text and photographs by Nick Pironio
Tucked away just off NC-64, between the town of Pittsboro and Jordan Lake, lies Carolina Tiger Rescue. To visit this 55-acre refuge for rescued lions, tigers, and other wildcats is to enter a surreal foreign land. More than 40 neglected or abused wildcats have found safety in this vast sanctuary, just down the road from the farms and churches that dot the otherwise-familiar North Carolina landscape. With their growls and roars, territory-marking scents, and majestic beauty, the place sounds, smells, and looks like a world apart.
Carolina Tiger Rescue was founded in the 1970s as a research institute by UNC geneticist Dr. Michael Bleyman. His task was to breed keystone species (those that perform a crucial role in the life of a particular ecosystem) as a way to protect the population of those animals until their home habitats could support them once more. As time went on, the organization decided the need to breed wildcats was less important than the need to rescue abused and neglected wildcats.
How does a lion or tiger wind up in North Carolina and need rescuing to begin with? There’s an online market for these big cats, which are bred (often excessively inbred, resulting in deformities) to be sold for a profit. It’s made worse by the lack of state regulation on the ownership of a non-native species. Some counties in the state including Wake, Durham, Orange, and Chatham counties have made it illegal to possess these animals, but it’s usually only when these animals happen to be found – often in the wake of their owners’ brush with another law – that they are taken into custody.
As I photographed the wildcats, many hobbled around in pain from arthritis caused by years of abuse. Some were declawed by their owners, or locked in small cages for long periods of time. Once-mighty creatures, they now live out their days riddled with aches and pains. Spending time with them – which I did several times over the course of the last few months – was both a humbling and disheartening experience. It’s no wonder the rescue, which employs 17 people, has a list of approximately 160 volunteers to help them care for these beautiful animals.
But it’s not all sadness there. Many of the wildcats are still playful and energetic, despite their circumstances. Some even played a game of “hide-and-seek” with me as I tried to photograph them through the mesh of their spacious cages. Once, when I turned my back, a tiger named Madonna playfully pounced on the cage wall behind me.
Still, they’re dangerous, and never in direct contact with any humans. And only half of the wildcats at the rescue are on view for what the organization calls “The Show,” which is what visitors see when they take a tour of the refuge. Those with anxiety or aggressive tendencies are kept out of view, and spend their time alone being cared for by the staff.