Last weekend I took my 4-year-old son to an Easter egg hunt. Like most events of the kind, it involved a basket and brightly colored plastic eggshells. And candy, lots and lots of candy. The difference? The hunt took place inside a tiger habitat. (Thankfully, the tigers were not in it at the time.)
We were at In-Sync Exotics, a non-profit rescue for large cats in Wylie, Texas. Here they care for lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, and a host of other animals. The overwhelming majority of the animals at In-Sync are rescues from breeders, sellers, or folks who watched The Lion King one too many times and thought their kid might want a lion cub for their birthday (that last one actually happened). The circumstances of their arrival are generally sad, but once they arrive, they receive love and care for the rest of their lives.
The good folks who volunteer their time here truly care and love these animals. When I say that they treat them like members of their own family, I mean it. While there, I asked one lady about an older white lion I had visited the previous time, a very vocal male with pale blue eyes named Jazz. She looked down and I heard her voice become brittle when she said that Jazz had passed away a few months ago. She said that it had been hard getting over his passing, and seeing his name on the memorial wall. I felt for her.
One point of clarification: It’s not a zoo, where you are far removed from the animals. Think of a spacious cage that itself is inside a slightly larger cage, forming a kind of airlock that’s about three feet across. This is absolutely the closest you can get to these cats. And let me tell you, the experience is one that stays with you.
Between trips to the tiger-themed bounce house and the balloon-pop game set up for Easter visitors, I found myself nearly face to face with a young African lion named Lambert. I found him resting in the grass right next to the inner fence, and I crouched down next to the outer fence. There is just something ineffable and sublime about a lion meeting your gaze. Lambert’s’ eyes are the dark amber of the African savanna.
It’s no wonder that so many cultures have attributed human characteristics to these animals over the centuries. Sitting there, it would not have surprised me in the least if Lambert had suddenly said, “So, Matt, how have you been?”
It’s not lost on me that if those two fences did not separate us, that conversation might go a very different route. The same is true when you hear one of these cats growl. It’s not like hearing the MGM lion at the movies. No, it resonates in your chest, and seizes your attention like a fog horn, both thrilling and a little terrifying.
It’s easy to forget just how big they are, and how casually powerful. When I filed into the tiger’s enclosure for the Easter egg hunt proper, along with dozens of other parents and kids, I stood by a blue 55-gallon plastic barrel that the tigers used as chew toy. We had barrels like that at my father’s machine shop, and they were nearly indestructible. This one had teeth and claw holes in it, hundreds of them, and some as big around as one of my fingers. Whoa, Nelly!
Despite the title of this blog post, I did also spent quite a bit of time around some of the other cats, including a gorgeous black leopard named Sinbad, and a constantly pacing tiger by the name of Apollo. Again, up close and personal—and incredible.
By the early afternoon, the 4-year-old was wearing down and getting testy, the aftermath of his excitement and exertion. After trading in our Easter eggs for candy, we said our good-byes to the cats and headed on home.
This was one for the history books, folks, and one that will stick with me for many years to come. If you should happen to find yourself anywhere in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I highly recommend paying In-Sync Exotics a visit. The work they do there is important, particularly now.
These cats ennoble us all. Should you ever need a clear reminder of why preservation of these animals is important, you need only look one of them in the eye.