On Sunday 7th August 2016 I attended a group photography day at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent, led by photographer and WHF team member Alma Leaper.
We arrived at 8.45am ready for tea/coffee and a short briefing at 9am. It was then straight outside to go and see some big cats. First up was the Amur Tigers and it was a joy to watch mother and daughter, Ronja and Amasia, interacting with each other. Next door was Pan who skulked around and cooled off in his own mini pool.
After spending a good while with the tigers we moved on to the jaguars and it was quite overwhelming to watch these two incredibly beautiful yet powerful cats roaming their areas. Here we saw Alma demonstrate her enviable relationship with the felines for the first time and this continued throughout the day. Their responsiveness to her enabled a rare and privileged opportunity to see a different side to the cats. As she threw them raw meat treats they eagerly yet humbly accepted them. If they came too close to the mesh she somehow was able to command them to back away.
At no time were the cats coerced into doing anything they didn't want to do. First and foremost, the peaceful site is there to provide a sanctuary to the amazing feline residents. Yet through appropriate care and attention there is a very evident mutual respect between the cats and the team that looks after them.
One thing that was so nice about the day is that it didn't feel rushed at all. We had a good amount of time with each of the cats so that we could not only take photos, but also truly appreciate them. Of course I had attended the day in order to take photos I wouldn't have otherwise been able to get, but once there it was as much about enjoying the experience of being so close to these magnificent creatures as the photography.
The white lion pride was typically chilled as was Narnia, the white tiger. Moving on to the Sumatran Tigers and Puna was very eager to show us some activity. She certainly wasn't camera shy and was happy to go and collect her pieces of meat wherever they landed. Before lunch there was just time to go and see Griffin, the Caracal and finally the Pallas cats, Jethro and Tula. What a busy morning we'd had and there was still so much to look forward to.
Lunch was a delicious buffet including my favourite indulgence, carrot cake. I just couldn't resist and am so glad I didn't. After all, we all deserve a little treat now and again and it did not disappoint. Rested and refuelled we wasted no time in heading back outside to see more cats - there were still so many more to see.
The afternoon session kicked off with a visit to the Puma area, where we were delighted by Valentina and Viktoria. We then spent some time with Jack the Jungle Cat before falling in love with the majestic African lions, Manzi, Kafara and Tiny.
It was then on to the delightful Fishing Cat before we were all captivated by the Cheetahs. So different to the other big cats the cheetahs strutted slowly around like proper catwalk models. As with the all the cats up to this point I found myself putting down the camera to simply watch and take in their beautiful faces and elegant movement. I really did appreciate the time spent at the sanctuary and didn't want to walk away only remembering what I saw through the viewfinder. I tried to soak up the whole experience as much as possible because I knew it would be quite a while before I could do it again.
One of the moments I had been waiting for was to see the leopards. They have always been one of my favourite big cats. Their markings are simply stunning and they have such adorable faces. It's easy to forget how dangerous the big cats can be at times, they remind me so much of my own cats. In my mind I could just give them all a big cuddle.
Nuwara, a rusty spotted cat, was the biggest surprise of the day, in that she was so tiny and much like my youngest Kenya, what she lacked in size she more than made up for in attitude and speed. She proved to be the biggest challenge to photograph as she didn't keep still for a second. The day ended with Petra the Lynx and finally the playful Serval Cats, Jua and Samia.
Alma was a fantastic host for the day offering interesting insights to all the cats as well as useful tips on photography. At first it can seem expensive to book a day such as this, but I believe it is worth every penny. I have such wonderful memories of the day and would definitely recommend it.
Located in the Kent countryside, the Wildlife Heritage Foundation Big Cat Sanctuary is home to many endangered cats and is not open to the general public, except through a range of special experience days. These help to provide necessary funds to support the charity in its vision to assist in the conservation of the world’s big cats.
To find out more about the Big Cat Sanctuary and the experiences they offer, you can visit their website www.whf.org.uk.
For more photos from my day, check out the Wildlife page of my website.
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