Afien and lion Bobby

taking care of traumatized big cats

Afien Groenhof-Westra is an animal caretaker at FELIDA Big Cat Centre


From an early age, it was clear to Afien Groenhof-Westra that she was going to work with animals. Since June 2017, she works as an animal caretaker at FELIDA Big Cat Centre, a FOUR PAWS sanctuary in the Netherlands. Working at a sanctuary for rescued and traumatized animals is extra special for Afien because this work contributes to the welfare of animals: Every day, she makes the lives of the big cats at FELIDA a little better. In this blog, Afien talks about the specialized care needed for newly rescued animals, especially lions Bobby and Lenci.

Two special lions

“For years, Bobby and Lenci have lived in a small cage on a concrete floor in an illegal private zoo in Albania. Here, the animals lacked everything: good nutrition and care, company, places to hide from all weather conditions, enrichment and rest. In May 2019, they arrived at our sanctuary after a long journey of 52 hours. They immediately stood out: Bobby with his battered nose and Lenci with his asymmetrical face. When we released the lions in their enclosures, it immediately became clear how tired they were: From the trip, but probably from everything they had been through so far. They did not trust us and did not dare come near us. It was obvious that they had been through a lot in their lives, and urgently needed specialized care.”

Release of Bobby and Lenci at FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary:

Building up trust

“As soon as new animals arrive, the most important thing is that they get to know their indoor and outdoor enclosures well. This was also the case for Bobby and Lenci because everything was new to them: the platforms, the hiding places, the trees, the surfaces such as sand and grass, the smells and sounds of the other animals in FELIDA, and of course ourselves. It differs per animal how quickly they will adjust to their new home. To help new animals feel safe as much as possible, we as animal caretakers must also be very aware of ourselves. For example, we announce when we are approaching so that the animals are not frightened, and they know what is happening and get used to our voices. We also take our posture into account, so that we do not make any unexpected or rapid movements that can scare them. Once Bobby and Lenci started to feel a bit more comfortable, it was time to get them used to our routine, like when it was feeding time. This is all done in very small steps. We do not force anything because it is important that they feel safe and trust us. We also started ‘positive reinforcement training’ soon after their arrival. These training helped, and still help Bobby and Lenci today, to feel more confident and to trust us. We started with the basics: offering small pieces of meat with special feeding tweezers. We then built this up more and more; like teaching them specific commands on which we, for example, open or close the sliding door of the indoor enclosure.”

Afien at work at FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary:

Predators do not show weaknesses

“When Bobby and Lenci had gained sufficient strength after several weeks of intensive care and good nutrition, it was time for a medical check-up by our veterinarian. Sometimes health problems are difficult to identify during observations, especially when a disease is in its early stage because in principle predators never show their weakness. But with Bobby and Lenci, who had lived in poor conditions for years, it was clear that they each had their own health problems. During the first veterinary check, it was confirmed that Bobby was suffering from a serious urinary tract infection. We already suspected this, because in the first weeks he was with us he was incontinent, and we could see that the skin around his hind legs and belly was red and raw. Fortunately, our vet was able to treat him for this. It also became clear that he is suffering from chronic kidney failure. Kidney failure cannot be cured, but we can support Bobby’s kidneys with medication. We monitor him closely every day: how much does he drink? How do the urine and feces look? How is his appetite? How active is he? In this way, we can immediately respond to changes in his health.”

Adjusted care

“The adjusted care for Lenci is another story. Most likely since he always lived on a very small surface with barely any space to move, he has developed back problems. This led to a herniated disc not long after he arrived at FELIDA. This was a nerve-wracking time because we did not know whether and to what extent Lenci would recover from this. Fortunately, he showed us once again what a fighter he is. He managed to pull himself through this difficult time. However, his back will always remain a weak spot, and it cannot be ruled out that a herniated disc will never come back. That is why Lenci only has low platforms in his enclosure with small steps to relieve his back. Also, with all his enrichment elements and training sessions, we ensure that he does not have to strain his back.”

Afien and lion Bobby

Afien and lion Bobby during positive reinforcement training

Peace at last

“Although both lions still require intensive and specialized care daily due to their health problems, they have made enormous progress since their arrival. The stressed and scared lions they were, in the beginning, are nowhere to be seen. For example, Bobby prefers to relax in his hammock all day long. Enrichment is not his ‘cup of tea’ (unless this is in the form of a ‘blood popsicle’), but he likes to get out of his hammock for training. He is then very enthusiastic and focused. Bobby is eager to learn, which is why it is great fun to train him and to take it one step further every time. For example, we teach him an “up” move, in which he has to put his front paws against the fence so that we can have a close look at the soles and nails. If we then see something that is not right, we can keep an eye on it without the immediate need for a veterinarian. Although Lenci also really likes the training, he is mostly a fan of enrichment. He is very curious about all kinds of enrichment, but mostly everything that can be demolished is very popular with him: It is nice to see how he enjoys this. Bobby and Lenci feel at ease, trust us, and have become very confident. It is so great to hear their confident roars in the morning. But perhaps the best part of all, is that they remain stretched out with their eyes closed while we are standing in front of the enclosure. This means they feel safe and have finally found peace.”

Bobby and Lenci feeling safe and at peace:

Afien Groenhof-Westra

Animal Caretaker FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary

Afien Groenhof-Westra is Animal Caretaker at FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary and works for FOUR PAWS since June 2017.

"I enjoy seeing the progress of our rescued animals by doing daily observations and training. All our big cats are special to me, yet the animal that amazes me the most is our lion Lenci. After everything he has been through he has made an amazing recovery. It is great to be part of this."

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