The sound of a jungle cat roar breaks the peaceful Minnesota summer morning in rural Sandstone on any given day. Huge “catios” house a variety of exotic cats in their own fenced areas. Lions lazily lounge on or under large wooden cat walks in fenced-in enclosures, while a nearby tiger strolls near her fence before falling into the long grass and happily rolling around.
Nine-month-old Dash lives up to his name. The young tiger hides in thick shrubs, his little face barely visible as he peeks out before he playfully leaps at the nearby fence toward a favorite human.
The cats are rescues who now live a safe and peaceful life at The Wildcat Sanctuary. The felines are well taken care of and no longer live in abusive or neglected situations such as roadside zoos or in private homes across the country where they are bred, said Tammy Thies, founder and executive director of the sanctuary. There are an average of 120 cats living on the 85 wooded acres, with the average lifespan of 18 to 20 years, Thies said. She said the oldest cat lived to be 26 years old.
The sanctuary is closed to the public to allow the cats time to heal and live as normal of a life as possible.
“There are many zoos that are open to the public,” Thies said. “We don’t need to fill that niche.”
They bring the public to the sanctuary through social media by posting videos and updates of the cats on their Facebook page, including Dash. Dash was rescued as a newborn cub along with his parents Marcus and Winona in November of 2020. They were kept in small muddy cages for breeding. The owner took the cubs away from Winona when they were eight hours old and sold them to roadside zoos when they were six weeks old.
She said it costs roughly $20,000 a year to properly care for one cat. The animals receive preventive and regular veterinary care, proper diets and vitamins. The cats eat about 400 pounds of meat daily. Thies said the majority of the cats are malnourished when they come to live at the sanctuary.
The sanctuary website lists a variety of ways the public can help prevent the abuse and neglect of the majestic felines. Avoid roadside zoos, or become an advocate to prevent people from keeping exotic cats as pets.
The smaller cats such as Bengals and Savannah cats look similar to house cats and many are bred with house cats and sold as hybrids.
“People buy them for their beauty and surrender them for their behaviors and high medical bills,” said Thies. She said the cats tend to be territorial and urinate on everything. She points to dead grass outside of the fence next to a Bengal enclosure. The small cats meow as she drives past. Thies said some of the small cats get overstimulated easily and bite the owners, causing serious injury.
She said there have been many challenges since she started the organization over 20 years ago. One was Daisy, a Bengal tigress. Thies calls her a medical miracle and with good reason. Authorities told Thies she would most likely need to be euthanized. Thies refused to give up and rushed her to the University of Minnesota for tests. They discovered several health issues including spinal meningitis which can be managed with medication.
Thies said tragedies like these can be avoided if people become educated on the realities of the feline’s experiences.
The money supply and demand from backyard breeders or roadside zoo operators will dry up when people stop taking photos with cute, tiny exotic cubs.
She said the majority of people are not aware that many cubs used at petting operations are intentionally malnourished by the owners so the cubs stay small and docile for photo opportunities with the public, said Thies. When the cubs grow too large or no longer behave for photos, the zoo owner often sells them to other roadside zoos, private owners and some even get euthanized.
Thies said there are a variety of volunteer opportunities such as mowing (outside of the cats areas) or building habitats. Feline lovers can sponsor a specific animal or donate in general to the sanctuary. There is also an ongoing campaign for the new Animal Care Center on the property.
More information and feline photos and videos is at https://www.wildcatsanctuary.org and their Facebook page.