “focused intensely” on the federal bill, instead of putting their resources into rescues.
“During that time, with cats living so long at our facility and our cat population becoming increasingly geriatric, we have had cats pass away,” he said. “The result has been a decline in our cat population to 41 cats. A few decades ago, we had 200 big cats.”
The rescue has trimmed its staff by about 50% since the pandemic, but still had overhead costs around $1.5 million per year, covering medical expenses and other expenses like grounds, building and equipment maintenance. Baskin noted animal care is done by volunteers, therefore payroll has not declined.
“When we had 100 cats, that $1.5 million in overhead was $15,000 per cat. At 41 cats, it is over $36,000 per cat. As the population declines, it becomes an increasingly inefficient use of donor funds per cat to operate a facility like ours,” Baskin said.
Baskin predicts the need for rescues like Big Cat will decline over the next 10 years.
“If the need were going to continue at the pace we saw up until a few years ago, we would be making a different decision,” he explained. “With me turning 73 this year and Carole 62, it would be time to be thinking about a transition to younger management to bring new energy to the organization to allow the sanctuary to continue into perpetuity. However, with other sanctuaries having capacity and the need for rescues expected to decline, such a transition would not make sense. It would not be the way to best fulfill our three-pronged mission.”
Baskin said slowly winding down operations until the last cat passed away would lead to substantial losses.
“It is hard to imagine funding levels holding up well enough to cover the overhead as the number of cats dwindled,” he added. “Even if funding levels did hold up, it would be difficult in good conscience to spend that much per captive cat when the funds are so needed for projects to keep the cats from going extinct in the wild, the third prong of our mission.”
The rescues plan to build a $1.8 million, 13-acre site at Turpentine Creek that will have enclosures larger than the ones at Big Cat Rescue. There will be 22 for small cats, two for medium-sized cats like leopards and jaguars and 15 enclosures for big cats like tigers. Baskin said construction has already begun and is expected to take six months. They may move some tigers to the facility as soon as July.
Most of Big Cat Rescue’s cats are expected to go to Arkansas, but one tiger (Kali) and five bobcats (Moses, Bailey, Winter, Summer, and Val) are expected to remain at Big Cat Rescue for the time being. A few other cats, including Gilligan (Canada lynx), who has been having seizures, and Manny (Jaguar), who has been battling cancer, will be medically evaluated before any decisions are made.
As for the future of Big Cat Rescue?
“Once we have no cats at the sanctuary, we will sell the sanctuary property and use the proceeds to fund these species-saving projects in the wild,” Baskin said.
Established in 1992, Big Cat Rescue has been a refuge for exotic cats that have been abandoned, abused or retired from performing acts.
The rescue, located near Citrus Park Mall on 12802 Easy Street, has been a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. However, it closed to the public in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to reopen to visitors.
The founder, Carole Baskin, was featured in the popular Netflix series “Tiger King,” which chronicled her feud with eccentric zookeeper Joe Exotic. Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is currently serving a 21-year sentence for hiring hitmen to kill Baskin.
In the documentary, Exotic alleged Carole Baskin murdered her ex-husband Don Lewis, and fed him to their tigers. Baskin has denied Exotic’s accusations. Lewis disappeared without a trace in 1997. An investigation into his disappearance is still active.
Note: Howard Baskin said Big Cat Rescue would be merging with Turpentine Creek, but a representative for the refuge in Arkansas made it clear they are not merging operations, and only agreed to take in dozens of Big Cat’s animals. This story has been updated.