If the security-coded gate and 8-foot high perimeter fence didn’t give it away, the deep rumbles and roars echoing through the trees prove something a little different lives on the grounds of Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary.
Located off a busy rural road just outside of Caledonia, the rescue organization maintains a low-key existence as it fulfills a very big mission.
“We’re not a secret, but when we started this place 30 years ago, we also didn’t want a high profile,” explained Cheryl Craig, a co-founder of Cedarhill. “We wanted to be for the animals, and that’s exactly what we are.”
Among the sanctuary’s charges are 11 tigers, three lions, two cougars and four bobcats. Add to that the dogs, horses, exotic birds, more than 200 domestic cats and a potbellied pig or two and the total comes to around 300 creatures that call the 20-acre lot home.
“When we hear of an animal that needs to be rescued, we will take it as long as we have a proper enclosure,” Craig explained.
The sanctuary doesn’t operate for a profit. It doesn’t allow visitors. And above all, the exotic residents aren’t considered pets. They’re respected as powerful animals that were dealt a cruel hand and now deserve to live their lives in peace, safety and good health.
“The animals come to us in really bad shape,” Craig said. “The exotics, especially, are malnourished and have been mistreated. That’s where the Mississippi State vets are a big help.”
The Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine established a relationship with the sanctuary in 2014. Since that time, Dr. Jeb Cade, an assistant clinical professor, and students on his clinical rotation have helped ensure the well-being of Cedarhill’s resident “exotics.”
While Cade’s experience with exotics typically is limited to what he calls “pocket pets” like birds and lizards, he appreciates the chance to work with the larger animals and give his students zoo-medicine experience.
“Zoo medicine is kind of an exclusive field, so it’s great that our students can get this experience close to home,” Cade said. “We help with routine maintenance of the parrots—nail, beak and wing trimming—plus we advise on diet and habitat.”
For the big cats, Cade explained that the vets provide guidance for the long-term health problems facing the elderly animals. They also assist with things like nail trimming, which for a 600-pound jungle cat requires more than just a sharp pair of clippers.
A full team of both sanctuary personnel and MSU volunteers—including Jessica Tegt, assistant extension professor from the wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture department who is licensed to incapacitate the animals with tranquilizer darts—work together to safely transport, quickly evaluate and treat the big cats.
The difficulty of the tasks and possible danger of sedation to the aging animals means the vets only work on the exotic cats when necessary. Unfortunately, neglect these animals experience prior to being rescued usually means even their most basic maintenance needs have become a medical necessity.
The cats’ claws are one common issue. Having been rescued from tiny enclosures that fail to provide natural ways to trim their claws, the cats often arrive at the sanctuary with badly ingrown nails. This can cause infections and make it difficult for them to walk. Cade said the difference in the animals’ personalities once they’re treated is remarkable.
“There was a cougar, Katie, that I had not seen move. She was very reclusive and extremely lame,” Cade recalled. “We sedated her, trimmed the nails and treated the infection. Now when we go over, she will come to the fence to see us. It’s very gratifying.”
However, Cade is quick to note that no matter how personable the animals seem, it’s important to remember that they can be deadly.
“You don’t enter their enclosure without them being incapacitated,” Cade explained. “In fact, we have a rule: Don’t stick anything inside the fence that you wouldn’t be willing to leave in there.”
Despite their wild nature and deadly potential, Cade said it is surprisingly easy to purchase large, exotic cats in the United States. It’s so pervasive that the World Wildlife Federation estimates that there are more tigers being kept as pets in the U.S.—approximately 5,000—than there are in the wild.
“People get these animals because they like what it represents or they get them as cubs because they’re cute, without realizing how hard and expensive they are to care for,” Craig said. “It’s my belief that the people who buy these animals love them; they’re just stupid. I can’t put it any other way.”
It’s when the animals’ size and appetites get to be too much, or when some authority intervenes, that these exotic pets come to live with sanctuaries like Cedarhill where each exotic cat has an enclosure of an acre or more to call its own.
Craig said it costs Cedarhill approximately $50,000 per month to maintain the sanctuary and care for the animals. It operates with just a few paid staff members and a small team of volunteers, who care for the domestic animals exclusively.
Julie O’Brien, a fourth year vet student from Bellingham, Massachusetts, said the trips to help Cedarhill have given her insight into career possibilities.
“It seems like Cedarhill does everything in its power to provide the absolute best care to every animal that finds a home there,” O’Brien said. “It’s opened my eyes to other avenues of helping atypical species as a veterinarian. I hope wherever I may end up, I’ll be able to show support to one of these amazing sanctuary facilities like Cedarhill.”