Starting an Exotic Animal Sanctuary

Kay McElroy used to be a school teacher. Now she runs a sanctuary for 300 abused and injured animals — and fights for their rights.

by Jan Goodwin
Kay McElroy with 4-year-old tiger Sonya. (Photo: Christopher Shea, christophershea.net)
Photograph: Christopher Shea

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.

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