Damariscotta resident Bailey Chalmers recently completed a three-month internship at Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Tampa, Fla. featured in the popular Netflix documentary series “Tiger King.”
According to its website, Big Cat Rescue is one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world for abused and abandoned big cats, including lions, tigers, cougars, and bobcats. The sanctuary has been accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries since 2009.
Chalmers, a student at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., learned about Big Cat Rescue when she was sent a video from its YouTube channel. After researching the sanctuary’s competitive internship program, she applied and was accepted to start in January.
Chalmers and the other interns lived at the sanctuary and began the program by working in the gift shop and doing chores. Once interns completed training and certification courses, they were given more responsibilities, including cleaning enclosures, feeding, and providing enrichment opportunities for the cats, Chalmers said.
“You do a lot of watching before you do anything,” Chalmers said. “So a lot of the time was observing and asking questions, but nothing really prepares you for the first time you get to work with a cat by yourself.”
One of the interns’ tasks was to perform operant conditioning with the cats, which helps the animals get more comfortable with people. The conditioning also helps the animals complete specific tasks they may need to do for medical reasons, such as to have blood drawn or receive a shot.
The first animal Chalmers did operant conditioning with on her own was a bobcat named Breezy.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Chalmers said. “At that point in my internship I had become a little more accustomed to being around the cats, and I knew her behavior just from spending so much time watching.”
Even with more than 60 cats at the sanctuary, Chalmers said she quickly learned each one’s name and personality.
“For everything we do with each animal, it’s tailored to them and their personality,” Chalmers said. “Like people, these cats have very, very unique personalities. Sometimes there would be a cat that for absolutely no reason hates you but loves everyone else. And then there’s cats that don’t like anyone but for some reason may like this one person.”
Recently, Big Cat Rescue and its owner, Carole Baskin, received widespread attention due to the sanctuary’s portrayal in “Tiger King.” The series focuses on Joe Maldonado-Passage, known by his stage name, Joe Exotic. Maldonado-Passage is the former owner and operator of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla.
In 2019, Maldonado-Passage was sentenced to 22 years in prison after a federal jury convicted him of nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and two counts of murder-for-hire stemming from a plot to kill Baskin.
Chalmers began watching “Tiger King” after receiving questions about her experience working for Big Cat Rescue and with Baskin. She described the series as heartbreaking and infuriating.
“It’s very difficult to get through, and my experience there was very different from what was portrayed,” Chalmers said. “I think drama sells, and they definitely had some bias in the statements that were made, but really I wish the focus hadn’t been on that.”
While she didn’t work closely with Baskin, Chalmers said that in every encounter, Baskin was nice, and that she is devoted to the welfare of the animals at the sanctuary.
Chalmers said she wished the series would have focused more on the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a federal bill that, if passed, would further the protection of animals like those featured in “Tiger King.”
“There was a real opportunity, in my opinion, to talk about the Public Safety Act, and they failed to take advantage of it,” Chalmers said. “It would change the lives of many, many animals who are living in conditions they’re not suited for or with people who have no idea how to properly care for them, and to see this just get ignored is so frustrating.”
Chalmers’ internship with Big Cat Rescue ended in March, a week earlier than anticipated due to the COVID-19 emergency. She is back in Damariscotta with her family and is taking summer courses through Mercer University.
Prior to her experience with Big Cat Rescue, Chalmers planned to become a veterinarian. She is not sure if she will continue pursuing this goal, due to the financial burden, but said she still wants to work with animals in some capacity.
“This experience is absolutely unparalleled by anything I’ve ever done or will do,” Chalmers said. “Now I am completely sure I want to work with animals, and vet med is still an option, but I’m also thinking about doing similar work to what I did in the sanctuary, like research. It’s really made me step back and look at the bigger picture.”