Updated: Mar 28, 2019
WRITTEN BY JENNIFER COLLINS
Wild and domestic animals in need of care find safety and shelter at Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary.
It’s been more than 20 years now since Kay McElroy spied an ad in the local paper selling a cougar cub. She couldn’t afford the $1,000 price tag, but she traded an old tractor for the animal. The 6-month-old cub was thin and suffering from infected paws, the result of a bad de-claw job. McElroy was determined to save him, but finding a safe place to relocate him proved impossible. “Zack” the cougar cub needed a forever home — and that’s how the nonprofit Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary in Caledonia was started.
These days Cedarhill is home to a menagerie of big cats, including tigers, lions and bobcats; as well as pigs, horses, dogs and cats. But Cedarhill isn’t a zoo or a temporary shelter. There are no couples strolling by throwing treats to the animals, or children running and squealing at the sight of them. The only sounds come from the caretakers’ quiet conversations punctuated by the chuffing of the tigers, the barking of the dogs and the occasional lion roar. This is truly a sanctuary — a safe, forever home where abandoned or abused animals can live out their lives in peace.
“If I were an animal, I would want to be at Cedarhill,” said Nancy Gschwendtner, executive director of the sanctuary.
Each of these animals has a story. A few were loved but the owners grew too old to handle them properly or could no longer afford to keep them. Most lived in solitude, in cramped cages. Some were blinded by their former owners and some live with broken bones that healed improperly. Many were owned by roadside zoos and others were kept for breeding purposes. Several of the big cats were owned in private homes and when they could no longer be easily handled, they were relegated to small cages and fed scraps and roadkill. But all can now rest easy without noisy crowds and away from prying eyes, in enclosures that are roomy and comfortable and for those that need it, with medical care to ease their pain.
Some of the former pets at Cedarhill are victims of novelty-pet trends. People breed domestic cats with bobcats and other wild cat species in order to produce exotic-looking felines. But these animals retain their wild nature and prove difficult to house-train. When they can’t stop marking their territory, they are often surrendered to shelters.
“Under no circumstance does an exotic animal belong as a pet,” Gschwendtner said.
Pigs are another example of a “trendy” pet that soon proves too much to manage.
“Pigs are a highly surrendered animal,” Cedarhill staff member Karen Amundson said. “They are highly emotional and needy and require a lot out of their owners. There is no such thing as a teacup or mini-pig — this is a marketing scam. All pigs grow up to be large.”
Cedarhill takes in all these outcasts on a case-by-case basis as often as it can, but is presently at capacity with over 250 animals including a dozen tigers, two lions and three bobcats.
Tending to the needs of all these animals is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year job. Entering the cage of a wild predator is inherently dangerous, but strict safety procedures are followed to ensure the safety of the caregivers as well as the animals.
Besides the risks, the job is demanding in other ways. Many of the animals are elderly, some have serious health issues and several are blind. Feeding is only a small part of fulfilling their daily needs. Monitoring their health and providing love and amusement is also an important part of every day.
Dogs and cats can be cuddled and petted but the larger animals also need attention and excitement in their lives. Finding new games and treats for them can be a difficult task but Amundson, who is Cedarhill’s enrichment program developer, is up to that challenge. Amundson looks for and implements ways to give the animals a chance to demonstrate “species-typical” behavior.
“[We try to] stimulate the animal and break up their daily routine,” Amundson said. “To allow them to exercise control or choice over their environment, and enhance their well-being. We can create anything from having chicken leg treats in a pumpkin for Halloween to wrapping up a box like a Christmas present for them to tear open. The more of a puzzle to open it the better for the animal.”
A dedicated staff and volunteer caretakers keep things peaceful and comfortable for the animals. Spaying, neutering and medical care are in the capable hands of the instructors and students in the veterinary program at Mississippi State University. Cedarhill also has a resident internship program for students in related fields of study.
Zack, the cougar cub that inspired Cedarhill, died in 2006. Kay McElroy lived on the property and dedicated her life to preventing the exploitation and abuse of animals. McElroy died Jan. 3, but her cause will continue thanks to the help of Gschwendtner, Amundson and the rest of the Cedarhill staff.
Cedarhill is a 501(c)(3) supported entirely by charitable donation. Though it has always been closed to the public for the benefit of the animals, this year it opens its doors to a couple of lucky visitors who won a tour and overnight stay in Cedarhill’s recent “B&B with the Big Cats” raffle.
The raffle winner, Kelly Smircic, lives in Irving, Texas. She follows Cedarhill on social media and was excited to enter the raffle via Facebook.
“My husband and I are putting a trip together where we will fly into Memphis then travel to Cedarhill,” Smircic said. “We are huge animal lovers and appreciate all the hard work and devotion it takes to help and care for all their animals.”
To donate funds, meet the animals and read their stories, or to fill out an application for an internship or volunteer position, visit cedarhillanimalsanctuary.org.
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