It’s hard to believe someone could abuse a majestic, powerful lion or tiger, but it happens.
Thankfully, there are places like the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc., that take these big cats in when the government rescues them from their abusers.
The ranch — just south of the Nassau County border — has about 40 lions, Siberian tigers, cougars, leopards and other cats. There are also two arctic foxes.
It’s nothing like a fancy zoo. The entrance is marked with a simple tent above some folding chairs. But that’s because every penny from donations and fundraising efforts goes into caring for the beloved big cats, who have large cages and lots of toys, including giant balls, ropes and swimming pools.
It is designed as a lifetime refuge for the animals rather than a tourist attraction, so there are only a few select days each month that the public can visit. There are daytime tours, when the cats are usually napping or in a lazy mood. Then there are evening feeding tours, when the cats are more fierce and alert. When we went recently for a daytime tour, our guide told us the cats have very different personalities depending on which tour you take.
We saw a little of each side, though, because the lions and tigers started out in the midst of lazy naps, but then they jumped to attention when they heard their volunteers coming. It was a special day: they were getting belated “Christmas presents” that were actually large, empty cardboard boxes wrapped in colorful paper.
My toddler watched with his little mouth wide open as King Freddy, a powerful lion, crushed his box in one swipe. Bored, the lion then went back to relaxing. Meanwhile, a gorgeous white tiger took his time with his box. He jumped into his swimming pool and splashed around with it for the better part of a half hour.
None of the lions roared while we were there, but the volunteer guiding my group told us it’s the most beautiful sound in the world. She said the neighbors can hear it as far as 5 miles away.
Each animal has a story. Freddy was the accidental love child of two Catty Shack residents that the owners were told would never be able to breed. Once they were introduced to a more peaceful lifestyle at the ranch, they proved everyone wrong.
Most of the other cats come from the government and from zoos that could no longer care for them.
My children and I especially loved Athena, one of the smaller tigers, who adores children. When she saw us coming, she paced back and forth next to her fence, her wide eyes on the kids as she made a soft sound that I’d never heard before. The volunteer told us it was a tiger’s way of offering a friendly greeting.
And I had never before seen a tiger like Topaz, a very rare golden tabby tiger. Instead of the usual black stripes, her stripes are a soft, brown color.
The people behind Catty Shack strongly caution that big cats cannot be domesticated; they’re wild, powerful and would never make good pets. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that each cat is adored and pampered in the best possible way. All the animals taken in by Catty Shack Ranch are taken in permanently; they have a home for life.
I’m so thrilled I was able to show such a fabulous place to my children, and I couldn’t have been more proud of my 3-year-old. He listened to our guide, he didn’t touch the cages, he asked smart questions, and he walked throughout the entire hour-long tour while I pushed his sister’s stroller. The ranch is stroller-friendly, but if you have a jogging stroller, I would recommend using it; it will be much easier to navigate with the more heavy-duty wheels.
With their Jacksonville address, I always thought Catty Shack Ranch would be a long drive from Amelia Island, but I was wrong. They’re less than 8 miles south of the Nassau County border, very close to Jacksonville International Airport.
By the way: I learned the hard way that, if you’re allergic to little cats, you’ll probably be allergic to the big ones, too. It would have been smarter to plan ahead with some Benadryl on hand.
If you want to go:
Where: 1860 Starratt Road, Jacksonville, FL
Cost: Event admission is $10 per person, 12 years old & up, Children 3-11 are $5, 2 years & under are free.
Restrooms: Portable bathrooms on site, no diaper changing facilities.
Food: Light snacks sold near the entrance.
For more information: Call 904-757-3603 or go to http://cattyshack.org/. They also have a very active Facebook page that included videos of the big cats getting their Christmas boxes as of this writing.