Big Cat Zoos - Don't Default to Giving Up!

So you’d like to be with big cats?
Well, that's kind of a bummer, isn’t it? Can't exactly pick one up at the local shelter. 
Maybe you like house cats or dogs almost as much and would rather go down that path? If so, good for you. I don't consider you a quitter; in fact, a very good friend and fellow big cat lover chose the dog life and it turned out great. They saw multiple paths, picked their preferred one, and it led to happiness.
But some of us might be big-cat exclusive and not have that option. Or perhaps various other animals are lovely, but there's this constant yearning for a specific pantherine species.
If this sounds at all like you, or if you simply haven't dared to hope, read on.
First off, dear reader, I would like you to know what to expect. This article won't automatically match you with hot cougars in your area, nor will reading only the first letter of every second sentence reveal the secret key to tiger sex land. It may not even tell you where to start, really. I'm simply a fellow zoosexual with similar struggles who knows how bleak things can look. There are many very real sources of doubt, some of which I'll mention in a bit. So when I come across the words of another one of my kind and they seem devoid of hope for any sort of connection with the species they adore, I get it.
...I get it, but I don’t want giving up to be mistaken as the default path for a big cat zoo. The reality is that big cats are neither extinct nor fictional, and this automatically means you have choices.
The way I see it, giving up is only one such choice, and it comes with the benefit of sparing you the adversity of trying anything and saving resources. But it's not without cost or risk. The perpetual cost is as big as whatever yearning you suppress in the process, and the risk is that of future regret. It's up to every individual to weigh those factors and make a conscious decision.
But that’s the key part – it has to be deliberate and conscious. With how distant lions used to be to the unexamined imaginations of my subconscious mind, they might as well have been dragons.
So if you never even considered the idea of having a big cat in your life under the lens of “this is a possible reality,” do that. Because that’s a fact: It may not be likely, but it IS possible.
Alright, now let’s say we don’t give up. Then what?
The first question that inevitably arises is something like, “What path would lead to X sort of contact with big cats?”
Not being able to answer this sort of question is probably one of the biggest demotivators. Unfortunately, in my experience, having that answer means you’re either:
A: Already most of the way through such a path, after braving the unknown.
B: Looking at a scheme where you get that contact while giving animal abusers money.
(Canned hunting industry, lion bone trade)
If there is a C, I have yet to find it myself.
It cannot be overstated how important it is to be wary of B. Be skeptical and research the signs. If there are baby animals: Where do they come from, where do they go? Do all animals involved have all the resources they need at all stages of their lives? What does training look like (if any)? How hidden is any of that information?
But I digress. Resources to help you avoid this abuse are thankfully quite plentiful.
Let’s focus on the aspect of ‘directionlessness’ a bit more, where you just don’t know what action to take in order to end up with the kitty of your dreams. If instead the goal at hand was something like “going to space,” you could start by asking Google, and through a steady chain of leads, eventually you’d end up with some more or less exact outlines of multiple possible ways to accomplish that – all of them being extremely daunting and out of reach for most people (for now). Compare that to the goal of “tongue kissing a lion.” That Google search is going to be pretty disappointing, but I promise you this is a vastly easier goal to accomplish, even if we brush it up with more specifics, like “ethically tongue kissing an adult male lion.
So despite how it feels, uncertainty doesn’t exactly equal difficulty, but it’s still pretty daunting. There is something like random chance involved, which means you could end up spending a lot of time and resources – both financial and mental – and still just end up having to give up without having reached that goal, and whether that happens really isn’t fully under your control. That’s not going to be worth it for everyone.
But how do you estimate whether it’s worth it for you, without knowing what’s going to happen?
There are two tips I can think of which might help with figuring that out. 
The first is a metaphor I like to use, which is really a repurposed jungle survival tip:
When you’re completely lost in a place in which slowly starving to death seems like a certain outcome, You’re better off if you pick a random direction (or your best informed pick of one) and stick to heading that way, rather than staying where you are.
The logic is simple: Any chance of finding what you need to survive is better than the complete void of such a chance when staying in place.
Of course, an absence of big cats from your life won’t literally kill you, and applying the above logic to something that isn’t life or death makes it a bit more complicated. 
If it does rather feel like your heart is starving without them, then I think the answer is clear.
But perhaps you wouldn’t put it so dramatically, or you’re not even sure what importance big cats have in your life.
In that case, there’s the second tip I wanted to share – really, it’s something I’d recommend regardless!
Absolutely anyone with an interest in big cats should volunteer at a good sanctuary or rescue at least once, even if it’s just three weeks where you pay to do labor. Simple interactions without touch were enough for me to solidify an idea of what impact big cats might have on my heart. 
Does every ounce of attention from someone of your favorite species nurture your heart, or does it just make the yearning worse? Are scritches already an absolute win, or does the leopard have to be madly in love with you and also sit on your face? You can probably get an idea about some of these things through introspection, but a few details I had to figure out in person, and that’s valuable, even if that trip leads to nothing else in the future.
Furthermore, any flavor of volunteering around big cats does roll those dice for something extraordinary to happen.
Speaking of – what do I consider "rolling the dice"?
For once, my answer to that is quite straightforward: being around the big cats you’re into or talking to someone else who is around them.
So, consider any “role” who is around these cats, and either become them or meet them, preferably the former. This again includes the volunteer, it includes the zookeeper, but it really ranges from the world’s foremost tiger researcher to just some dude who lives close to wild lions.
Wow, look at this wide range of options! Don’t worry, coming up with a clear plan all the way to wish fulfilment from the sparse information you have is not the assignment. Very few of the various lion cuddlers I read books about, met, chatted with or researched ever planned their lion life (none of them had zoology or veterinary credentials either, as an aside), and the best thing that ever happened to me was my Africa trip plans getting wrecked into smithereens halfway through, and the winging-it that followed. 
So now I just make my plans by dreaming. Dreaming big and wild and then researching extensively what reality closest matches that unrealistic dream. What comes out at the end has to be somewhat reliable when it comes to necessities like transport, but in terms of activities, it's a fallback to me – just enough stuff I'll reliably be able to experience so I'm convinced I won't have regrets as I'm going near lions. To me, everything actually going predictably may not be snake-eyes on the dice, but it's a below average outcome. 
– But you know what, just as the plans don’t matter a lot, neither do my personal methods, and there’s really no reason to closely follow my example. I’m just some zoo who really wants to tell you in some long winded way that big cats are real. 
They’re out there. You can meet them. Your hearts can connect.
That’s the takeaway that matters.
So go roll your dice and say hi to those kitties for me – preferably in their language.
Article written by an anonymous author (December 2023) 
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