- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

WYLIE, Texas (AP) - The 10 new tigers that arrived last week at the In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue and Education Center are a sorry-looking crew. They’re skinny and scared, still disoriented by transport, wary of their new surroundings.

One female with an inexplicably broken paw hops awkwardly inside her enclosure. Several have had their tails docked. A sweet but painfully underweight male named Cincinnati has big hairless spots and ugly raw lesions on his legs.

But these are problems In-Sync knows how to fix. The sanctuary’s staff and volunteers are old hands at rehabilitating exotic cats who have either been confiscated from abusive owners or, like the newest residents, surrendered by other facilities that found them too much to handle.

As run down as some of these poor animals look, they represent new life for the rescue center. They’re the first new residents since an outbreak of a dog disease - canine distemper - killed seven animals: six tigers and a lion.

It was a terrible summer. Previously healthy animals turned lethargic and stopped eating. The sickest suffered from delirium and violent seizures. At the worst of the outbreak, the deaths were only a few days apart.

In-Sync founder and owner Vicky Keahey is a tough, pragmatic woman, but her emotional tie to the animals she cares for is intense. Tacoma, the first tiger she ever rescued, was the outbreak’s final victim.

“I lost the love of my life,” she said - a plain statement of fact that her husband and adult son will readily forgive - and wiped away a stray tear. “Every time we thought we were getting through it, something else happened.”

Canine distemper, or CDV, is a measles-like virus that is deadly to dogs but can also strike other species, including ferrets, pandas and raccoons. Exotic felines are especially vulnerable, because existing vaccines are designed for other species and aren’t consistently effective for big cats.

A CDV outbreak in a San Fernando, Calif., wildlife facility killed 17 exotic cats in 1994. That same year, an outbreak in Tanzania killed an estimated 1,000 lions in the wild - one-third the population at Serengeti National Park. More recent outbreaks have affected the rapidly dwindling numbers of wild tigers in India.

The virus was probably carried to In-Sync by an infected raccoon. And while the deaths of so many gorgeous animals were a cruel loss, it’s astonishing that so many more survived.

A total of 22 animals - about a third of the In-Sync population - tested positive for the virus during the outbreak. While operating public tours, conducting fundraising activities and keeping planned building projects on track, the staff, interns and volunteers also nursed some of the sickest tigers around the clock.

“We’d be up feeding until 3 a.m.,” Keahey said. A veterinary specialist created a regimen of medications and vitamins for each of the stricken animals, many of whom had to be babied and cajoled to eat.

“We used ice cream, whipped topping, steak - anything that would get the meds down them,” Keahey told The Dallas Morning News (https://dallasne.ws/1g3m5pJ ). The center put out a public plea for exotic game - anything to tempt a reluctant tiger - and donors responded with axis deer, bison, gazelle and emu meat.

The sickest tigers had to be kept sedated to stop their seizures. A makeshift intensive-care unit was set up in the building normally used as a visitor center, and volunteers cared for them around the clock.

A sedated tiger, like an unconscious human patient, must be turned from one side to the other every four to six hours to avoid circulatory problems and compression sores.

Turning over an adult tiger takes a half-dozen sturdy volunteers. Every night, 25 to 30 volunteers pulled all-nighters, some of them going off to their day jobs with no sleep.

The last death, Tacoma’s, was in late August. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the last affected animal, a lively female tiger named Kshama, tested negative for the virus.

With that clean bill of health, the center was again open to new rescues, and the requests for new placements began pouring in. As always, In-Sync is a full hotel with a long waiting list.

Because the virus’ effect on exotic cats still isn’t well-understood - scientists aren’t sure, for instance, why lions, tigers and cougars are susceptible but other large felines aren’t - researchers took an interest in In-Sync’s outbreak. The center provided veterinary researchers at Tufts University in Boston with data and specimens that could lead to better vaccine protocols.

“Realistically, there will never be a vaccine made specifically for tigers,” Keahey said, since there aren’t enough tigers in the world to interest pharmaceutical companies in research and production costs.

“But what I’m hoping is that they’ll come up with something that will work for multiple species. Tacoma could help with that.”

In the meantime, life is more or less normal again: Workers clean enclosures, prepare meals, distribute large and gory-looking bones. They coax lions and tigers along a complicated system of fenced gates and walkways between their home enclosures and one of the big fenced-and-roofed playgrounds. And they start the long, patient business of easing in newcomers into their new and permanent home.

“Come back in a year,” Keahey said, as we regarded the rail-thin but friendly Cincinnati.

It’s an invitation she has offered me before: Come see what a year of love and expert care does for a sick, skinny, scared lion or tiger.

Animals and people, we suffer from sickness and loss. We grieve. And life goes on.


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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