Science and TechAnimals and Insects


Why One Big Cat Sanctuary Is Staying Put In The Wildfire Zone

Wildfires have forced this big cat sanctuary owner to roll with the punches, including moving the massive animals.
Posted at 8:51 AM, Oct 20, 2021

A nonprofit sanctuary nestled in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains keeps finding itself near the path of wildfires. But it's not moving.

"If you actually have to move the cats," Dale Anderson said, "it is a major undertaking, so the last thing you want to do is have to move the animals."

Anderson, a former airline pilot, founded Cat Haven 23 years ago. He says fires have become a perennial threat in recent years.

DALE ANDERSON: "At the beginning of the year, fire season, we go through all our checks. We get crates out. We do prep on making sure that cats are ready to go if we have to."

JASON BELLINI: "Where do they go if there's an emergency?"

ANDERSON: "If we have to evacuate — which we did a complete evacuation in 2015 with the Rough fire — we had cats in four or five different facilities ... Because again, if it's just a one-day or two-day evac or something, you could probably keep them in the crate for a short period of time. But we were out for two weeks."

Anderson said the KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia National Park came within 10 miles of Cat Haven in early October.

ANDERSON: "We started making phone calls and rounding up locations to be able to bring cats to, and we started getting drugs together because if you have to mobilize cats to get them out, you have to make sure you have enough drugs on site. It's not just the normal. Our veterinarian has drugs to be able to knock down a cat to do an examination or do something that way, but you have to knock down 25 big cats."

BELLINI: "Which you have to do before you can transport them?"

ANDERSON: "We have to do it to be able to get them in crates. We're feeding the cats in the crate because that trains them to go into the crate. So if we have a fire, we can get the cat in the crate a lot easier if they’re hungry and want their food they go into the crate and close the door and then it's not as stressful for the cat."

BELLINI: "What about the smoke? Is that a factor for you guys?"

ANDERSON: "Maybe long term we're going to have some smoke-related issues that might come up. We watch for that kind of thing. Most of them go inside in their dens and just rest. They're not out running around doing things."

Fires aside, these are wild times in the big cat world because of the spotlight Netflix's "Tiger King" put on the controversial practices of some big cat parks. Anderson said he's known Joe Exotic for a while, and one of his cats even came from the Netflix star.

Now Anderson says he's under increasing pressure from animal rights activists who oppose the caging of big cats. 

"If you don't like seeing a cat in an enclosure, that's OK," Anderson said. "Don't come here. But what I'm doing here isn't bad for the cats."

He says what's good for big cats in the wild is the money that sanctuaries like his raise to help protect them. 

"Cats are independent animals," Anderson said. "They think about their own situation. Their own interest doesn't mean they can't be friendly and kind, just like a dog would, but they also have that independent spirit to them. So cats, when you sit there and say, why do I want to work with cats? I sit there and go, because I like that independence. I like to be independent. I like to have my own thinking, my own way of doing things, and cats do the same thing."

Anderson's way is staying in the fire zone, trying to avoid the cat fights.