March 9, 2013 5:36:16 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
"Well, hello, it's about time you woke up, girl!" Michelle Cranford calls in a sing-song greeting to Cinderella, a female Bengal tiger lazily waking from a morning bask in the sun.
Like the other 10 tigers, six lions, three bobcats, two cougars, two wolves, six horses, seven pot belly pigs, four exotic birds and almost 200 domestic cats who call Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary in Caledonia home, Cinderella has come to understand she is safe and cared for, so she is not startled.
It's a far cry from her beginnings, when she and another tiger -- Snow White, who was rescued with her -- were found in a cramped 8-by-8-foot cage in a Michigan garage, along with two wolves, two lions and a baboon.
Cedarhill, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit facility founded in 1990, is filled with stories like Cinderella's. Unfortunately, there is a largely unregulated market for exotic felines and a stream of people who buy them, out of vanity or for the novelty. Most think they can keep these wild animals as pets in a garage or basement, only to learn otherwise. Many of the cats are mistreated out of fear and ignorance.
Most of Cedarhill's big cats came from private owners, who had to give them up. Some came from zoos that could no longer keep the animals for exhibit. Others have been saved from canned hunts, where faux hunters shoot them for "sport." Some were confiscated from drug dealers.
What they all have in common is the good fortune to have found their way to this 20-acre safe haven, where the mission is to provide lifetime sanctuary for exotic and domestic cats and other animals that have been abused, abandoned or rendered homeless.
The promise of Cedarhill founder Kay McElroy and dedicated staff, like head caretaker Michelle Cranford, is that each animal entering the gates will live out its life in a protected, peaceful environment.
Getting to know you
"They are amazingly bright creatures," Cranford says as she walks from one tiger enclosure to the next. She greets each animal as a friend. She knows the personalities of each, their habits and idiosyncrasies. There's Tonka, who loves to race the Gator all-terrain vehicle each morning as it drives along the road bordering his enclosure. He greets Cranford in return, with a friendly vocalization called chuffing.
Bachi and Charger amble with prowling elegance toward the fence of their spacious enclosure, complete with running creek, log bridge, pool, and cooling concrete house. With consistent care, they seem to be overcoming their past, much of it spent in a small, dirty enclosure in Ohio, where they were controlled with cattle prods and fire extinguishers and were paraded before the public.
Even Alexis, the oldest of all Cedarhill's tigers, rises from the grass to come to the fence, in spite of her pronounced limp. Alexis was born in the Gulf Shores zoo; her mother killed her two siblings and broke Alexis' front and back legs before staff could intervene.
At the lion enclosures, Cranford introduces the males, Valentino and Maximus, the sanctuary's biggest eater, consuming about 25 pounds of meat a day. Both boast impressive manes and lordly demeanors, but have no interest in interrupting their morning lounge.
"When God created the lion, the word 'laaazy' came into being!" Cranford laughs indulgently, before telling the animals' stories. She is well-versed in all the species' natural habitats and characteristics and shares her knowledge at each enclosure.
Valentino shows no signs now of the three and one-half years he lived inside a dirty dog kennel in an abandoned Minnesota dairy barn, never seeing the sun or feeling the grass under his feet. Today, he relishes the outdoors -- and living next door to the girl of his dreams, the lioness named Friday.
While all the big cats are regarded with genuine affection, the staff has the utmost respect for their wild nature. Safety is of paramount importance. Enclosures are double-fenced, and feeding and cleaning procedures keep trained staff and cats separated. Since Cedarhill opened, there has never been an incident of a cat getting out, Cranford notes.
The domestic cats of Cedarhill are, in general, divided between two houses, one for senior and disabled cats, and another for the junior residents. Inside, cats of every hue and pattern sleep on "people" beds and sofas that no one will ever shoo them from. Each cat is spayed or neutered. Their facilities are outfitted with climbing towers, pet beds and plenty of cat doors to the sun porch and large yard filled with toys. Visitors are showered with all the feline affection one could ask for.
Like the big cats, their stories are often heartbreaking. Some have diabetes, some are blind or have neurological disorders. But each has a name and is cared for daily.
A sweet, diminutive cat named Little Stevie Wonder has been a particular inspiration to McElroy, who is currently recovering from surgery.
"I have sat up many nights looking at the bills and wondering how I was going to hold it all together," McElroy shares candidly on the sanctuary's website. "But when I'm really down, I go visit Little Stevie Wonder. Stevie is blind and deaf, but often I find him out in the dark happily playing with his favorite toy, a ball in a plastic ring. His acceptance of life and the happiness he exhibits is beyond my comprehension. Sometimes I think Stevie was sent to Cedarhill just to teach me how to cope."
The kindness of others
Cedarhill receives no government funds. To remain open, it relies on tax-deductible donations from donors and some fundraising.
"We're grateful for contributions large and small," says Cranford. "They're vital to the continued veterinary treatment, rehabilitation and support of the animals."
With the current population of about 300 animals, Cedarhill is unable to accept any more at this time. The sanctuary's wish list includes cleaning supplies such as bleach, as well as cat litter, dog and cat toys, used linens, dog and cat food and treats. The facility is not open to the public, but many of the animals are featured on the website at cedarhillanimalsanctuary.org, with histories and profiles.
"We're not open to the public because we are a sanctuary; so many of our big cats and other animals have been rescued from horrible situations, and our promise to them is that they will lead peaceful lives. But we hope to soon have live feeds on our site so people can get to know our animals better," the caretaker says. Cedarhill's wish is that every animal's care would be "adopted" by a donor. Those who want to help can also now purchase T-shirts on the website; proceeds go directly to animal care.
Donations may be mailed to Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary, 144 Sanctuary Loop, Caledonia, MS 39740. Or call the sanctuary at 662-356-6636 or email [email protected]
From the day McElroy first rescued a thin cougar cub with infected paws in 1987, developing a sanctuary has been her life's work. As a pioneer for exotic animal care in Mississippi, she became a leader in the sanctuary community at large. She has become a resource to caretakers in other countries and wrote the Exotic Animal Act of 1997 that was passed into law in Mississippi. It prohibits canned hunts, exotic animal auctions, and established state registration requirements and caging standards.
Cranford and the rest of the devoted staff share the commitment -- and the perseverance they witness in many of the animals.
"It's my very favorite thing about them," Cranford says, outside the corral fence where a near-blind horse has designed his own method for finding his way into his stall. "They never feel sorry for themselves, no matter what the circumstances are. They just find a way to adapt and keep going."
Editor's note: See more photos online at cdispatch.com
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.