- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

WYLIE, Texas (AP) - Lisa Williams was making her usual rounds at In-Sync Exotics, escorting visitors through the habitats that house more than 60 large felines.

But Tuesday’s tour was different. That morning, Kiro, a white tiger, had died. His habitat stood empty. A sign with his name and picture, hung on the enclosure’s chain link fence, was just a humble reminder of the feline that used to play in the sanctuary’s pools and make “chuffing” sounds at visitors and staff members.

Hugs and tears among the sanctuary’s staff were not unexpected. A year ago, Kiro was one of the first cats at In-Sync to contract canine distemper. He survived the initial viral infection, and the sanctuary hasn’t determined whether his death was related to the 2013 distemper outbreak that killed eight big cats and made more than 20 others sick.

The volunteers still refer to the virus as “the d-word,” their euphemism for an epidemic that reduced powerful predators to frail and dying animals.

Williams remembered last summer’s 24-hour watches over sick cats and the “pills and pills and pills” that she had to keep feeding them. Many of the cats who survived the virus still longingly look to Williams for affection and playtime.

“I love you!” she said to Rafiki, a lion, while playfully rattling an old coffee can near him.

Williams, who’s volunteered at In-Sync for five years, said it’s important that no one mistake the big cats for pets; however, the bond between the staff and the animals is special.

A lion will snuggle up against the fence around its enclosure to get close to Williams. Cincinnati, a tiger, likes to play peekaboo with Williams, peering at her over the rim of his large, metal bathtub. Williams can distinguish the cats by minute facial details, and she even knows how each one walks.

She gestured to one of the enclosures, which is shared by several tigers. It used to house one who died in the distemper episode.

“This is where Lucca’s was,” Williams told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1lR1PuF), pointing to an empty spot between three cats’ pictures on the fence.

Though In-Sync’s cats had been vaccinated against feline distemper, there is no vaccination to protect cats from the canine version of the virus.

She said she knew the epidemic was worsening last year when she stopped hearing coyotes around the sanctuary. Coyotes are canines, susceptible to distemper.

Since the outbreak, In-Sync has taken precautions to avoid lightning striking twice.

The sanctuary administered vaccines that guard against the ferret version of distemper, in the hope that it might help protect the big cats from the canine strain. Additionally, employees use a bleach foot bath when entering and exiting the cats’ habitats to avoid tracking debris from one enclosure to another.

Williams said the sanctuary expects to break ground later this summer on an on-site veterinary clinic, where felines can receive medical treatment without leaving home. During last year’s distemper outbreak, the sanctuary had to transport its sick animals to a nearby vet in Wylie. The new clinic will also include space where infected animals could be quarantined. Last summer, In-Sync had to make do with makeshift quarantine areas.

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