Respecting animals’ capabilities is the No 1 rule


My job is to ensure the cats have everything they need, from a good enclosure to fresh meat.

We have 56 animals spanning 14 species – including tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs and pumas – and they all have different needs and different temperaments.

The biggest cats, such as the tigers and lions, are generally the most relaxed animals because they’re naturally at the top of the food chain, while slightly smaller cats like the leopards are more aggressive and skittish at times. That said, it’s important to stay safe and the No 1 rule is having respect for their capabilities and knowing what they could do: it’s not about contact, it’s about proximity; even a paw through the wire could do a lot of damage. At the sanctuary we have an enclosure for the big cats, then a space called the stand-off area a few meters back with another lower fence behind it to keep the public away.

For feeding and veterinary care, the cats are brought into a housing area, which is separated from the main enclosure by a light sliding mesh door and another more solid drop-down door, each with two locks. Aside from obvious safety reasons – none of us are ever in the enclosure at the same time as the big cats – the doors prevent the animals from seeing us in “their space” while we clean it.

Health and safety in zoos and animal sanctuaries is the responsibility of the local council. At least every year we get a drop-in inspection from the local council and an external veterinarian, and a full inspection every six years and interim inspections every three years. Our staff is well trained and we follow stringent safety procedures, but it’s important to stay vigilant – never say never.

Rebecca Porter is head keeper of the Wildlife Heritage Foundation Big Cat Sanctuary in Headcorn, Kent