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Cats make good pets. Really big cats, not so much

Asha lies contently on her side in her spacious enclosure. The bengal tiger is enjoying the good life, thanks to the care she’s received at In-Sync Exotics in Wylie. She was seven months old when she got there but looked much younger and, at 37 pounds, weighed as much as a bobcat. Her fur was missing in patches because of ringworm. Her feet were swollen and red. For weeks, In-Sync founder Vicky Keahey nursed her back to health and gave her daily baths and medicine. Now she plays and chuffs (a greeting sound specific to tigers) to her buddy Smuggler, her enclosure mate. She’s one of some 65 success stories who make their home here.

Aside from tigers, you’ll see lions, cheetahs, cougars, leopards, lynx, bobcats, servals and an ocelot. And just like the cat you got from a shelter, these cats are rescues, but none are up for adoption. In-Sync’s Angela Culver says this is not a petting zoo. “None of these cats are pets or suitable for being pets. We have gotten quite a few from private owners who thought they were suitable pets. And that’s how they came to us.” She says they exist because people need a place to surrender these animals.

Culver says many of these cats came from the circus, and some are what she calls “pay for play.”

“Pay $25 and you get to pet a tiger cub, which is a horrible practice. It’s basically like a puppy mill for big cats. Once the babies get older they either become breeders, or if they don’t make good breeders they are shipped off or killed.”

You can take the cat out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the cat. The lions and tigers may seem docile, but they are wild animals. Culver says. “even though they have been in captivity most of their lives, they are not domesticated at all. They are still wild. All of their natural instincts remain intact. Even if they have become accustomed to you, it’s one of things where you can never let your guard down.”

A lot goes into keeping these animals content. Jett the leopard is flat on his side in his enclosure. The 16-year-old is happily rubbing his face against one of the two chain link fences that surround his enclosure. Culver explains he has just gotten his enrichment. “Enrichment is something that all of the cats get every week, whether its new smells, toys or textures. It keep their minds active. Lots of studies have shown that enrichment is vital for animals in captivity because in the wild they would constantly be encountering new things, new sights and new smells.” Jett is partial to decaffeinated coffee and cinnamon, both delivered via pizza boxes. She calls him an “absolute goofball” who loves to play with his toys, and poses for visitors who come to take his picture.

In-Sync began more than two decades ago when someone brought their “pet” cougar to the office where Keahey worked as a vet tech. The owners never returned. Rather than allowing the cat be shipped off, or perhaps euthanized, she went through the USDA rescued the cat she named Tahoe. She did such a good job she was given another. And more followed. Says Culver, “she discovered this was a real need. There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild. It sound like it can’t possibly be true, but it is.”

More than a dozen cats died during the summer of 2013 because of an outbreak of canine distemper virus. Culver says it was brought in by a wild animal, likely a raccoon. There is currently no approved vaccine for felines although research for one is ongoing. “That summer was hellacious. Because of donations we were able to get enough donations to build our own on-site vet clinic.” The grand opening was last month. They have a full time veterinarian, a surgical suite and quarantine areas. She adds “our donors were amazing. The amount of support we got that summer was absolutely incredible.” She says the vet bills during that summer exceeded $25,000 a month and several were saved. “There’s no 100 percent guarantee it will never happen again. We’re monitoring wild animals around the sanctuary and if any look suspicious, we’re trapping and taking them elsewhere for observation.”

In-Sync is a non-profit and relies on donations and volunteers. About 130 people donate their time, doing everything from cleaning enclosure to preparing meals to mowing the grass. Tours are available year round and a donation is suggested.

You can check them out in person or on the web at insyncexotics.com.

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