I first visited the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent two years ago at one of their annual open days. Not normally open to the general public, the site opens its doors for four days a year in the summer, an excellent opportunity to get a feel for what this wonderful charity is all about.
It's fair to say that that one initial visit had me hooked. I returned a few weeks later on a group photography day. With the crowds gone, I could truly appreciate how special this site is. In a group of 6 accompanied by lead photographer, Alma Leaper, we took a leisurely tour around all the enclosures. We were all there to take photos of the cats, but it was impossible to ignore how incredible an experience it was to be so close to these beautiful animals in such a peaceful environment.
I returned again a few months later on a one-to-one photography day and once more for a big cat encounter, which I purchased for my mum's birthday. It was her first visit to the sanctuary and as part of the experience she hand fed two of the cats: hybrid tiger, Kushka and black jaguar, Athena.
My most recent visit was on the fairly new Cheetah Experience. This exclusive encounter allows the opportunity to join the keepers inside the cheetah house to learn about their training and be closer to these cats than ever before.
The day began with Caroline, who took us on a personal tour of the sanctuary. Having been a few times before now, we know the site quite well, but it's lovely to gain different insights. Like all staff and volunteers we have met, Caroline was very friendly and enthusiastic about her role.
The timing of our visit also meant the added bonus of meeting the sanctuary's newest residents, jaguar cub, Maya and cheetah cub, Willow, both stars of the BBC2 series Big Cats About the House. They are both exquisite young cats and a joy to watch, so full of energy and enthusiasm.
While I could have stood and watched the cubs all day, I was keen to catch up with all the others. I've often thought about who my favourite would be and I just can't pick. From tiny Nuwara, the rusty spotted cat, to Hogar the leopard and through to mighty Kasanga the lion, there are too many gorgeous personalities to single one out.
For the cheetah training we were joined by Charlotte who escorted us into Bajrami's enclosure. Bajrami, we learned, is Willow's father. Standing quietly with Caroline, we watched as Charlotte ran through the training that helps to familiarise the cheetahs for routine check-ups. Bajrami came close to us and stood within 1-2 feet.
It's not easy to explain how amazing it felt to be so close to Bajrami inside his enclosure. It was a privilege to be allowed to share his space and looking at him you cannot help but feel the utmost respect.
Next we went into Keene and Martin's enclosure, who are Bajrami's brothers. The two were given small pieces of meat and again encouraged to come close to us. Whether used to people or simply preoccupied by their treats, they paid us little attention, allowing us to freely observe them and enjoy being in their presence.
Finally, we got to hand feed Murphy who has a very feisty character and prefers his own company. Born at Fota Safari Park, Ireland, Murphy is being treated for a neurological condition. Unlike the other bigger cats who are hand fed high as they stand on their hind legs, this is not appropriate for cheetahs, so we put the food lower down the mesh.
Murphy was on the other side of the enclosure and had to be called over to us. At first I wasn't sure if he was going to be interested, but when he realised what was going on he came over. He took the food so gently I hardly noticed him do it. You would expect it to be snatched out of your hand but that just wasn't the case.
Once the experience itself was finished, it wasn't all over as a delicious buffet lunch was included overlooking lion brothers, Kafara and Tiny. I've had lunch before on the photography days and it's always of a very high standard comprising sandwiches, fruit and delicious cake. There's usually too much for us to eat but we do our best as it's so yummy.
Compared to a regular zoo, it is expensive to visit the Big Cat Sanctuary, unless of course you take advantage of one of the open days. They say you get what you pay for though and I believe an experience day there is worth every penny. It's a totally different way to see these beautiful animals and I have such wonderful memories of each and every visit.
The money raised through the experiences they offer is used to look after the cats there and to help fund larger conservation projects. You can also support them by becoming a member or by adopting one of the cats. Both options grant access to special members and adopters afternoons, another way to visit the sanctuary and its residents.
To find out more about the Big Cat Sanctuary, you can visit their website http://thebigcatsanctuary.org.
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