Former Pet Tigers Find Home in Tennessee Shelter

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Sasha came from a drive-through safari in Bastrop, Texas; Dolly, from a roadside zoo in Columbia, South Carolina.

Many of the cats at Tiger Haven arrive in good health—others not-so-good. Amateur video footage at a roadside zoo in South Carolina revealed a mountain lion so undernourished that it was eating another mountain lion that had fallen ill and died.

The roadside zoo was shut down immediately and a frantic search began to place the cats. Within hours, Roberts was there.

Kalahari was one of the rescued cats—thin, with a spine injury from a blow by a lead pipe and with paws burned when somebody dumped bleach in his cage.

"He's still small for a male lion, but as malnourished and as small as he was when we first got him, we're all surprised that he looks as good as he does," Roberts said.

Another critical case was Tsavo, from a private owner who couldn't cope with the baby lion's increasingly painful skin condition. Finally, the owner called Roberts.

Sudden Surgery

Caring for the cats is a full-time job. Roberts lives at the sanctuary. She works with 12 staffers.

"They work around the clock. I don't know if they ever sleep. They really live for their animals," said Edward Ramsay, a big cat specialist at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, in Knoxville, and a consulting veterinarian for the Knoxville Zoo. Ramsay is a frequent visitor to Tiger Haven.

The most complicated, expensive, and emotionally draining part of caring for the cats is looking after their health. A case in point is Cimba, a 19-year-old "liger"—half-lion, half-tiger "retired" from a circus.

For the past five years Cimba has suffered a recurring uterine infection. A hysterectomy seemed to be the only hope to save her.

"After having her for ten years, we're all very attached to her," Roberts said. "After you take care of these animals seven days a week, 24 hours a day, they're part of your family. It's no different to us than taking a member of the family to have a serious operation."

Last month Roberts took Cimba to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine—one of the few animal hospitals in the country with the know-how to perform such an operation.

After hours of surgery, the vets removed a 40-pound (18-kilogram) tumor.

Two days later, back at Tiger Haven for recovery, Cimba was on her feet. Within three days she was eating.

"You'd never know that Cimba had surgery if they hadn't shaved her," Roberts said. "Now she's the enthusiastic foster mother to three lion cubs born at the haven. She just loves all babies, striped, spotted or white." Orphan big cats find foster mothers where they can.

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