For RyanAnne Naughton '13 of North Adams, Mass., this summer is the beginning of the dream of a lifetime. Captivated by big cats - such as lions, tigers and ocelots - ever since she can remember, she's spent the last few months serving an internship at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla.
Naughton, who will graduate with a degree in biology next spring, wants a career as a keeper for wild cats.
Her favorite is Natasha, a Syberian Lynx (pictured with Naughton, above), who was rescued from a fur farm. Another cat, an Asian leopard, is a retired circus performer who used to ride in a horse-drawn chariot.
"He never had a chance to play outside," Naughton explained. "Leopards are the tree climbers of the exotic cats, so we taught him to climb the tree in his enclosure by putting putting raw chicken in the low branches."
One of the sanctuary's 13 tigers came from a hoarder who kept 32 tigers and lions in his backyard. "When he couldn't afford them anymore, he abandoned them and his home. By the time Big Cat Rescue heard about these cats and got there to rescue the animals, there were only five alive. All the others had died from starvation and dehydration," Naughton said.
Others came from roadside zoos and "pay and pet" facilities. "These animals are declawed and defanged, tied down and drugged so that people can pay to have their picture taken petting a full-grown lion."
Next February, Naughton will begin a three-month internship at the African Lion Environmental Research and Trust (ALERT), which aims to rebuild Africa's dwindling lion population. Her job will be to interact with young lions up to 18 months of age, to form human-cat bonds through a variety of methods, including physical touch.
"As the animals get older, the human contact is removed. They are released onto a small reserve that has plenty of animals for them to hunt," she explained. "The cats are closely monitored, and once they have proven that they can hunt, reproduce and raise their offspring successfully, they are released into a much larger reserve and they will live as lions should. Keeping them on protected land keeps them safe from hunters."
In the meantime, Naughton will care for the smaller cats at Big Cat Rescue for the rest of this summer. The animals she's responsible for include bobcats, lynx and ocelots. She keeps them clean, feeds them and provides them with enrichment activities, which support their mental health and replace behaviors they would do in the wild.
Naughton also provides "operant conditioning," which consists of eight commands taught to the cats, such as "up," where they stand against the fence on their hind legs so she can check their belly for any visible health issues.
"We cut meat into small pieces and place it on a pointed, wooden stick. The stick also has a little clicker on it," she explained. "We give the cat a command, and when they do it, we click the clicker and provide it with a piece of meat."
Big Cat Rescue is a true sanctuary, she said, because it doesn't buy, sell, trade or breed cats. Although visitors may tour the facility, "People are never allowed to wander around. It's not a zoo."
Naughton says the best thing about her internship is the learning experience. "Every day I learn something new and do something new. The volunteers that have been here for a long time are great about sharing their wealth of knowledge. I even have the opportunity to learn how the vets care for the cats."
After graduation, she is willing to move anywhere to fulfill her dream - even Africa. "The big cats have a special place in my heart."