The Big Cat Habitat, the Non-Profit Melissa Fach Supports

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Jenise Uehara Henrikson
Jenise Uehara Henrikson SEJ STAFF
The Big Cat Habitat, the Non-Profit Melissa Fach Supports

The Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota, Florida

An interview with the managing editor of Search Engine Journal.

How did you get introduced to The Big Cat Habitat?

In 2009 my family and I attended The Big Cat Habitat’s annual fundraiser. Before we attended, I visited their website and saw that it was a coding and aesthetic nightmare that did a poor job of showing off what they have to offer. After we had been in the habitat for all of about two minutes, I approached a manager, and I offered to create a new website for them and do all of their Internet marketing /SEO for free.

In the past three years, the habitat has become a core part of my life and has blessed me in a million ways. This is the only place where I shut my phone off and just focus on being in the moment. The cats restore me and repair me when I am stressed, sad, and/or exhausted. They are powerful and stunning and as close to Heaven as I have ever been.

Why are you passionate about this particular cause, and this organization specifically?

When you see how the cats at this facility are treated, you can’t help but fall in love with the place. What most don’t see is that the Big Cat Habitat takes in big cats that are sick and/or unhealthy: those that no one else would care for due to financial concerns and/or the effort it would take. We have cats come in with birth defects, allergies, cancer, and terminal illnesses. We do all we can for them and give them all the care and love they could possibly get. It takes a big heart to fall in love with an animal and give it the love it deserves knowing it will pass away soon, but they deserve happiness for as long as they are here.

The staff also gets to know each of the animals very well. It is critically important to become familiar with each of the animals and their personalities. Animals can’t speak, obviously, so it’s the only way to tell if a cat is not feeling well or is unhappy.

Some people think that tigers and lions should be left alone so they can be “wild.” The truth is that all of the (legal) big cats in the United States have been born and raised with human interaction since the late 1960s. They don’t know “wild.” Also, they could never be released back into the wild; they have no hunting skills or physical endurance to make it.

Believe it or not, the cats appreciate and want the human interaction.

They love to be talked to and cared for. They are actually sad without it. The cats are capable of communicating at a level that far exceeds anything I’ve experienced with domesticated pets. People think I am crazy when I say I have a better relationship with these cats than with most humans, but there is such a strong bond, and there is really no way to explain it.

How do you support them?

I set up and maintain the Habitat’s website, and when you see all the images, you will see this is no easy task. I also run all of their Internet marketing and social media. I am proud to say that their first site averaged between 100-200 visitors a month, and now the traffic ranges between 10,000-17,000, depending on the Florida traveling season. I also volunteer on days they are open. I work in the cat area educating visitors on the animals and the fight to keep tigers and lions from becoming extinct.

I also talk with the cats.

I know that sounds odd, but the cats like it a lot. I go out and sit for hours talking to them, playing games, giving treats, and just loving them. I have about seven that I consider my kids.  To say I love them is an understatement. However, what they give me far outweighs anything that I could give them. I spend some decent money on treats. Brutus, the liger, loves pot roast the most. Before my involvement with the cats, I never touched raw meat with my bare hands; at home I’d use utensils to avoid coming into contact with it. Now I handle raw meat like your favorite butcher because the cats love it so much.

What is the best way for others to get involved?

Of course, I would love for people to support this particular habitat. We need corporate sponsors to build more and larger habitats for our existing cats and the new ones that keep coming in. Brutus, in particular, needs a massively sized habitat. He is going on three years old, and he already weighs 850 pounds and, when standing, is 11-12 feet tall. He has a lot more growing to do. We also need money for medical bills, toys, staff, and so much more.

If you don’t have money to give, I urge everyone to do their part to fight for the survival of all big cats, including tigers and lions.

If we do nothing and stay on the current trajectory, there will be no big cats left in the next 20-30 years. China, in particular, upsets me. They have factories/farms where they produce tigers in bulk just to kill them and sell the parts. People in America freak out over the “cruelty” of putting shoes on dogs for commercials or protest puppy mills, which are inhumane, but the same attention should be paid to tiger mills that all end in death for dollars.

Tigers and lions killed are not just animals that are “lost,” they are creatures with clear personalities that are fully capable of love and attachment that are being murdered. Every big cat I know has a distinct personality, and most can’t see it, but they all look different. Every death makes me cry because I know how easy it is to build a relationship with them. I just wish everyone else knew it.

A Challenge

I am challenging bloggers and media folks to participate in a “Press Sit-in”: a V.I.P. one-on-one with a big cat at the Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota. It’s just you, a chaperone, and a big cat who is four feet away (in a cage) for 2-3 hours. You will learn, interact, bond, and have the opportunity to see how big cats communicate. I believe if people come in and see what we see, all big cats would have more advocates. If you are interested, contact me, and I will make it happen.


A Shout Out to My Babies

I have to say thank you to Brutus, Tony, Noel, Clarence, Niobe, Nelson, Handsome, and Baby for making my life so much more complete. I also want to thank everyone at The Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary for giving me an opportunity to help these animals.

A Side Note on the Danger of These Creatures

Don’t assume that raising or owning a big cat yourself, without formal training, is a good idea. Baby tigers are cute, but they require 24/7 care for six months. It is actually harder than having a baby. By the age of eight months, they are typically stronger than most men. The way cats play will severely damage a human, and you can’t make them not play. No one should be around these animals without formal training, the time to learn cat behavior, and the time required to learn the personality of each cat.

It takes many years to create trust with an older cat. It is in a big cat’s genetics to dominate the weak. A big cat may be thrilled to see you everyday and hang with you, but if you get in their habitat and trip or fall, there are no guarantees. These cats were not raised in the wild, but they still have instincts. I take NO CHANCES of getting hurt because I don’t want a cat to be punished for behaving like a big cat. We are there to protect them and to care for them. Stupid choices are not an option. If owning a big cat is a dream of yours, I suggest you learn from the best and meet with respected big cat private owners to learn even more.

Some Additional Background

The Big Cat Habitat takes in any animal they are equipped to handle. We have more than 100 animals, including everything from emus, camels, bears, lions, tigers, primates, ligers, and, recently, even pigs. The family that owns this facility is part of circus royalty. The father performed at the White House and was on Johnny Carson several times. Kay Rosaire, his daughter, always worried about the big cats that had nowhere to go, and so she started taking in big cats. She started with about 10 big cats, and they now have over 40, plus all the other animals. The habitat has outreach programs for those with disabilities, illnesses, and who are victims of violence.

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All images were taken by Melissa Fach at The Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota, Florida.

Jenise Uehara Henrikson

Jenise Uehara Henrikson

Jenise is the CEO of Alpha Brand Media, home of Search Engine Journal and LinkPatrol, a WordPress plugin that enables ... [Read full bio]