Blue-eyed beauty Acari cradles a pumpkin with her paws.
Pumpkin pieces fly as the white tiger flashes her teeth, chomping away at the holiday treat. A large chunk gets caught in her teeth, but she quickly shakes it away.
“She’ll tear it to shreds,” said Heidi Krahn, executive director and founder of the Center for Animal Research and Education (CARE) in Bridgeport. The nonprofit group provides a sanctuary to 41 exotic cats, including tigers, lions, leopards and cougars.
This weekend, people can see the cats firsthand at CARE’s Fall Festival, the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser. Those attending will see cats tearing into cardboard boxes filled with chicken treats and adults can even play tug-of-war against a tiger (with the protection of a fence between the two participants). The cats will also bob for pumpkins.
“That is going to be a lot of fun for her,” Krahn said, nodding toward Acari. “Tigers like water and obviously pumpkins.”
The animal sanctuary was originally a big-cat boarding facility that started in 1990, but evolved into a center that focuses solely on rescues and rehabilitating sick, injured, neglected and homeless big cats. It was granted nonprofit status in 2003.
Although Krahn won’t divulge the names of former cat owners, she does note that the cats come from various backgrounds, including some that were pets for sports personalities and celebrities. Some were also pets of people who got in over the head.
For example, Milo, a 12-year-old leopard joined the sanctuary after living in a house. But when laws changed where the leopard was living, Milo had to go.
“He had his own bedroom and he had his own things,” Krahn said, explaining that the change in habitat was confusing for Milo.
Caring and feeding the large animals is a huge endeavor.
Kannapalli, a white tiger, is described as one of the facility’s biggest eaters. At about 600 pounds, the 15-year-old tiger can eat about 100 pounds of meat per feeding. Serena, a 19-year-old tiger, who is described as “tiny” eats about 30-40 pounds of meat per feeding. She is a mere 250 pounds.
The animals have also been getting a huge following via social media, said Derek Krahn, who goes by @BigCatDerek on Twitter.
Derek, Heidi’s husband, said he’s loved cats all his life and is following a personal calling when he posts videos that show off the cats’ unique traits and habits. He shares the cats’ lives via YouTube, Vine and Facebook. On Vine alone, some 618,000 people follow the cats.
“People enjoy the fact that we are just being nice to our animals,” he said.
“They have always been evocative animals,” he said.
Heidi Krahn said donations and money raised from ticket sales “go 100 percent” to feed, shelter and care for the big cats.
Some of the cats are not big yet and were a surprise at CARE. The brother cubs, Araali and Zuberi, were fathered by an African lion under the facility’s care.
There are also lemurs and a cute three-legged llama named Dahlia at CARE. Dahlia lost her leg after a bad injury.
The fall festival is the only time of the year in which people can bring children under 7 years of age to the sanctuary, Krahn said.
The exotic cats will play inside their large enclosures, and visitors can view them and learn about them through fences.
“Although these cats are very loving and affectionate, we have to respect them for what they are,” Krahn stressed. “They are wild and dangerous animals.”
‘Nowhere else for them’
Gary Valdata, a member of CARE’s board of directors and a volunteer, said the fall festival allows people to watch the animals firsthand and to see how the cats interact. Visitors can also learn more about how exotic cats came to need help in the United States.
“They need to have a safe habitat for their survival,” Valdata said. “We love these guys, and they know it. They thrive on it.”
The sanctuary, about 50 northwest of Fort Worth, became home for the cats who used to be pets, zoo or circus animals.
“They are not meant to be pets. They are not meant to be one on one,” Krahn explained.
At one point, the sanctuary, where the animals are expected to live out their lives, had 60 cats.
“There is nowhere else for them,” Krahn said. “They can’t go out to the wild.”
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.