For most college students, summer break is not all fun and games. Those three months before the beginning of a new academic year constitute a critical period for students to find work and complete internships that compliment their academic success. Finding an internship is difficult enough, but landing a position that is also fun and fulfilling is very difficult to do. Diane Dotson, Vice President of T4T at Clemson University, has managed to do just that.
Diane is interning at Big Cat Rescue (BCR) in Tampa, Florida, for the summer and loving every minute of it. BCR is one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating big cats. While home to many tigers, big cat rescue also houses lions, servals, bobcats, and several other species of wild felines.
I had a chance to talk with Diane about her internship, and it was clear that she is enjoying her summer experience.
What made you want to commit your last summer to helping the animals at Big Cat Rescue?
As I progressed through my college career at Clemson I become involved in T4T, and studied conservation in Costa Rica. I wanted to pursue my passion in conservation. After interning with T4T last summer, I decided that I wanted to gain more experience with an organization that values the same issues with captivity as I do. Big Cat Rescue is the gold standard for sanctuaries for big cats and after following them closely on social media, reading information on their website, and visiting the sanctuary, I knew that I wanted to intern for them. There is no amount of money that could convince me to choose a different path than the one I’m on. I want to make a difference for big cats and I knew I’d learn exactly how to do that while interning at BCR this summer.
Is working as a keeper at a rescue something you’d want to pursue more?
There’s nothing more rewarding than walking home after a long day of work and having the cats chuff, “moo”, purr, or just rub up against the enclosure almost as if they are thanking you for all your hard work that day. I love that I get to make a difference for the cats. As I spend more time with people that truly care about animals, I realize that I can make a huge difference through policy, education, and outreach. I love giving tours and spreading the word about issues facing big cats and informing people how they can make a difference even in the smallest ways. Ideally I will have a job one day where I can fight for animals publicly, as well as conduct on the ground work.
What do you hope to get out of this experience, and what have you gotten out of it so far?
I definitely wanted to learn more about captivity of big cats from a keeper’s perspective. Now I’m able to make my own opinions as I observe them everyday. Because of my experiences so far, my beliefs have been strengthened. For instance, when I see Bengali, a male tiger that was in the circus, my heart just breaks for all the hardships he had to endure before he was rescued. Or Amanda, a female tiger, whose damage from her and her brothers’ time exploited in the cub petting industry is quite obvious by their lack of trust of humans. We need to do more to prevent these rescued cats from needing to be rescued in the first place.
What are your responsibilities as an intern with Big Cat Rescue?
We wake up around 7:00, have breakfast, and walk through the 67-acre sanctuary to start our work. Then we prep the food and ensure that all of the animals are fed. However, as a level 1 intern we cannot actually feed the big guys. We clean our enclosures everyday, and then we have lunch for 30 minutes and head out to a project. Today we took down an old enclosure in order to build our small cat (bobcats, lynxes, caracals, servals, and hybrids) vacation rotation enclosure. Our vacation enclosure is a 2.5 acre area that the cats rotate through for enrichment purposes.
How will the internship contribute toward your career goals?
I have become a better advocate for big cats. I’ve had the opportunity to form my own opinions and learn what really matters to me. It’s awesome that I get to volunteer at Big Cat Rescue and work with great people who fight for the ethical treatment of big cats and continue to be encouraged to do all that I can. We have the utmost respect for our cats.
It’s really cool that all these things that I’ve been interested in, and have dreamt about my entire life, are all incorporated here at BCR. Often we will be walking home and one of the cats will walk the length of its enclosure with us and one of my fellow interns will point out that this is truly amazing that we are four feet away from an adult tiger. As a child, I have never guessed that I would be spending 12 hours a day alongside tigers, lions, leopards, etc. at just 20 years old. We often take our incredible opportunity for granted, and I can’t imagine spending my summer any other way.
What has been the most exciting thing you’ve been a part of so far at your internship?
This question is really hard! I have so many things that were fun for different reasons. I really enjoy watching my fellow interns “light up” when their favorite cat responds to their poor attempts at chuffing with a “hearty cuff,” or when I get to pull the cart to feed Outback (there are only lions and tigers out there); it’s really astonishing. We have three tigers from a Texas rescue named Andre, Arthur, and Amanda, and they are crazy wild. They’re very aggressive during feeding and we have to split their individual diets. When they get fed they charge the cage, growl and roar at you. It’s quite scary, but really cool at the same time! They definitely remind you that you can take a cat out of the wild (or raise them in captivity) but you still can’t take the wild out of the cat.
Five interns, myself included, went on a “bobcat rescue” after a wild bobcat was reported to be injured by a car. We went out to try and find it with big nets, lots of bug spray, and BCR’s founder, Carole Baskin. It was a really different experience. We found signs that the bobcat had been there but we could not find it.
Ooh and I also got to help move Jade and Armani, which are two female, sister leopards. They are incredibly gorgeous! They were actually really calm, surprisingly enough, and it was cool to be able to see them up close and really appreciate their wildness. They are definitely enjoying their time in leopard vacation rotation, especially as they have been taking turns showing off for the neighbor leopard.
Big Cat Rescue is located in Tampa, Florida, and offers tours seven days a week. To find out more about Big Cat Rescue’s work, you can visit their website here.
Thank you Diane Dotson for your help on this piece. Go tigers!