Four tigers rescued from horribly inhumane conditions have been given a new lease on life at a spacious new habitat at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary in Murchison, Texas, about 90 miles east of Dallas.
Running an expansive three acres with natural vegetation, pools and woods, the new habitat represents one of the largest yards of any "big cat" facility in the country.
"We have built the premier facility in the sanctuary world for housing big cats like this," says Black Beauty Ranch director Ben Callison. "Our three-acre yard is as close to a natural existence as is ever possible in this capacity. It allows them to swim and to wander in woods. It gives them that natural existence.
"They're wild animals with wild instincts, and this allows them to interact in a truly natural environment," says Black Beauty Ranch director Ben Callison.
"They're wild animals with wild instincts, and this allows them to interact in a truly natural environment."
Founded in 1979 by author and animal advocate Cleveland Amory, Black Beauty Ranch is America's largest and most diverse animal sanctuary, providing a haven for more than 1,200 domestic and exotic animals that have been rescued from research laboratories, roadside zoos, captive hunting operations, factory farms, the exotic pet trade, and other forms of abuse and neglect.
The animals include monkeys, bison and cattle, horses and burros, antelope and apes, camels and llamas. The ranch is not a zoo; it is not open for regular public visits. Amory's vision was that it be a place where animals are looked after, not looked at. It does, however, open twice a year, in the spring and fall, to educate the public about its rehabilitation efforts.
The tigers include two females, Anastasia and Natalia, and two males, Gustavo and Alexander. Anastasia, Natalia and Gustavo were rescued from an illegal roadside zoo in Mississippi, where they were forced to live in inhumane conditions for years without veterinary care.
Alexander was rescued from a private residence in Kansas after his owner left him, along with several other dangerous wild animals, abandoned in cages without food or water.
No cage over their heads
The sanctuary has had the tigers for three years, ever since the animals were seized by the Humane Society from the Collins Zoo. Black Beauty took them in because no other place was able to take them.
"There's a massive need across the country for placement of these big cats," Callison says. "Unfortunately, we still think the definition of 'freedom' is that we should be able to own what we want. But this gets into a public safety issue. Alexander was located a half-mile from a children's nursery, and the owner just left them. If they'd escaped or released, local authorities would not be capable or set up to handle dangerous wild animals."
Now, for the first time in their lives, the four tigers live beneath an uninterrupted sky — no cage over their heads — and natural vegetation beneath their feet.
"It's so wonderful to see tigers who were born and have lived in captivity to walk out into a natural environment and watch their instincts," Callison says.
"Now that they are wandering a three-acre yard, we're able to see their muscle tone improve. They're getting fitter every day," Callison says.
There are five dens, including one for medical issues, enclosed within a tornado-resistant structure, with two third-acre yards and a three-acre yard with natural woods. A network of cameras allows the staff to monitor their movement, as well as the joyful, non-intrusive witnessing of animals enjoying nature.
"We got to see the first time Anastasia walked outside. She looked around, then lay down in the woods," he says. "You could tell this was new, but that it felt right. Watching her lie there, it was so rewarding."
Platforms for climbing, scented balls and other elements offer intellectual stimulation as well as physical exercise. In their previous circumstances, the tigers were unable to move and their diets were terrible.
"Their muscles had atrophied and their systems had shut down," Callison says. "They showed up really overweight. Now that they are wandering a three-acre yard, we're able to see their muscle tone improve. They're getting fitter every day."
Each yard has a pool; one has a waterfall and a den. "Tigers love to swim," he says.
They'll eventually add more dens and more yards, because there are always more animals to rescue from horrific circumstances.
"There's so many big cats out there, with people buying them as pets, who are then unable to care for them," he says. "We're working toward banning private ownership. These are dangerous wild animals that do not do well in capacity. They may be held in a captive environment but the instincts are still there."
"It's not about coming and gawking, they're not on exhibit," Callison says. "But it gives us the ability to educate people, to get message out about the issues and our four tigers."