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FOR THE LOVE OF BIG CATS

Published Aug. 25, 2005

They finish each other's sentences, adopt the same stance, and seem to see the same problem at the same time. When it comes to the care of exotic cats, veterinarians Stacie Wadsworth and Liz Wynn think with one mind.

"It's called fence post diagnosis," said Wadsworth, who owns the Carrollwood Cats veterinary center and works part time at Big Cat Rescue in Citrus Park.

She gets a helping hand from Wynn, a veterinarian at Ehrlich Animal Hospital who volunteers at least two days a week at the big cat refuge.

"I didn't even know Liz was a vet," said Carole Lewis, the refuge's owner. "She was cleaning cages, and people kept calling her Dr. Wynn."

It didn't take long for Lewis and Wadsworth to draft Wynn into service.

"I was begging," Wadsworth joked.

"And it snowballed from there," Wynn finished.

The end result: The 170 cats at Big Cat Rescue have not one vet to care for them, but two. They benefit from the two women's expertise and dedication.

"We're so lucky," said Lewis, who founded the refuge more than a decade ago. "To have a vet on staff would cost $100,000."

The 42-acre animal sanctuary, formely called Wildlife on Easy Street, is at the end of a private road called Easy Street. It's flanked by the Upper Tampa Bay Trail and is located off Citrus Park Drive across from Westfield Shoppingtown Citrus Park. The refuge houses lions, tigers and other exotic cats that have come from zoos, circuses and private owners.

A breeze, still fresh and cool from recent rains, blew through the wire cages that house the cats, from lions in desertlike enclosures to tigers roaming "cat-a-tats" up to 3 acres. It's in this junglelike environment that Wadsworth and Wynn practice their profession.

"It can be stressful because we're not in a perfect world with everything at our fingertips," Wadsworth said. "We're flying by the seat of our pants."

Because sedation is risky for big cats, Wadsworth and Wynn use it sparingly. Instead, they rely on equipment such as sprays, blow guns and dart guns when they need to inoculate or tranquilize a cat. And they are training the volunteer staff to teach the big cats to obey through operant conditioning.

"Lola has learned to open her mouth on command," said Wynn, referring to a 13-year-old black leopard.

And with Shaquille, a 14-year-old black leopard who had been abused by males, "We just have to bring in a man to make him open up and hiss."

But nothing gets a big cat's attention quite as fast as a piece of raw meat on the end of a long stick.

"You only have a few seconds," said Wynn, concentrating her attention on a tiger's paws to see if they were healing. "You have to focus."

Big Cat Refuge's general manager, Scott Lope, had gotten the tiger to stand upright by coaxing it with a piece of meat.

"You look at the weight, coat, respiration and attitude," Wadsworth said. "A whole lot can be done by watching and knowing their personality."

Wadsworth, who says she never underestimates the power of wild animals, enjoys the work because it takes her out of her comfort zone.

Wynn, meanwhile, often stops at the sanctuary on her way to or from work, or during her lunch hour. Sometimes she's checking on an ailing animal. Other times she's visiting old friends.

"These two are my favorites," Wynn said, approaching a habitat shared by two Canadian lynx named Shatia and Dances With Wolves. "They were rescued from a fur farm. I can understand why they don't like humans."

The veterinarians work as a team, providing basic care such as inoculations, deworming, flea and heartworm control. And, by putting a scale in a spot where the cat routinely stands, they can get accurate weights.

The end result is wild animals getting good veterinarian care _ in spite of themselves.

"They don't like me because I'm always coming at them with a syringe," Wadsworth said.

"At least I sometimes I come with treats," Wynn finished.

Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripleysptimes.com.

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