A “Forever” Home for Big Cats

Click below to see clips from Lilians interview with Kurt Lessenthien, adoption coordinator at the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary.


The Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jacksonville, Florida, is a “forever home for big cats that need someplace to go,” says Kurt Lessenthien, Catty Shack’s adoption coordinator. “Once they come here, this is their home for the rest of their lives.” Catty Shack doesn’t buy, sell, or breed the animals in their care.
Lilian and Kurt Lessenthien

Lilian talks with Kurt Lessenthien, Catty Shack’s adoption coordinator. (All photos courtesy of the author)

Catty Shack’s “residents,” as they are called, include lions, tigers, leopards, and cougars that were rescued from private zoos or homes when they could no longer be cared for or, in rare cases, were mistreated.

Many of these animals could not be relocated to public zoos, which have specific breeding requirements. Catty Shack takes in big cats regardless of lineage (pedigree).

“If an animal needs a place to go, we will consider getting it and bringing it here,” Lessenthien said during a recent interview.


Spike the tiger

Spike the tiger, a “resident” at Catty Shack

Lessenthein gave me a full tour of the sanctuary. We stopped to see some of the tigers, including Dozer, Spiderman, Athena, Hercules, and Nero. It was amazing to see these giants up close! Many of the tigers recognized Lessenthien and chuffed at him, which is the sound that tigers make when they’re happy.

We then stopped to see the only male lion, Freddy. We also passed by two black leopards and two coatimundis. The latter are “honorary cats.”

The coatimundis, Squeakers and Mischief, were rescued from a private home that kept them as pets. They had been defanged and declawed. Lessenthien used this as an opportunity to remind kids that even though wild animals are cute, they are not meant to be pets.

Lilian in front of Catty Shack's Hospital

Lilian in front of Catty Shack’s animal hospital


My favorite stop was watching tigers Monterey, Colby, and Brie. Do you see a connection in the names? The siblings are known as the “Cheeseheads.” They were rescued from a private zoo in northern Wisconsin that closed.

When we first saw the three tigers, they were in “lockdown,” a cage that animals are placed in while volunteers clean their enclosures. To reward the tigers for staying in their cages and for good behavior, the volunteers typically set raw chicken drumsticks in the enclosure. When they released the tigers during my visit, Monterey, Colby, and Brie sprinted to the drumsticks and ate the chicken, bones and all.

How can you help the residents at Catty Shack? “There are lots of ways to help,” Lessenthien said. These include buying something from the sanctuary’s Amazon wish-list for the cats and, if you’re in the area, stopping by.