Saving Aria: Finding Sanctuary at the Carolina Tiger Rescue


The call came in on a Monday.

Animal Control folks in Orangeburg, South Carolina had been alerted  – via an anonymous tip – that a female tiger was in distress. They were requesting assistance in the confiscation of the big cat from a private owner in their community.

Kathryn Bertok, Curator of Animals at the Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, North Carolina, told the caller a team could be on site for pick-up as early as Wednesday. In the interim, a local veterinarian was summoned to the home. The animal was found to be emaciated and dehydrated. She was listless, underweight and vomiting.

A seizure warrant was issued and Kathryn, along with Staff Veterinarian Dr. Angela Lassiter and two others from the Carolina Tiger Rescue, made the four and a half hour trip down to the tiny town of Orangeburg.

The man who owned the tiger and his family were initially very upset and angry about the confiscation but, Kathryn said, they ended up being fairly reasonable when made to understand extraordinary measures would have to be taken to save the tiger.

The animal was darted and loaded into a crate in the rescue unit’s box truck.

Kathryn recalled: “She weighed only 200 pounds (a healthy female should weigh closer to 360), was suffering from diarrhea, had no muscle mass and no fat coverage on her ribs. You could feel every rib – it was like running your fingers over fingers – and we had difficulty getting a heart rate. I have no doubt the man loved this cat and had tried to care for her . . . [Nevertheless] in my fourteen years [with the Carolina Tiger Rescue] this is by far the worst condition in which I’ve ever seen a rescued animal arrive.”

Four and a half hours later, the tiger was in Pittsboro where she was placed in thirty-day quarantine and run through a battery of medical checks. She was started on anti-diarrheal medications, Pepcid, and antibiotics and, as she wasn’t eating, an appetite stimulant. “You can’t force-feed a tiger,” Kathryn noted. “The first day, we weren’t sure she’d survive. Then she started to eat a little and became more active.”

Bloodwork revealed a pancreatic insufficiency so the staff started feeding her beef pancreas, the enzymes from which worked to break down the food she was eating so it could be digested. The enzymes were powerful enough to eat through the latex gloves of the individual handling the beef pancreas but they were exactly what the tiger needed to jump start her system.

The Carolina Tiger Rescue staff renamed the big cat Aria as the facility already had another animal with the tiger’s prior name. Aria is now doing very well; she’s gained weight and she’s regained muscle mass. She also chuffling (speaking “Tiger”). The family will be coming to visit her this week.

Kathryn reiterated, “I have no doubt they love this tiger; they had her for ten years. But, one of the many issues in private ownership of the big cats is that you have responsibility for providing adequate veterinary care. They said they hadn’t been able to get a vet out to look at her and the tiger was starving to death no matter how much food she was getting.”

I was astonished to learn that seven states –  Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina – have no license or permit requirements regulating ownership of exotic animals beyond entry permits or veterinary certificates. Two states – West Virginia and Wisconsin – have no state laws at all governing exotic animal ownership.

Only twenty states have a ban on the private ownership of large cats, wolves, bears, reptiles, and most non-human primates: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. Other states have either partial bans of certain species or require a license and permit. It should be noted, however, that some counties and municipalities within all of these may have established their own local laws regarding exotic animals.

That said, in the majority of states in the US, you could have a big cat or bear living – legally – next door to you and be completely unaware of the fact until the animal got loose and/or injured someone.

While it is estimated that little more than 3,000 tigers remain in the wild, upwards of 12,000 are kept in captivity in the US with 5,000 of these in the state of Texas. Most of these are hybrids, the result of mating between different subspecies or even with lions.

According to an article in Southwest magazine, white tiger cubs go for $5,000 and many of these are sold to small businesses that travel around the country displaying them as props and charging tourists to take pictures with them. Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, told Southwest: “Traveling petting zoos that feature baby lions and tigers are a huge source of exotic animals. Since the animals are only suitable for petting between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks, the operators of these attractions must keep breeding them to stay in business. When they can’t use them anymore, they become this $10,000 a year liability. They will give them away, sell them, no paperwork. Then (the buyers) call us and say, ‘I can’t deal with this carnivore.’”

The 55-acre Carolina Tiger Rescue has more than 70 animals in its care. Along with tigers, binturongs, lions, cougars, bobcats, caracals, kinkajous, ocelots and servals have found sanctuary there. The organization is working toward the day when “wildcats are not owned by individuals as pets; wildcats are not used for entertainment purposes; no trade exists for wildcats or their parts; and all wildcats prosper in sustainable, native habitats.”

In working toward these goals, “Carolina Tiger Rescue rescues wildcats; provides lifelong sanctuary for wildcats; educates the public about the plight of wildcats in captivity and in the wild; conducts non-invasive research to further understand and aid wildcats; advocates for action to maintain wildcats in sustainable native habitats, or when that is not a viable option, for the respectful, humane treatment of them in captivity.”

My interview with Kathryn Bertok about the Carolina Tiger Rescue and the exotic pet trade will soon air on my program, On the Road with Mac and Molly, on Pet Life Radio ( A chapter in my book, Rubber Hobos, will also be centered on the Carolina Tiger Rescue facility, habitat concerns, the exotic pet trade, conservation education, and rescue efforts.

Regular updates on Aria’s condition will be posted on Carolina Tiger’s Facebook page. While the sanctuary had some funds remaining from prior rescues, it is expected that Aria’s medical care will exceed the balance. If Aria survives, all funds raised in excess of her medical care will cover the cost of outfitting her new habitat with a water tub, tiger toys, and enriching items. Any funds raised above the cost of this rescue will be put toward future rescues.

Donations toward Aria’s care may be made online at Checks may also be mailed to Carolina Tiger Rescue, 1940 Hanks Chapel Road, Pittsboro, N.C. 27312. Designate your gift to “Bring Them Home” for this rescue, or leave the gift undesignated for the care of all of the animals at Carolina Tiger Rescue. For more information, call 919-542-4684 or visit

You can tour the facility with a guide who will take you on a half-mile walk to meet some of the world’s most endangered species. You’ll hear the rescue stories that brought the animals to the Carolina Tiger Rescue and the issues that their kind face in the wild. The tour will last about 1 1/2 to 2 hours depending on the group’s involvement. Twilight tours are also offered seasonally (April-October) on Saturday and Sunday evenings at sunset. These special walks are during the most active part of the predators’ days. All tours are rain or shine.

The featured image and the two photographs accompanying the article by the Carolina Tiger Rescue. All photos in the following gallery by Donna Hailson.

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