In 2014 we saw Giles Clark living with tigers in Australia. Now he’s brought a new big cat home – to Kent! Here’s a diary of his day…
I try to catch Maya with a bottle of milk when she’s still asleep. She came to us here at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent from another zoo, where her mother wasn’t as diligent as she should have been, and she was lethargic, losing weight, and dehydrated.
Hand-raising her makes it convenient to provide 24-hour care, which is crucial while she’s young and emotionally dependent, but I would never suggest she would make a good pet – she’s a wild animal, and I have a lot of expertise.
Maya comes to work with me, and there’s a cabin on site where I can stay with her when she’s too big to be at home. I’ve been here as the managing director for about 22 months. After 18 years working in zoos abroad, mostly in Australia, I’m back home in the UK.
We have about 50 cats in total from 15 different species, with seven keepers and twice as many support staff, and educators leading private tours from schools, businesses, and organisations like the Women’s Institute. We aren’t open to the public, like a zoo, but we rely on funding. I help on the cleaning and feeding rounds when I can.
Maya has about two feeds a day, but when she was smaller she had to be fed every three hours. She eats lots of raw meat – it was things like chicken and beef mince when she was a baby, but now she’s plucking and skinning things herself. She used to be carried around in a cat box, but now she’s quarantined from the others.
Sometimes she’ll go into other enclosures to get a sense and smell of adult jaguars, but on the whole, they’re cats who like their own space. She’s eight months old now; in a couple of months’ time we’ll start reducing the frequency of my interaction with her.
Our vet often comes down for an afternoon to do multiple sessions with the cats. Because they live longer than they would in the wild, their ailments are different – they’re affected by things like arthritis, dental problems, kidney and renal issues. There are four pillars to what we do here: maintaining and improving the welfare of our resident cats, contributing to a coordinated breeding programme, creating awareness and education about the animals and, most importantly, generating support and resources for in-situ conservation.
Every animal here is an ambassador for its wild counterparts, and Maya has already helped to fund resources for jaguar projects at the University of Costa Rica. It’s not about re-introducing these cats to the wild, but ensuring the future of the species.
At home, Maya has her favourite spot on the beanbag in the lounge, but mostly she has free rein. We leave towels on the floor and we’ve made the house jaguar-proof. The mess is a lot like if you had a puppy – fortunately the downstairs isn’t carpeted!
When it comes to going to the toilet, jaguar mothers lick their cub’s backside to stimulate movement, so when Maya was small we’d emulate that with a bit of gauze, dangling her over a bucket. 11pm Maya sleeps a lot, but it can take 40 minutes to get her into bed. We’ll try to play with her intensely to tire her out until she crashes.
When she was a baby she had to be fed through the night, and I’d average about five hours’ sleep if I was lucky!
As told to Sarah Carson
Big Cats about the House is on Thursday 8.00pm BBC2