Kay McElroy was reading her local paper when she saw an ad: "Six-month-old cougar cub for sale. $1,000." The year was 1987, and the classifieds were then a form of window-shopping for McElroy, who couldn’t afford to buy anything. A divorced former schoolteacher looking for a fresh start, she’d just moved from California to Mississippi and was unemployed.
"I’d never seen a cougar before and was curious," McElroy says. "So I called the owner to make an appointment." What she found stunned her. The starved cub, only knee-high, was confined to a tiny dog pen. His paws were so badly infected — from a botched declawing job — that he could barely stand.
Determined to rescue him, McElroy explained that she didn’t have $1,000 but was willing to barter an ancient tractor that was on her property. The answer was no. Two weeks later, the owner showed up at her door with the sick animal. "If you want it, it’s yours," he said. "I’ll take the tractor."
After cobbling together a container for the cougar, McElroy spent days calling around the country trying to find it a home. "This was how I learned that people couldn’t dump exotic pets on zoos," she says.
McElroy had two choices: Either build a proper enclosure and nurse the cat back to health or have him euthanized. She chose the former, and tracked down an exotic cat breeder who told her what to feed a cougar (chicken, beef, and deer meat) and a veterinarian who prescribed antibiotics for his paws. Although Zack, as McElroy named him, had been severely malnourished, his body healed faster than his mind. "It took a lot to get him to trust me," she says. "I would take a book and sit next to him on the other side of his fence for hours. We eventually became very close." Whenever McElroy stopped by, Zack would purr furiously to greet her; when he died three years ago, it was in McElroy’s arms.
Shortly after taking in Zack, McElroy, then 43, launched a medical billing business with a partner who had accounting experience. They did extremely well; some years she earned more than $500,000. At the same time, McElroy began educating herself about big cats. She learned that many states, including Mississippi, didn’t have laws regulating the sale, breeding, and trade of exotic animals. "Reading about how badly these amazing creatures are treated, it broke my heart," she says.
Two years after the cougar arrived, someone phoned McElroy about two animals — Sparkles, a spotted leopard, and Big Al, a Siberian tiger — whose breeder was shutting down his business. Siberians, which can grow to 10 feet and weigh as much as 700 pounds, are the world’s largest cats; they’re also critically endangered. But abandoned tigers are often sick and hard to handle; McElroy knew that a zoo wouldn’t take either cat.
Big Al, who should have been a magnificent animal, was in appalling condition. He’d been confined to an underground cement bunker for three years without much daylight or exercise. He had such severe osteoporosis that his spine was bowed.
McElroy brought him and Sparkles home. Then she began phasing out her billing business and started to build enclosures on the 20 acres she’d bought in Caledonia. That was the beginning of the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary.
"Society’s rejects have always challenged me," she says. "When I taught kids from the Watts housing projects in Los Angeles, my students were young drug addicts, gang members, prostitutes, thieves: the outcasts whom no one had been able to reach. I taught them how to read. So I guess my transition to rejected and abused animals wasn’t such a stretch. Learning survival techniques gave me insight. I understand the animals’ pain and suffering."
Cedarhill obtained nonprofit status in 1992; as its reputation grew, more and more animals arrived, each with a history worse than the last. "You can’t imagine what it is like to see one of these big cats feel the earth under its feet for the first time," says McElroy, who by then was putting in 18 hours a day, every day. "I remember Kimba, a Bengal tiger, coming here. He’d always been kept on a very short chain, standing on cement. When he touched grass, he jumped in surprise, then he ran and played. He’s never stopped."
In addition to her own two-story cedarwood house on the property, McElroy added a one-story safari guesthouse for donors, decorated in Out of Africa style with animal print wallpaper and textiles. She also became an activist, lobbying for four years until Mississippi created laws to regulate the sale and trade of exotic animals. Now she’s working to end canned hunts, in which animals are kept in small enclosures, even cages, so "sportsmen" in safari suits can stand on top of Land Rovers or swoop low in helicopters to shoot them. Tragically, hundreds of these hunts are still held across the country and are advertised extensively online. "These ‘brave hunters’ are photographed in macho style with their victims," McElroy says. "Someone comes back from a canned hunt with a stuffed head or a skin from an animal on the endangered list, and people think he went to Africa. Canned hunts are all about bragging rights. They have nothing to do with sport."
It’s estimated that Texas holds about 500 such hunts every year, with an additional 500 taking place nationwide. "Exotic animals can be sold to breeders and so on down the line, until they end up in canned hunts, illicit auctions, roadside zoos, research labs, or even in exotic food," she says.
McElroy, now 64, remains a tireless advocate. Over the years she has expanded Cedarhill’s habitats to make room for 300 creatures, large and small. A typical day begins at dawn with the roar of five lions and 12 tigers: Bengal, Manchurian, Siberian, and Sumatran. They in turn rouse the rest of the sanctuary — four cougars; two bobcats; two shy wolves; 200 abandoned domestic felines, many rescued after Hurricane Katrina; an assortment of dogs; two blind horses; potbellied pigs; and cockatoos and parrots, including one who perfectly mimics McElroy.
"They are all unadoptable," she says. "If they went to a shelter, they’d be killed. But once they come here, they’re members of the Cedarhill family. They live out their days cared for, in comfort, and greatly loved."
Shortly after sunup, McElroy’s mostly female crew sets out with each animal’s customized breakfast. (She tends to hire women because many of the animals have been traumatized by men.) As the food arrives, the lions and tigers race inside their enclosures, chuffing in pleasure.
As fond as she is of her rescued big cats, McElroy refuses to be photographed inside their enclosures or cuddling them. "To do so would project an image that these animals can be domesticated. They can’t," she says. "A wild animal will never be 100 percent safe. I don’t want to encourage people to view them as big, cuddly pussycats. They can maul and kill."
She rolls up her sleeve to show the scars on her right arm, saying, "This was my fault." In the early days of the sanctuary, she needed to relocate K.C., a cougar who’d apparently been abandoned by drug dealers without food, water, or shelter. His face, chest, and front legs looked like they had been deliberately lacerated with a weed eater. Amazingly, he survived and was brought to Cedarhill.
"I had to move him from one enclosure to another and asked a man to help me. He arrived with a shovel," McElroy says. "K.C. growled, thinking it was going to be used on him. He spun around in panic and tore my arm open." McElroy says she was rushed to the ER and required more than 200 stitches and intravenous antibiotics. She says that when a sheriff told her, "Don’t worry, we’ll shoot the cougar," her response was, "Don’t you touch that animal." It’s the only time she or any of her employees have been attacked.
McElroy says K.C. eventually learned to believe her when she told him, "No one is going to hurt you ever again." Having dealt with so many cases of animal cruelty, she still cannot comprehend what causes people to be so brutal. "I can only wonder what these men do to their wives and kids," she says. "Animals have taught me, even wild ones, that their unconditional love is beyond our imagination. They are so forgiving of all the horrible things they’ve experienced."
McElroy has not opened the sanctuary to the public because "the animals have suffered enough at human hands," she says. Visiting donors, however, can see animals from the guesthouse.
"My biggest concern is fund-raising," McElroy says. She hasn’t taken a vacation since opening the sanctuary, and continues to work seven days a week despite her ill health (she has renal disease and sleeps attached to a dialysis machine every night). Her savings were spent on Cedarhill years ago, and donations are down 35 percent since the economic crisis hit. "I stretch every dollar," she says. "But there are vet bills, utilities, food for the animals, for us. There have been times when I didn’t have payroll for staff. But somehow, we always manage."
Visit Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary’s Web site for more information:
Originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, March 2009.