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,
Photograph: Christopher Shea

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."

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