Kids roar over fair felines

Take a wrong turn at the Prince William County Fair and you might find yourself staring eye to eye with some panthers, a tiger or a spotted leopard.

“Oh, by the way, he loves kids. We used to feed him one a day, but he got sick,” joked Don Shaw of Wildside Encounters about their Bengal tiger named Tsunami, a 23-month-old 400-pound male.

Shaw and his partner Victoria Windland formed the nonprofit organization in central Florida to rescue exotic animals from breeders or pet owners who neglected them.

The crowd of more than 50 adults and children showed little fear but much attention as the five cats took their turns in the circular show cage Tuesday.

Each cat was a favorite for someone.

“I liked the one that was the small little baby cat,” said Amanda Heinbaugh, 6, of Nokesville, referring to Mikko, a 3-month-old Florida panther.

“Tiger! The jumping one,” said Marlissa Irizarry, 5, of Gainesville.

“The leopard,” said Libby Arnold, 4, of Nokesville.

The spotted leopard, a bright orange and black male — and pound for pound the most powerful animal in the world, Shaw said — licked-kissed Windland for the crowd. Shaw said that when Windland found the leopard it was so malnourished that it could not walk but instead wiggled around on its belly.

In the United States, exotic animals are bred by people who sometimes are strictly in it for the money, Shaw said. If the tiger or panther is not sold before it is 2 to 3 weeks old, or while it is feeding out of a bottle, they are hard to sell because people need them then to have them as house pets, he said.

Some people find out they cannot afford to raise them. Shaw said he spends $500 a month on feed, which for his 18 cats is a mix of chicken and horse meat. Kittens eat Kitten Milk Replacement, or KMR, which will run into the hundreds of dollars until a kitten is weaned, he said.

Since some of the cats are found declawed on their front paws, all the cats are declawed so that no cat can be more dominant. Without the fishhook-like claws, they cannot hook and hold prey, he said.

The cats have all their teeth but never bite, or else Shaw said there wouldn’t be much “left of us.” He has been bitten once, but that was by accident when the cat didn’t see he was holding a bag of food.

The Prince William County Fair is the first fair for these cats, Shaw said.

Since Sept. 11, corporate functions that pay well have fallen off dramatically, so Shaw said they have started doing fairs to pay for the animals’ upkeep.

The animals have been on TV shows “Xena Warrior Princess” and “The Tonight Show,” as well as on the Discovery Channel, and have done promotions for the Jacksonville Jaguars professional football team. On July 31, Tsunami filmed promos for the Auburn Tigers college athletic teams and in the process chewed up three footballs, two basketballs, two volleyballs, and one football helmet.

With the heat, the cats are not as stupid as humans, Shaw said. The 100 degree heat keeps them lying around, rolling on their backs, looking like really big housecats.

At the 5:30 p.m. show, the cats walked slowly around for the crowds, but as the night continued, they got more active.

“We’re not here as a circus,” Shaw said. “We’re here to show the animals and educate people about them.”

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