At the end of 2013, FOUR PAWS was requested to help a rescue centre in Nijeberkoop, a small village in the Netherlands. Due to financial problems and severe overdue maintenance, a significant number of animals was in serious need for help. In 2014 the facility, including all animals, was officially taken over by FOUR PAWS. It continued under the name FELIDA Big Cat Sanctuary, with Simone Schuls as a manager. Today the sanctuary functions as a ‘special care’ rescue centre for very traumatized big cats, but a lot had to be done to make this possible. In this blog, Simone looks back to where it all started.
26 Big cats in need
“I was very impressed by the action of FOUR PAWS at the time. Ioana Dungler (Director Wild Animals Department, ed.) was extremely brave to ‘jump’ into the situation in Nijeberkoop. It was such a dire situation: I never thought I would find such a place in the Netherlands. There were 26 big cats in tiny enclosures on half an acre land in total. The animals lacked all basic things: no water bowls in the outdoor enclosures, no dry places to lie down after it had rained, no green or natural material, no medical care and above all… no rest. The animals were under a lot of stress. The volunteers did their utmost to take care of the animals as best as they could, but they did not have the resources. I wanted to support the initiative of FOUR PAWS and help to change this place. This is how I got involved in 2014, after years of working in the rehabilitation of rescued seals.”
“Priorities had to be set immediately after the takeover. So much had to be done, but of course, this could not all be done at the same time. Safety was at the top of the list. A safety plan was created in collaboration with safety experts. We made contact with the neighbours, the municipality, the police and the fire brigade – with whom we all still have very good contact – and improved the safety on site. New gates and locks, security zones, escape routes, cameras and a connection to a 24-hour control agency. For the first six months after the takeover, we slept alternately in a trailer onsite, until all safety systems were in place. In addition to that, we of course had to take care of the animals, which were very stressed and displayed severe stereotyped behaviour. Some animals needed urgent medical attention. It was an enormous responsibility to take the right steps in this regard. Fortunately, we were able to transfer six lions to LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary, the FOUR PAWS sanctuary in South Africa, quite quickly. There were so many animals in a small space, that not each animal could go outside every day. By transporting the first animals to South Africa, the remaining animals could go outside every day, and this already took away a lot of stress. We could then also start enlarging and improving the enclosures.”
Step by step
“In recent years, we have ‘transformed’ an ailing rescue centre into a ‘special care’ sanctuary for rescued and traumatized big cats. This went step by step, and each step was taken consciously with a plan in mind. I believe that, if you really want to give traumatized animals a second chance at life, you should do this right. For that, you first need a good team with not only a good education, but also with the right qualities. You must be able to trust and help each other, dare to speak to each other and above all, everyone must be willing to keep learning. Investing in a good and professional team, in which knowledge and experience are retained and also grows, is essential. In addition, we have built up a network of specialists with the knowledge that we don’t have inhouse. For example, we work closely with the veterinarians of IZW Berlin and also have good contacts with various veterinary clinics throughout the Netherlands. We also exchange a lot of experiences and information with direct colleagues in other FOUR PAWS sanctuaries. Consultation with other specialists is essential: you can always learn from each other, especially as our animals require a lot of specialized care due to their traumatic pasts. We document everything we do and observe in a special registration system, which is vital to be able to develop the right treatment plants. This allows us continuously to improve and optimize our care.”
“Thanks to the specialized and intensive care, we managed to transport a total of 20 animals, which were very stressed and sometimes even sick during the takeover, to LIONSROCK. After the first six lions, another lion, a leopard and seven tigers followed. Due to old age or illness, we also had to say farewell to several animals. That is always sad, but we are happy that we have been able to offer these animals many positive experiences in the last years of their lives. With more space and the improvements of the enclosures, the opportunity to take in new animals has arisen: two tigers from a war-torn zoo in Syria, three lions from an illegal breeding station in Bulgaria and three lions from an illegal private zoo in Albania. All of these animals needed specialized care – something that FELIDA could now offer them.”
“Although FELIDA has managed to position itself as a ‘special care’ sanctuary with high standards in terms of hygiene, safety and care, we are not there yet. The facilities are old and so much more is possible. In the future, we want to realize new facilities where we cannot only offer special care to big cats, but also share our knowledge with, for example, students and to educate the wider public. Because in Europe and beyond, many big cats still live in appalling conditions, and it is crucial to raise awareness about this. I am convinced that we must continue to develop, that we always must be in dialogue with each other so that we can better organize our society with new insights. How we treat animals says a lot about our civilization.”