Shout-out: Paige Spude, Cat Wrangler
Story courtesy of UW-Stout News Bureau
Typically, students have summer jobs. Some work at fast food joints, some mow lawns or some, as in the case of University of Wisconsin-Stout undergraduate Paige Spude, volunteer at a sanctuary for big cats. Really big cats, as in lions and tigers.
Spude, from Oconto Falls, volunteered for three summers and part of a school year at the National Tiger Sanctuary near Branson, Mo.
Her responsibilities included cleaning and building cages; cutting up meat for the animals and feeding them; and helping with tours.
The privately owned sanctuary opened in 2000 as a rescue center for tigers and lions. The sanctuary was established to create a safe and protected environment. Today the sanctuary houses approximately 25 big cats, including a mountain lion and a leopard.
The big cats come from private owners, magic shows, circuses and zoos. A Smithsonian magazine story in February 2015 said that more captive tigers exist in the U.S. than wild tigers on Earth.
The lion’s roar and tiger’s chuff
Spude learned about the sanctuary in a roundabout way. Her father had a construction job near Branson and heard one of his workers complain about the lions frightening his horses. Curious about this unusual complaint, he learned that lions who lived at the nearby sanctuary were roaring at night.
He went to investigate, and when his daughter came for the summer he took her for a visit to the sanctuary and gave her a choice: either work on the construction site with him or volunteer at the sanctuary.
She chose the sanctuary. “I loved it,” she said. “The owners are amazing people, and the opportunity to be around the animals was a great experience,” she said.
She also learned a strong work ethic. “The work is nonstop, and the animals always come first,” she said.
Spude, majoring in psychology with minors in biology and chemistry, found observing the tourists interesting. People on the tours can feed the cats. Some were afraid and would stay in the back while others were right out front.
She also learned about tiger and lion communication and has decided that they are easier to understand than people.
“Tiger’s don’t purr,” Spude said. “They chuff.” It’s their way of saying “hi.” Harry, her favorite tiger, chuffs at her when she greets him.
She liked to put her hand up flat — it’s dangerous to poke your fingers through the wire — against the cage to feel Harry’s fur and to be licked with his big, rough tongue. When Spude’s mother came to visit, Harry also licked her hand. Tigers use their rough tongues to clean meat off bones, Spude learned.
The lions like to roar at each other. The sound can be heard five miles away.
Danger and games
The sanctuary has substantial barricades to protect animals and humans. The only time the animals are dangerous is when they are being transported, Spude said. When a mountain lion named Tiki was en route to the sanctuary, she was scared and tried to strike out at the handlers, Spude said.
One day when Spude was demonstrating to a visitor how to feed the big cats and was feeding Merlin, a male lion, he decided to give her a scare. With her back turned talking to the tourist, Merlin squeezed his paw through the wire and grabbed Spude’s leg. Luckily for her, he is declawed. “It scared me though,” she said.
Born in captivity, Merlin was part of a show in Branson. He had never been outside and was nervous. In fact, he was even afraid of a butterfly, she said.
Midnight, a black leopard, was one of Spude’s playmates. They took turns pretending to pounce on each other, with the heavy fencing between them. When Spude was walking along Midnight’s cage, the female leopard would stealthily creep along her side of the fence and when the time was right would pounce. If Spude had the opportunity, she would do the same.
Spude isn’t sure what her future will bring after she graduates from UW-Stout in two years. She may go on to medical school to pursue psychiatry and is interested in criminal psychiatry.
She doesn’t foresee working with big cats again, although she will never forget the experience. Who else can say they have conversed with a tiger and have pounced on a leopard?
For more information about the sanctuary, visit the website.