“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” — A.A. Milne
It is just past 5 a.m. in the morning as the dawn begins to inch the sun upward, lighting the sky an aqua blue.
A slight hint of orange at the horizon turns to a tint of yellow as the aqua blue creeps higher displacing the darker indigo of the night. Slowly becoming lighter with every passing minute; an ensemble of crickets and the whistles, chirps and shrills of an array of birds accompanies the scene.
At first there is a shadow; just an outline and a sense of movement. As the colors continue to slowly embrace the sky the light gives shape to a large, sleek and graceful feline meandering back and forth at the back of his enclosure. A gentle breeze carries the chuffing sound of the tiger, patiently waiting as the day starts, knowing that breakfast time is coming soon.
A rooster crowing in the distance joins the melody. Trickling water from the tiger’s pond adds a harmonious background, infusing a sense of peace and calm. As the light stretches further more birds join the chorus. The bark of a single dog heralds in several others. The dogs become louder barking in reply to one another, then suddenly the baritone timbre of a lion’s majestic roar permeates the air with strength and authority. The din grows for a few moments, the dogs barking and the lion announcing his presence; then in another moment they all fall quiet again.
The birds continue, paying no mind to the lion’s proclamation. The tiger ceases his rhythmic pacing, flops down on the ground, and yawns.
The sun rises higher adding orange to the underside of the wispy clouds.
So begins another day at Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary.
Where It All Began
Kay McElroy and her life-long friend, Cheryl Craig grew up in Oklahoma. Never did they imagine then that building a sanctuary was to become their life’s calling.
It all started back in 1987. Kay was reading the local Sunday paper. “I love the classified adds when I get a newspaper all I read are the classifieds.” Kay said. She recalls the headline, “Six-month-old cougar cub for sale. $1,000.00.” Out of curiosity Kay went to see the cougar. “I will never forget it as long as I live.” she said.
What she found that day both broke her heart, and shaped her future. A little cougar cub, housed in a small dog pen, and almost starved to death. His paws were terribly infected from a botched declaw job. He was in pain and despondent.
Kay had just moved to Mississippi and could not afford to buy the cougar. “I told the guy that I had a tractor that I would trade for the cub.” recounts Kay. But the owner refused, wanting the money. Kay let him know where to find her, should he change his mind.
Two weeks later he arrived with the cougar chained in the front seat of his truck ready to make the trade. Kay suddenly had a cougar, named Zack. “After days of phone calls trying to find Zack a home at a zoo, I came to the realization that I either had to build an enclosure for him or have him euthanized.” said Kay. Zack was the first resident of what was to become Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary.
One After Another
After Zack, others followed. One after another, animals needing sanctuary started coming to Cedarhill. The pair discovered cats in deplorable conditions, each story more heartbreaking than the last.
Kay recalls the story of a lion they found in Memphis. “We were on our way to pick up a cougar from the airport and we saw a sign that said, ‘Hear the lion roar .25 cents.’, So we stopped on the way back. He was living in a chicken pen.” Kay pauses, choked by the emotional memory and unable to finish. Cheryl takes over the story for her. “He used to live in the back of an ice truck with welded wire on the front” Cheryl describes the place as “selling velvet Elvis and rebel towels, it was just a kind of roadside junk sale.” There was nothing Kay and Cheryl could do for that cat that day, but a few months later the owners called Cedarhill and asked if they would take the lion. Of course, they did.
Another lion, rescued from Michigan, had been kept in a cage in an abandoned dairy barn where there was no light. He had never seen sunshine until he came to Cedarhill. Kay recounted, “We’ve got two tigers we took in who had lived in a garage all their lives. The first time they touched the ground was here. They were amazed, they just ran and ran. They’d never ran before.
At first Kay and Cheryl thought they could simply find a better place for these animals, and facilitate their transportation. But they soon realized there simply was no such place. They began to understand the magnitude of the horrible plight of exotic animals in the United States. There are no federal laws and at the time, only seven states had any laws controlling the breeding, selling and trading of exotic animals.
Concerned for these animals prompted Kay to spend 4 years getting a law passed in Mississippi and her hard work paid off. Legislation passed outlawing canned hunts, exotic auctions and requires the registration of all exotics with the State Game and Wildlife Department. Cedarhill got its USDA license, and became accredited by The Association of Sanctuaries and The American Sanctuary Association. “I did it for my own sanctuary but it helped a lot of animals in the meantime.” said Kay.
Spend any time with the caretakers at Cedarhill and you soon realize this is not a job, it’s a passion. The staff know the name of every single animal at the sanctuary, and can tell you the story of each one of them. This place is special and while everyone at Cedarhill will tell you it is always about the animals, it is indeed also because of these dedicated people that the sanctuary exists.
Currently Cedarhill is home to 10 tigers, as well as lions, bobcats, cougars, 6 pot belly pigs, dogs, rabbits, 7 horses, including 2 miniatures, 5 exotic birds and around 200 regular domestic cats, 50 of them senior or disabled. The sanctuary houses between 280 – 320 animals on any given day. Along with daily feeding and cleaning, with that many animals, vet visits are also usually a daily necessity.
The morning rituals begin with feeding everyone. The little cats are playing, some are sitting, watchful for signs of breakfast. The golf cart has been loaded up with food for the lions. Even with most of the residents now awake it is still very quiet. Claire McDougall, one of Cedarhill’s exotic animal caretakers is preparing to bring breakfast around for the big cats. Even though Kathy Kitchens, who cares for the little cats, is already fixing their breakfast, a couple of clever little felines decide that what is being loaded onto the golf cart is a much better option as they attempt to secure some of the lion’s breakfast for themselves.
Valentino lays waiting patiently. The other lions are pacing and licking their lips. Zeus rubs his head on the side of the enclosure like an excited kitten. They know what is coming They are creatures of habit and they enjoy the familiar routine. The big cats come into their lock up to eat. Valentino takes his sweet time, so casual and in no hurry at all. Sheeba is more aggressive about her food and growls to warn you to keep away – she’s not sharing!
After the feeding and cleaning, preparation for the next day starts all over again. Different staff have specific roles at the sanctuary. There are people who only take care of the dogs, or the cats, the exotics, or grounds keeping and maintenance, etc. The animals know their caretakers, they are used to their routines.
“We have a great staff, all these people when they go home for the day they worry about these animals.” remarks Cheryl. “I tell people this is a great job to have, if you don’t mind 110 degrees in the summer and 20 degrees in the winter. If you can tolerate that, you will love the job. The people we have here do more than just tolerate it, they are devoted to their job – it is the animals they are devoted to.” she explains.
Cedarhill Animal sanctuary, Inc., was founded in 1990 to serve as caretaker for abandoned, abused, homeless and neglected exotic and domestic felines. All of this takes money, of course. Monthly expenses at Cedarhill are around $50,000 dollars. Cedarhill is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization. They receive no government funding and rely solely on tax-deductible donations from individuals and private institutions. The sanctuary survives on small donations by ordinary people. “We don’t have any corporate sponsorship, we don’t have any government sponsorship of any type. Just people who love animals just like we do.” said Cheryl.
Nancy Gschwendtner, Cedarhill’s Executive Director, spends most of her time working to fund the sanctuary. She talks about the responsibility of the sanctuary and the necessity for them to continue each day. “We have to be committed. It is a 365 day job, there is no holiday. You have to just be there every single day – that is a huge commitment.”
Cedarhill is more financially troubled right now than in years past due to several of their long-time supporters having passed away. Operating month to month is a challenge, but necessary, as this is home for over 300 animals who rely on the sanctuary to continue to provide for and protect them. They are grateful for contributions, large or small, which are vital to the continued treatment, rehabilitation, and support of the animals in their care.
A true sanctuary in every sense of the word. Cedarhill is not open to the public which can make fund raising a challenge.
They frequently receive comments such as “I won’t donate if I can’t have a tour.” People can be reluctant to donate if they do not understand what a sanctuary is and they want to be able to see the animals.
A sanctuary is a place where animals get to live peacefully and be protected for the rest of their lives. A safe haven, where they no longer suffer at the hands of those who would mistreat them. They are not on display for the entertainment or profit of humans. They are given every opportunity to behave naturally in a safe environment.
Many of the animals residing at Cedarhill came from horrible situations. Bringing them to live at the sanctuary comes with the unwavering promise to provide a place to heal both physically and emotionally from the horrors they have endured by letting them live out the remainder of their lives in peaceful existence. Cedarhill lives up to that promise.
“We do not let people in because these animals have been severely abused and we do not want to subject them to more abuse or stress.” said Nancy.
While opening to the public would bring in much needed funds, that would go against their core values of not exploiting their animals and allowing them to live worry free.
The Art of the Tiger
One of the more recent and creative ways Cedarhill hope to help fund the sanctuary is by selling tiger paintings. That is, paintings created by the actual tigers themselves!
Using flat canvas so the paintings can be easily framed, and non toxic children’s paint Katelyn Booth, one of Cedarhill’s animal caretakers, is now also the resident art curator. She tapes the canvas down in the tigers’ lock up and puts drops of color on the canvas. Then she lets the big cats in to play.
“We had a female tiger that used to pick up a stick and make drawings in her enclosure but we could not figure out how to transfer that onto paper. So we had been thinking about this sort of thing for a while. Then Katelyn, figured out a way to do the paintings.” Nancy explained.
The tigers seem to really enjoy themselves, although it’s not clear if they prefer expressionism, impressionism, or if they simply just like getting messy!
It is hoped that this new fund raising project will appeal to cat lovers who would like to gain a connection to these elegant felines, while at the same time helping to fund their care by owning a piece of their one-of-a-kind artwork. The tigers’ paintings can be purchased online through Cedarhill’s Etsy store and they will have some available at the Mississippi Craft Show in August.
Even though Kay, Cheryl and Nancy must cope with the continued worry of how to keep the sanctuary operating, as the sun sets each day there is a tremendous feeling of tranquility at Cedarhill. This is a calming and soulful place. The animals who live there are truly at peace. When the dawn returns again each morning bringing with it rain, hail or shine over 300 souls will rely on Cedarhill for their continued care and feeding. That responsibility must be met, in the striking heat of summer and the chilling cold of winter, every single day without fail, the dedicated team at Cedarhill give their time, energy and care to their animal family 365 days a year. Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary will go on, because it simply must.
By Miranda Jordan
Taken from Magnolia State of Mind 2016 edition. The official magazine of the Mississippi Craft Show. www.magnoliastateofmind.com
Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary | Caledonia
About the Mississippi Craft Show
Mississippi Craft Show – August. The state’s only 100% Mississippi Handmade art and craft show. Featuring handworks from Mississippi craftsmen. www.mscraftshow.com
Handmade USA Show – March. The same quality handworks you expect at the August show from Mississippi craftsmen and also from across the region. All 100% handmade in the USA. www.handmadeusashow.com