Arthur sank his large front teeth into a pumpkin like it was an apple. Then he paraded around the pen at Big Cat Rescue with the orange globe in his mouth, showing off the prize to human spectators. The 15-year-old golden tiger was calm and even friendly, making "pfff" noises with his mouth. Tigers make the sound, known as chuffing, to greet one another and demonstrate their good mood. Staff at the sanctuary chuffed back as Arthur pranced.It was a far cry from his arrival three weeks ago, after the grueling ride from San Antonio, Texas, with his two siblings.
Clearwater couple Jim and Laura Fletcher-Taylor had loaded Arthur, Andre and Amanda into their trailer and driven for 23 hours.
The journey, a year in the making, was as new to the Taylors as it was to the animals. They were used to transporting dogs and cats across long distances, but not large, exotic animals.
They didn't know what to expect, and the staff at Big Cat didn't know how the animals would react once they got there.
When they did, Andre and Amanda sauntered into their new enclosures and hid. Arthur, however, turned around and charged the fence. He jumped nearly 12 feet off the ground, grabbing onto the thick wiring and roaring at those who may have saved his life.
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The tigers were born in the same litter in 1996 and raised at a New Jersey facility that the state later shut down because of poor conditions.
In 2003, they ended up at Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio. But after the faltering economy caused financial resources to dry up, the board voted last year to close.
Some of the nearly 300 exotic animals housed there were moved to new homes immediately. But it was difficult to place others, including the tigers.
Several months ago, a visitor asked Big Cat founder and CEO Carole Baskin about Wild Animal Orphanage. He had heard that some tigers remaining at the refuge could be euthanized.
The man had helped care for a litter of tiger cubs many years ago and wondered whether these could be the same animals.
A member of Big Cat's staff promised to check on the tigers during a trip out West and returned with photos. They compared the pictures of the adult tigers with the man's photos of the cubs, looking for similarities.
"Their stripes are just like our fingerprint," Baskin said. To everyone's surprise, there was a match.
Now the man, who wants to remain anonymous, is paying for the animals' ongoing care — about $10,000 per year, per tiger. Without this couple's help, the 55-acre sanctuary near Westfield Citrus Park mall couldn't afford to take them in.
Money has been tight since the economic downturn. However, the nonprofit had planned ahead, Baskin said. Even as tourism and donations leveled off, endowment and investments were suitable for Big Cat Rescue, which has seen its share of controversy among those who disagree on regulations regarding exotic animals in captivity.
Then something unexpected happened: The vendor that supplies Big Cat's animal feed announced that prices would go from $1.15 a pound to $3.15. Big Cat uses 500 pounds of feed a day. That meant spreading existing resources even thinner.
So only after anonymous benefactors agreed to sponsor Arthur, Andre and Amanda, could Baskin take them in.
But one problem remained: How would they get to Florida?
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Big Cat Rescue turned to Facebook with its unusual plea: Did anyone have the equipment and the backbone to transport three adult tigers halfway across the country?
The solution was closer than they imagined.
By day, Laura Fletcher-Taylor, 45, and her husband Jim, 48, help run Fletcher's Harley-Davidson dealership in Clearwater. In their spare time, they operate Loving Friends Transport, a nonprofit organization that rescues dogs and cats from overcrowded shelters, disaster areas and illegal operations. They relocate the animals to adoption facilities.
The organization was created by accident — or, perhaps, necessity.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the couple hitched a motorcycle trailer filled with pet supplies to a motor home and rushed to Hattiesburg, Miss.
"I couldn't sit still," Fletcher-Taylor said. "I saw all these dogs on the roofs."
When it was time to leave, however, animal care workers asked for help transporting abandoned animals to shelters that agreed to take them in.
For the trip home to Florida, the couple packed their motor home with all the cages they could fit: 17 cats on the bed, seven dogs on the dinette, an iguana in the shower.
Loving Friends Transport was born. The couple now make a rescue trip about every other week, using a custom-made insulated, climate-controlled trailer that can carry up to 150 small pets at a time.
Or three tigers.
A friend told the couple about Big Cat's request for help even though they had never transported exotic animals before. They met with Baskin.
"She took one look at the rig and she said, 'Wow, this is great,' and asked me to do it," Fletcher-Taylor recalled.
The Taylors didn't hesitate either. Not only would they help save the animals, but it would be a cool story to tell.
"It's kind of one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," Fletcher-Taylor said. "How many people get to work with tigers?"
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The animals were antsy at load-in, said Jamie Veronica, Baskin's daughter who also made the trip to Texas. They were intimidated by all the humans surrounding them after months of little interaction.
They roared initially, but remained silent as the trailer was moving. In fact, a video camera recorded what happened as the rig careened down the interstate toward Florida. All three tigers rolled onto their backs and stuck their feet in the air, Veronica said. They were sound asleep.
At Big Cat, staffers learned their quirks. Amanda is afraid of men and won't let them get close. Along with Andre, she's still warming up to them. Arthur, however, likes to show off his muscles. Now, he's the most friendly and outgoing of the three.
The tigers are currently isolated from each other until a mandatory quarantine period ends. But Big Cat staffers say they still find ways to interact and sometimes taunt each other from beyond the fence.
In time, dividers between their enclosures will be removed, and Arthur, Andre and Amanda will play together once again.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.