At the end of Cook Rd in Rockwell, NC you come to a crossroad. Either turn around or go through these metal gates. What you find on the other side of those gates may astonish you. What you hear may break your heart and what you see going on may just restore your faith in humanity.
You see, behind those gates lies Suzie’s Pride, a Sanctuary and Rescue for big cats. It is a no-kill, no-breed facility for unwanted, abused, and neglected big cats from private owners, commercial entities, zoos and other sanctuaries. A place where the cats have can live out their days in a compassionate, respectful environment with proper care and enables them to have a good quality of life.
Let’s be honest here. When I first pulled up to those gates, I was a little nervous about going in. I had never been there, I didn’t know the owners. Were the cats locked up? Or were they roaming the yard? Would I be greeted by a lion on the hood of my car? All silly questions of course, and as I pulled through all those crazy thoughts in my head disappeared. I pulled up to a house with a very large yard, three dachshunds running to greet me, and on the far side of the yard, I saw them for the first time. Those beautiful lions and tigers, locked securely in their enclosures. Bill and Char Cook invited me into the yard where we sat and talked about Suzie’s Pride, but I couldn’t help but watch those cats. They were beautiful, mesmerizing in fact.
Suzie’s Pride is named after the first cat the Cook’s received. After having volunteered for many big cat owners, zoo’s and sanctuaries, the Cook’s were given the opportunity to save Suzie. Suzie was born at the Charlotte Metro Zoo in 1998, but was privately owned. Suzie was a “photo cub” and when that owner realized the amount of work involved in owning a big cat, Suzie was given to the Cook’s in 2002 and Suzie’s Pride was born.
Up until 2010, the Cook’s used all of their own income to care for the cats. Food, housing, vet bills, and more. No easy feat, even for a two income family. After both Bill and Char were laid off in 2010, they applied for, and were given, “non-profit” status for Suzie’s Pride, which helps fray the cost of keeping up the care of the animals. However, they do not receive any funding from any State or Federal agency. Suzie’s Pride is regulated by the USDA. All of the cats get regular veterinarian care, as well as vaccinations against some diseases like Rabies, and their facility is inspected at least once a year. As I sat there listening to them tell me about their facility, I could tell they truly care about these cats, not because they want to be the “proud owners” of big cats, but because they truly are concerned about their well being and their happiness. It wasn’t just about caring though. They are making sure they are following all of the strict rules involved in owning exotic animals. They are going above and beyond what is required of them by law. They are not profiting by owning these animals, they are giving them a place of respect to live out their days.
While Mr. Cook does interact with the cats, even gets in the enclosures to care for them, he is not oblivious to the fact that these, are in fact, big cats, and even though raised by people their entire lives, they are still wild animals. He respects them, their moods, their environment, and has a great knowledge of these cats. The Cook’s do not take caring for them lightly.
When I initially spoke to Mr. Cook on the phone he apologized for not calling me sooner, but one of his cats was sick and had to be taken to the vet the day before. I could hear the concern in his voice, it was like he was speaking about one of his family members.
Suzie’s Pride currently homes six big cats: three lions and three tigers, each with their own personality, own likes and dislikes, each are individuals and the Cook’s treat them like that.
Why is there even a need for a big cat sanctuary? Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons. People think owning a big cat will be fun, they are clearly not thinking about the future; when you have a 500 pound tiger staring you down, or the cost of the vet bills, or the food, or the proper housing. But private owners aren’t the only problem. Three out of the six cats at Suzie’s Pride are known as “photo cubs”. People purchase baby lions and tigers and then go around to different events so that the public can pay a fortune to have their picture taken with a lion or tiger! While some of these owners and traveling zoos are good to their animals, the majority of them dump the animal after making hundreds of thousands of dollars when the baby cub gets to be fifty pounds or six months old and no longer allowed to interact with the public. “Dump” can mean pretty anything unfortunately, including putting it down.
Breeding of these big cats is a huge problem. Most tigers you see are essentially “mutts,” tigers bred with other types of tigers. The only way to know if a tiger is a true Siberian or Bengal tiger (or any other type of purebred tiger) is if genetic testing is done on the animal, and the cost of that is astronomical, which is why most cat breeders don’t do it. Currently, there is a bill going through the USDA to stop the breeding of lions and tigers unless you can prove they are full bred animals. Because of the high cost of genetic testing, only those people looking to preserve the cats lineage will actually do the testing and the Cook’s hope this new bill will reduce the breeding of the cats, therefore reducing the amount of cats that need to be rescued.
Suzie’s Pride is generally not open to the public, however they do have special events throughout the year, including Christmas time and Easter. Each month they also have an Open House which is free to the public as well as a paid event which is a behind the scenes look at the sanctuary.
I left Suzie’s Pride with the memory of these beautiful cats in my head, but also with the admiration of the Cook’s and their volunteers. No one is paid for taking care of these cats. They don’t get a “thank you” from the public. They are doing what they are doing, because it is what is in their hearts, it is what makes their souls sing. Could there be any more special gift than helping those less fortunate than yourself, those who don’t have a voice?
This article was published by me in the September/October issue of City Unwrapped!
To find information on the Suzie’s Pride Fall Festival and other events, click here.