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Big cat caretaker

The serval, cougars, leopards - and a collection of dogs - make up an unusual mix of castoffs, but they all benefit from Deborah Cazin's compassion and expertise.

By JACKIE RIPLEY
Published November 7, 2003

photo
[Times photos: Mike Pease]
Sunshine, a 3-year-old cougar, checks out her visitors. Deborah Cazin is licensed by the state to care for exotic animals at her animal refuge on Lake Byrd. Cazin rescues and cares for big cats, feral cats and dogs.
photo   Deborah Cazin, sitting with her 18-year-old serval, is an expert exotic animal caretaker with years of experience that started with the guidance of a Hillsborough County woman.

LAKE MAGDALENE - Andrea, a three-legged dog with an athlete's agility, is the first to greet visitors at Deborah Cazin's home.

The tripodic canine with a penchant for PR is just one of many surprises at the secluded cedar house, which sits opposite Avila and overlooks one of the posh development's high white walls.

Few would guess that this rustic dwelling, nestled among swaying pines and moss-strewn cypress, is home to five exotic cats.

Sunshine and Sheena are the young cougars, 3 and 4 years old. The leopards are Toval and Latoya, 4 and 19 years old. The old man of the group is Gorbachev, an 18-year-old African serval, a medium-sized cat with a short tail and leopardlike spots.

All are rescue cases. The state took three of them from other people and put them in Cazin's care; the other two belong to a fellow caretaker of big cats, temporarily too ill to care for them.

The cats live in big cages and enclosures on Cazin's sprawling suburban property. For the past 15 years, the place has been home not only to Cazin and her husband, Albert, but also to a long line of discarded animals, exotic and domestic.

Sometimes the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will confiscate big cats because their owners aren't licensed, or because drug smugglers are keeping the cats for protection, Deborah Cazin said. But more often, the cats are given up by someone who mistakenly thought it would be cool to have a big cat as a pet.

"They're beautiful creatures," said Cazin, who has a state license to keep big cats. "But we can never forget they're wild animals."

Not your typical animal shelter

The thought that comes to mind here is the biblical notion of the lion lying down with the lamb - or in this case, the leopard lying down with the Lab.

"He's so old and arthritic that he's not going anywhere," Cazin said, unfazed by the sight of Gorbachev lounging in the open doorway of her laundry room. Because he's so old and slow, the serval cat isn't caged but has free run of an enclosed area on the house's ground level.

Nearby, Marcel, a 1-year-old yellow Labrador, performed puppy antics in front of the serval, but jumped and played at a respectful distance from the big cat.

"I require that my animals be compatible with each other," Cazin said. She took Marcel's collar in one hand and Hannah's - a German shepherd - in the other, leading the two away from the serval.

"I've never been hurt, but I don't take anything for granted," Cazin said. "The most important thing to do is to stay calm."

Cazin will enter a cat's cage to bring in food, but she never turns her back on the cats because they could take that as a sign of weakness. She never removes food once it's down and never enters a cage if she's feeling ill.

She also never allows the cats to achieve an eye level higher than her own. She said cats consider anything below their eye level to be prey.

"Sometimes Sunshine will put her paws on my shoulders, but I'm very quick to make her get down," Cazin said.

True to her name, the cougar Sunshine was playfully romping along the side of her cage, periodically nuzzling her face up to the wire for a scratch.

Cleaning cages, learning the ropes

Cazin, 52, who grew up in Tampa and knew as a young girl that she wanted to work with exotic cats, learned under the tutelage of a woman who sheltered them in eastern Hillsborough County.

"I worked for her for a year cleaning cages and learning," said Cazin, who was then 25.

Armed with her state license, Cazin cared for numerous big cats on her 75-acre spread in eastern Hillsborough before moving 15 years ago to her home on Lake Byrd.

Married only three years at the time, she and her husband blended their families: his four children from a previous marriage, and her big cats.

Some neighbors were initially concerned about the animals, Cazin said, but she was operating legally since the property was zoned for agricultural use.

Now neighborhood children regularly visit the cats. Whenever one dies of old age, they come bearing flowers and plates of cookies.

Cazin's back yard has a few small grave markers, including a tree planted for Perrone, one of her first cats, a black panther and possibly her most beloved.

Perrone achieved a certain amount of notoriety in his 23 years. He appeared in various television commercials and was the mascot for the Plant High School panthers. And his likeness appears not only on a wall of Cazin's den but also on the side of a bus in the movie Ghost.

"I had him from the time he was a cub," Cazin said, recalling how the big cat would drape his massive body across her lap. "We were so attuned to each other, I could sense when he wanted me to come outside and keep him company."

Wild things and canned hunts

Though Cazin had a special relationship with Perrone, she never lets herself forget she's dealing with wild animals.

Some people find out the hard way.

"They'll go out and pay $2,000 for this cute little cougar or panther they're told won't spray, that you can raise them with your children and pets, and they make wonderful friends. They buy into this whole illusion," said Carole Lewis. She's the founder of Big Cat Rescue, formerly called Wildlife on Easy Street, a 40-acre sanctuary in Citrus Park that houses about 180 exotic cats that were formerly pets or performers.

You can never be too careful with an exotic cat, Lewis said. "This whole issue was brought to light with Roy Horn," she said.

Horn, of the famed Las Vegas act Siegfried & Roy, is recovering from being bitten in the neck and dragged offstage by a 600-pound tiger recently.

In another recent case, a New York City man was attacked by a 400-pound tiger he had raised since it was 6 weeks old. He was living with the tiger in a fifth-floor apartment.

Attacks, though, are less common than problems with hygiene, Lewis said. That becomes quite clear when these animals reach maturity, between the ages of 1 and 3 years.

"They spray bucketloads of urine all over the place to mark their territory, that's the No. 1 thing," Lewis said. "They can't stop the spraying. There's no physical way to remove anything surgically that will stop it."

That's usually when the cat's owner wants to get rid of it. But since many of these cats are obtained illegally, their owners are reluctant to take them to a vet to be humanely euthanized, Lewis said.

"We had to turn away 300 cats this year. There's just no place for them to go," Lewis said. People assume a zoo will take their cat, but Lewis said zoos "have no interest in taking in the pet trade."

So many cats are sold to brokers to become game for hunters "who pay thousands of dollars to shoot a kitten in a cage," Lewis said. "An awful lot of people don't know what happens to their pet when they get rid of it. A lot of them don't want to know."

The private trade in captive wild animals, which has risen dramatically in the past few decades, is now thought to be the third-largest international illegal trade, after drugs and arms.

A quiet refuge

The Cazin household has just what you might expect to find at the home of someone with a soft spot for animals and the means to care for them.

In addition to the exotic cats, there's a cadre of big dogs. Some of them are just passing through until Cazin can find them good homes. Others, meanwhile, have found a good home here.

There also are about 18 feral cats on the grounds that Cazin rounded up and had sterilized.

Cazin, who often goes to animal shelters looking for dogs to rescue, gets up at 7 a.m. to start caring for her animals. She tends to adopt larger dogs because they're harder to find homes for than smaller ones.

"This is my social life," said Cazin, who is small in stature and usually wears jeans and boots. "But I feel very blessed. I have any and all things material, but this is the most valuable thing that has been given to me in this lifetime."

- Jackie Ripley can be reached at 813 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 6, 2003, 11:03:57]

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