Big cats aplenty, but Jacksonville’s Catty Shack Ranch is far removed from ‘Tiger King’

A lion named Abu eats a leg of chicken during a night feeding on April 10 at Catty Shack Ranch.
A lion named Abu eats a leg of chicken during a night feeding on April 10 at Catty Shack Ranch. (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Curt LoGiudice doesn’t watch much television and certainly doesn’t have time to binge watch Netflix.

Even with his Catty Shack Ranch closed for guests now during the coronavirus pandemic, there are quite a few hungry mouths to feed.

Thirty-six to be exact.

But the questions are bound to keep coming at a rapid pace, thanks to the success of Netflix’s viral “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

Hey, doesn’t Jacksonville have a tiger place, too?

It does, and it couldn’t be more different than the ones portrayed in “Tiger King.”

LoGiudice, executive director of Catty Shack, has heard of the series, but hasn’t seen ‘Tiger King.’ Spokeswoman Tracy Collins jokes that the cats are his entertainment.

LoGiudice has been in the big cats business since he founded Catty Shack in 1986 on a five-acre parcel of land on Jacksonville’s Northside. It was licensed to open to the public in 2004 and has grown to 225 acres with major improvements in facilities, habitat and infrastructure already in the works.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put those plans on hold. But even with fans only able to see the park virtually now through Facebook Live, the work doesn’t stop. His residents are hungry. And there’s always something to do on the grounds.

Catty Shack doesn’t need help in the notoriety department. It’s been one of Jacksonville’s top attractions for years. But the “Tiger King” wave has amplified everything in the big cat industry, engulfing social media with bad haircuts and toothless smiles and conspiracy theories. It has spawned hundreds of memes that are likely bound for their own wing of the internet hall of shame one day.

Somewhat buried across the dubious cast of characters and unbelievable storylines are of the actual animals themselves and just how different facilities like that are compared to legitimate rescue operations like Catty Shack.

LoGiudice said that his facility doesn’t purchase animals. It doesn’t breed animals to try and sell them for a profit. Catty Shack, for all purposes, is a lifetime home for the animals there. Some cats have physical problems or are older. Others have come from facilities that have closed down or could no longer care for the animal due to myriad reasons.

“We’re very choosy where our animals come from,” he said. “We get calls all the time about, ‘hey, come and get these animals. But they’re really trying to clean out a cost. We look at the animals as a commitment to them,” he said.

“We want to make sure no matter what, the animal, the feline, may be, how young or old, is that we’re making a commitment to the animal for all its needs. So, we have a great team of people from the caretakers that are here, to the physicians, doctors and everybody that works together to keep that going.”

The business of big cats is split into different pieces of the pie and “Tiger King” no doubt amplified the underbelly of the industry.

There are for-profit players like the main character, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, who breed the cats to sell, be it to private individuals or roadside zoos. As seen in “Tiger King,” that’s how those entities make money, and a lot of it.

The other end of the spectrum is animal rights activist Carole Baskin and her Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. The battle between those two serves as the crux of what “Tiger King” is based on.

LoGiudice and Catty Shack get the question often, and if viewers have seen “Tiger King,” they may think the same type of interaction can occur between guest and animal at a place like Catty Shack.

During a Facebook Live stream of the nightly feeding on Friday night, a poster asked LoGiudice a question that gets asked a lot.

Can we pet the cats?

Not happening at Catty Shack, or any reputable facility that has big cats on hand. “Tiger King” created the illusion that it’s perfectly fine for paying customers to have hands-on experiences with big cats. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to state law under Public Contact with Captive Wildlife, cats considered in the Class I category can have full contact with people under the supervision of their handlers if they weigh less than 25 pounds. If the hander maintains control of the cat and limits the person to incidental contact, they are allowed to be no more than 40 pounds.

None of the 36 big cats at Catty Shack fall into that criteria. Even if they did, LoGiudice said that they aren’t meant to be handled like merchandise.

Early in his career, LoGiudice said that he did a tour with the Florida Panther Project and that animals and humans could interact on a closer level. As the realm changed over time, so did LoGiudice’s view on that.

“It was of course, then a necessity because it was creating funding for my facility. We weren’t open to the public when we first started,” he said. “As time turned and stuff, a lot of places breed animals and then they sell the babies, the offspring, for that type of environment [petting, photos]. Those animals are only staying with those people for maybe five or six weeks and then they give them away.”

That, in turn, creates an unsustainable cycle, and pushes big cats into the possession of private owners who ultimately can’t care for the animal long term. A cuddly baby tiger at two months old quickly grows into an adult who eats 20 pounds of meat a night. In “Tiger King,” the interaction between paying customers and small tigers is magnified.

LoGiudice said they aren’t every day encounters, but Catty Shack has been approached by individuals who have obtained a big cat but can no longer care for it.

“They’ve asked us, but we don’t take them in because I’m not cleaning out a slot,” he said. “We’re trying to stop that from happening. We had animals born here when we first started as part of our endangered breeding program. Those animals are still here. Part of our care and commitment is to making sure that if we brought it in that we were responsible for it. Not everybody does that. Because of course, it becomes costly.

“We do unfortunately [get those calls]. I wish them luck.”

In Florida, it’s difficult to know just how many people own big cats, but it can be a highly profitable venture for the bigger entities.

A search of organizations who claim nonprofit 501(c)(3) status in Florida and fall under select criteria — zoos, animal rescue, animal sanctuary or anything animal related — number more than 1,300, according to ProPublica’s nonprofit explorer.

A total of 25 of those reported revenue of $1 million or more during their last tax filings. The bulk of those are zoos or facilities that offer pets like dogs and cats for adoption.

Only two of those 25 deal predominantly with big cats; Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue in Tampa ($4.4 million in 2018) and Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota ($1.5 million in 2018). Catty Shack reported just over $661,000 in revenue in its 2018 tax year, a total that could be increased if it raised ticket prices. As a comparison, an adult ticket to attend a night feeding at Catty Shack is $17, and a night feeding ticket at Big Cat Rescue is $79.

There is no definitive list, but PETA lists two in Florida that have caught its attention — Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary and Dade City’s Wild Things. PETA won a three-year lawsuit battle against Wild Things on March 24 and was permitted to rehome the facility’s 19 tigers.

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