Last week, Alex and I went on a very special trip to The Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent.
If anyone was wondering what Alex had got me for my 24th birthday this year – this was it! I’d been waiting for our lodge stay at The Big Cat Sanctuary with great excitement since my birthday back in September, and as November rolled around, we set off on our trip up to Ashford in Kent, to visit this conservation charity.
The Big Cat Sanctuary has over 30 wild cats, of over 10 different species on their site, which isn’t open to the public like a normal zoo. The main aim of the site is to provide a safe environment for these animals, most of whom have been bred in captivity and either aren’t able to be re-introduced into the wild, or are helping in the Endangered Species Breeding Programme.
However, to raise money, the sanctuary relies on donations and money from their ‘experience’ days and overnight lodge stays. They have 6 lodges on site in total, as well as their ‘Heritage’ lodge which acts as their reception, bar and restaurant.
We arrived promptly at 2:30pm, when our itinerary began with being shown to our African-style lodge (we stayed in the ‘Puma’ lodge). They have five 2-person lodges and one 4-person lodges, and everyone arrives together at the same time to begin the experience. The lodges were beautifully clean and had everything you could want for the night’s stay, including a mini fridge and coffee bar, Smart TV and double shower.
Once we’d dropped our things to the lodges, we were told to meet back at the Heritage lodge for some champagne and Afternoon Tea in the restaurant. As we walked in, we were amazed to find the restaurant looks out onto one of the lion enclosures, so everyone can sit beside the glass and look out with a view of these majestic creatures!
The Afternoon Tea was delicious – I can’t remember the last time I’ve had one, but I was definitely glad I’d only eaten brunch and a few snacks in the car. It was super filling, but it set us up well for our first VIP tour of our stay.
Our two tour guides lead us all through the site to visit each of the cats’ enclosures, giving us background on each of the species and individuals they home here at the sanctuary, as well as information on what they do as a charity.
Apart from the two lions whom we’d all got to know during our tea, we started with the small cats on the site! Including a Lynx and a couple of stunning Serval cats (normally found in the African plains). I love their beautiful markings, and they are small and tame enough that we were able to go into their enclosure with them for their feed!
We also met the tiniest of the residents at the sanctuary – Nuwara, the Sri-Lankan Rusty Spotted cat! She was incredibly small and cute, but unsuspectingly feisty! It reminded Alex and I of a cross between a weasel and a squirrel… but a vicious one.
We moved onto the big cats – including a beautiful snow leopard – but it started to get dark quite quickly! We popped into the Tiger enclosure where they go to sleep to say goodnight, before heading back to our lodges to relax for a while.
The Tiger below is the gorgeous Puna, a Sumatran tiger. There are apparently only something like 350 Sumatran tigers left in the wild now, and Puna has been a successful part of the breeding program, giving birth to two litters of two cubs over the last 10 years.
At 6:45pm, we met back at the Heritage lodge for our pre-dinner cocktails in the lounge, before heading to our table in the conservatory restaurant for a delicious 3 course meal. As with our Afternoon Tea, the restaurant overlooks the lion enclosure, but as it was dark outside and heading for nightfall, Tiny and Kafara (the lions) were tucked up in bed.
For our starters, Alex and I both had the pigeon. I don’t think I’ve ever had pigeon before, but oh my – it was so good! I know I haven’t eaten steak in a long time (I’ve given up beef and dairy as much as possible now), but I swear it was better than any beef I’ve ever had. Perhaps people should switch from beef to feathered game when trying to cut down?
For main course, Alex had the chicken dish which came in the most incredible fig and mustard sauce. Meanwhile, I had the roasted vegetables and couscous, and we both had the ‘trio of desserts’ as our final course. We were insanely full (to be honest I was still full from our Afternoon tea!) so struggled to eat all of these, but they were so delicious we gave it our best shot.
After dessert, we rolled back to our lodge and settled in for the night with a movie. Early on in the day we’d been able to hear the deep roars of the lions from our lodge, and while thankfully they didn’t wake us up during the night, apparently it’s common to hear them communicating with each other throughout the night. A lion’s roar can be heard from over 5 miles away, and they use it to tell how many lions are in a pride from far away.
We headed back to the Heritage lodge for our breakfast to find that Tiny and Kafara were up and about, lounging and plodding right past our table on the other side of the window. It was incredible to see these big cats up close!
Alex had a full English and I had salmon and scrambled eggs on toast, which was very tasty. Overall I was so impressed with all the food we had at The Big Cat Sanctuary – it all felt extremely luxurious!
Next on the itinerary was our second tour of our stay, exploring the other side of the site, where we saw some pumas, some incredible black jaguars, a jungle cat, cheetahs, lionesses, and the tigers once again.
I have to say, I found the cheetahs SO adorable. They are actually classed as ‘small cats’ and are pretty much at the bottom of the predator pile out in Africa. Yes, they’re super fast, but they’re apparently quite wussy really. So much so that with a zoo license, keepers can go into the enclosure with them if they need to.
This particular cheetah came right up to us and sat patiently waiting for food. He even started mewing! I was amazed to hear such a cute domestic-cat sounding noise come from this predator… bless!
We moved on to see the tigers (my favourite big cat species!) to see them properly in the light. And yes, I got to feed Puna! This was an amazing experience… and to be honest I was a bit scared. I was only holding a piece of chicken in my hand, with just a thin wire between my fingers and the tiger’s big teeth and claws, but she was very gentle and it was so cool to get up so close with this beautiful animal.
The white tiger above is called ‘Narnia’, and the other Sumatran tiger pictured is ‘Nias’. Interestingly, I’d always thought that white tigers were a species of their own, but they’re not! It is a genetic mutation that can occur in any of the tiger sub-species (Narnia is a hybrid), and it makes them unable to camouflage and stay safe from poachers and human predation in the wild, so there aren’t really any in the wild at all!
White tigers have pretty much all been bred in captivity for their looks because of how striking they are; being used in movies and for entertainment in places like Las Vegas. It’s really sad, and it’s also meant their gene pool is very small, with all white tigers descending from the same handful. This means that many of them are born with deformities and health issues.
Yes, they are stunning, but I’ve made a point of not taking many photos of Narnia as I think their popularity and appearance in the media only seems to do more harm than good for them. Meanwhile, with species like the Sumatran tiger and the Amur tiger (previously known as the Siberian tiger, but there are no more left in ‘Siberia’ and they’re only now found in ‘Amur’) being close to extinction, I think it’s more important that they get publicity to make people aware of the issues surrounding them!
I’ve written a lot about palm oil before, and its effect on deforestation and the destruction of habitats for many species. My post about it is one of the top resources on Google for finding out what products contain palm oil and how to avoid it! Visiting The Big Cat Sanctuary has now made me even more aware of its detriment to nature, and the fact that these stunning animals (my favourite animals!) are suffering because of palm oil production is so upsetting.
One of the leading causes of these tigers dying out is the deforestation caused by oil palm plantations and palm oil production, which is a totally avoidable ingredient in many of the products it occurs in! Check out the ‘ethical consumer’ list on what products DON’T contain palm oil that you could try to swap for those that do!
As well as me getting to feed a tiger, Alex also got to hand-feed a black jaguar! These creatures are completely stunning and look like they’re made of velvet! Again, they are not a species in their own right, but are a genetic mutation which causes them to be black. However, this mutation makes it easier for jaguars to be stealthy in the wild, so there are quite a few of them now.
I’ll leave you with a super interesting fact about jaguars… they are the top apex predator in the world, coming just under us humans in the ‘rankings’! Yes, deadlier than lions and tigers, these big cats may look smaller but they are essentially the pit-bull of the cat family. They can run, swim AND climb, and have been known to prey on over 80 different species of animals (meanwhile lions prey on less than 10!), including crocodiles! Their jaws are over 80 times more powerful than that of a lion, and they are so intelligent that this particular jaguar (picture above) made an escape attempt at her last home by digging a hole under the one fence that didn’t have a concrete foundation, and hiding it by covering it up when the keepers came.
They may look like cute, soft and cuddly creatures, but these jaguars are some bad-ass predators!
This was definitely an experience I will never forget, and a truly unique gift from Alex that I’m incredibly grateful for. I love that we got to do something really different, interesting (and luxurious!) together, while also supporting a great cause for a charity who really deserve it.
You can find information about the charity, and book your experience or stay via The Big Cat Sanctuary website.