As a little girl, Erin Liewes always dreamed of a job as an animal caretaker and big cats have always been her favorite animals. At the FOUR PAWS sanctuary FELIDA Big Cat Centre in the Netherlands, Erin has been working as a caretaker for all the rescued big cats since June 2014. A dream come true!
However, caring for big cats is hard work, both physically and mentally. Tasks such as scrubbing and cleaning are on top of the to-do list every day, and rescued animals often arrive in critical condition, something that is not always easy to witness. Yet, Erin carries out her work with a lot of passion and love daily, and she finds nothing better than experiencing the development of a rescued animal firsthand. In this blog, she takes you ‘behind the scenes’ to show you what a day of an animal caretaker is all about.
Powerful animals with different backgrounds
“I got to know FOUR PAWS as an incredibly beautiful organization that is committed to different animal species worldwide. After graduating in Wildlife Management, I was given the opportunity to work as an animal caretaker for this organization and I immediately said ‘yes’. Over the years, my love for big cats has only grown stronger. I find them beautiful animals: they are mysterious, and they radiate strength. Especially at FELIDA Big Cat Centre, you have to deal with big cats that all have their own ‘story’. They need specialized and intensive care due to their traumatic past, and it is fantastic to be able to contribute to their care and to see how the animals continue to grow stronger after they arrive at our sanctuary.”
Check, observe and analyze
“Because working with big cats is not without risks, we start each morning with a check round on-site. We check all locks and the condition of the enclosures, after which we clean the outdoor enclosures. We clean up the feces and analyze it as well. This is very important, because it can reveal something about the health condition of the animal. Does the animal have diarrhea or did it not poop for several days? Are there pieces of undigested meat, or are parasites visible? In addition to that, we check whether the meat from the previous day has been eaten, what the urine looks like and whether we encounter any unusual things, such as vomit, blood or large strands of hair. Water basins and swimming pools are scrubbed and refilled with fresh water, and we remove all old enrichment items after which we put down or hang up new enrichment. When we are done, we close everything carefully, check this again and then we let the animals outside. We then immediately walk alongside all enclosures and observe how the animals react to the provided enrichment. Enrichment stimulates the animals to exhibit natural behavior, and it challenges them both mentally and physically, often causing a ‘satisfied’ feeling. We try out new enrichment, but we also know exactly what our animals like best. For example, Dehli is crazy about everything that contains fish, Lenci loves to tear up cardboard rolls and boxes, Terez finds melons very entertaining, Ivan-Asen and Bobby especially like the blood popsicles. We also observe which general behaviors our animals display. Animals with traumatic experiences from the past often exhibit behavioral problems, and it is crucial that we recognize them in time and respond to them.
We then prepare the needed medication and hide the medicines in small pieces of meat, which we give with long feeding tweezers. In this way, we can be sure that each animal takes its needed medication. When we have observed all the animals and provided them with their daily medication, it is time to clean their indoor enclosures. We provide a cozy, warm place with hay where they can sleep, and we clean and fill the water bowls. Here too, we check whether there are feces or abnormalities.
In addition to these daily cleaning tasks, there are also weekly cleaning rounds on each zone on-site. For example, one day we wipe all ditches with soapy water, the next day we weed weeds, and the day after that we refresh all foot trays with new disinfectant, because hygiene is very important to us!”
2018: Erin Timmer does positive reinforcement training with tiger Rhadja
Trust and self-confidence
“After our lunch break, when everything is clean, we prepare the meat for the feeding round. The meat is weighed per animal and provided with vitamin and mineral supplements. We also prepare some ‘training meat’, after which we clean the kitchen again.
In principle, we do positive reinforcement trainings with the animals on a daily basis, but we do look at several factors such as the health of the animal: when an animal is feeling sick, there is no training. We train our animals for various reasons. We never do any tricks, but only positive reinforcement trainings. Firstly, it ensures safety because the animals learn basic commands that we use for them when they need to go inside or outside. This ensures calmness because the animal understands what is happening. Furthermore, we create a positive bond with the animals, which builds trust. With the training we reduce stress and breakthrough stereotypical behavior. It also helps the animals to develop self-confidence, something that is often lacking due to their traumatic past. Finally, training is very valuable for certain moments. For example, we have already successfully trained various big cats to walk into a transport crate themselves, so that no anesthesia was required during transport. We also had a tiger, Rhadja, who was terrified of the vet's dart gun: thanks to our medical training, we taught him to lie next to the fence, so that we could vaccinate him by hand under the vet's watchful eye, and this saved him a lot of stress.
At the end of the afternoon, before we start feeding the animals, there is some time for other activities such as on-site maintenance work, making enrichment for the next days or filling out our registration system. We record everything that we do and observe. What did the feces look like? What enrichment was given and how did the animal react to this? How many kilos of meat and what medication has an animal received? Because our big cats all have a unique background and require intensive care, it is beneficial to be able to look back into our system. For example, if we notice that an animal is not feeling so well, we can find out exactly what the feces looked like in the past few days or whether there has been a change in the diet or eating behavior. Moreover, our veterinarians can have access to the same data, which is very valuable.”
Happiness lies in the small things
“Although we have regular activities every day, no two days are the same. When working with wild and traumatized animals, you always have to be flexible and able to respond to changes. Sometimes the veterinarian has to come, and then I assist during the veterinary checks or surgeries. You can always find a challenge in this work. What I like the most is to see the positive changes in our rescued big cats, that tell us they feel safe and at ease, usually for the first time in their lives. It is often the little things: a tiger that dares to close its eyes in the outdoor enclosure for the first time and therefore no longer feels the need to be alert. A lion who has lived on a concrete floor for years and finally learns what it is like to have fun by tearing up a cardboard enrichment into a thousand pieces. A leopard who dares to walk into the indoor enclosure without the fear of being trapped. Over the years, I have cared for many different animals, and they all have their own individual characteristics. Getting to know them and contributing to their well-being is the best thing there is.”
Erin and leopard Bakari in LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary
Icing on the cake
“When an animal is strong enough, both mentally and physically, it can be transferred to LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary, our sanctuary in South Africa. When this happens, it is the icing on the cake! In November 2016, I accompanied the transport of leopard Bakari. In the beginning, Bakari was a scared and frustrated animal that continuously attacked the sliding doors. We then started with intensive positive reinforcement training, and we saw him slowly but surely change into a beautiful, playful and confident leopard. Bakari was very responsive to my voice and seemed to like it when I was around. For that reason, I was given the honor to accompany him to his new forever home in LIONSROCK. I stayed there for three weeks to ensure a good handover. When I saw him at the top of the highest treetops, enjoying the African sun on his body, it was hard to believe how scared and frustrated he once felt. And that is why we do what we do.”