During a routine drug bust more than a decade ago, authorities in Nashville, Tennessee, found something unexpected. Chained to the wall of the crack house being raided, a sick, emaciated lioness named Nikita cowered on the concrete floor. The formerly proud, elegant cat had been confined to this space for so long that she’d developed sores on her elbows. She was so thin that her ribs showed, and she was light enough to be carried under one arm.

To top it off, Nikita had been declawed, so following her rescue she could not live with the other lions at the Nashville Zoo. Nikita was out of options, so Big Cat Rescue stepped in. The Florida-based nonprofit has been rescuing big cats from abuse and neglect since 1995 and currently provides sanctuary to more than 100 big cats, many of whom would have died without the group’s intervention. It made all the difference in the world for Nikita.

“Nikita has flourished under our care,” says the group’s website. “She has grown into a tall, lanky, healthy lioness. Though we wish she had the freedom she deserves, we’re so happy that she survived her earlier ordeals to enjoy the blissful days we try to provide for her here.”

According to Chris Poole, Big Cat Rescue media producer, shoddy laws and limited manpower for inspections make situations like Nikita’s more common than people think.

“There are more captive tigers living in backyards and roadside zoos (more than 5,000) than there are left in the wild (around 3,000),” Poole says. “There could be 10,000 privately owned tigers in America for all we know.”

The trouble with keeping big cats as pets isn’t only that the animals are expensive to feed and house, but also that they can never be fully domesticated. Even when big cats have been trained to trust and submit to humans, all it takes is one false move to trigger their killer instincts.

“You just can’t take the ‘wild’ out of a wild animal,” Poole says. “Once they become sexually mature, they are large, dangerous predators, no matter how well you know them or how long you’ve taken care of them. If they see you make a sudden move or you do something that triggers their brain to say, ‘Attack!’ … you’re history! And of course the animals, despite just doing what they are made to do, will be the ones that suffer the most.”

In seven years working with big cats, Poole has saved lions, tigers, bobcats, and more from many dire circumstances, including would-be rescuers who have gotten in over their heads. Big Cat Rescue recently saved two tigers from a New York couple who kept big cats, bears, wolves, and other wild and domestic animals in cages on their property. The couple fed the animals roadkill, leaving the rotting carcasses in the rusty, rundown, concrete cages to fester.

“These cats, like so many others across the country, were kept on rocks,” says the Big Cat Rescue website. “There was no place for them to feel the soft earth, nor roll in the grass, nor enjoy the shade of trees or bushes. The only shade, or escape from the sharp edged rocks, was in their smelly dens and on a small table in each cage, but these cats didn’t look fit to jump up onto them.”

When the tigers were rescued, they were sick and starving. Unfortunately it was too late for Kimba, the older female tiger; due to poor diet, she succumbed to renal failure and passed away. Kimba’s cub, a younger male named Zeus, has major eye and dental issues that need to be addressed, but his chances for survival look good. When he was removed from his miserable enclosure, Zeus immediately fell asleep on the first soft surface he’d felt in years.

“Zeus gulped down water before lying down in his big fluffy hay bed,” says the Big Cat Rescue website. “Zeus had been a big and powerful male tiger at some point in his life, but now you could see the remains of his wasted muscles and protrusion of his ribs and hips.”

To advocate for big cats in peril and hopefully change laws to prevent situations of abuse from occurring, Big Cat Rescue uses social media to raise awareness. Some of the group’s videos are educational in nature, while others are entertaining and informative ÔÇô- “Are Domestic Cats Like Tigers,” for example (watch below). Poole hopes that this type of outreach will inspire people to learn more about the organization and do what they can to help.

“The bottom line is big cats don’t belong in backyards, or circuses, or fairs, or crappy rundown roadside zoos, they belong in the wild,” Poole says. “It’s such a huge problem that many people are unaware of. There’s so many problems in this world that we can’t do anything about, but this is one problem we can solve.”

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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.

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