Lions and Cougars and Lynx, Oh My!

A St. Thomas graduate and her nine rescued wild cats live at the sanctuary she opened last year

Tammy Quist ’93 has an understanding mother. "I’ve always loved animals and when I was a child my mother let me take in everything you can imagine," Quist said. Their home in suburban Rosemount was filled with stray cats, toads, butterflies and rabbits needing to be fed with an eyedropper. There was Millie the hamster, Puppet the dog and Kirby the cat. The most dramatic demonstration of her mother’s patience, however, was the emergency trip they made to the veterinarian with a constipated goldfish. The vet bill was $40.

Quist’s childhood ambition wasn’t to be an animal doctor, as one might expect. Instead, she wanted to be the first female priest. "As a vet you have to put down some animals," Quist explained. "I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to do the part that would hurt."

As a grown-up, Quist still is deeply involved with animals. She is the founder and director of the Society for Wild Cat Education, a nonprofit organization that focuses on rescuing mistreated or unwanted captive wildcats and educating the public about their conservation. The society operates its own sanctuary on five and one-half acres in Paulding County, Georgia, and takes in as many animals as it can afford. It helps place the others into similar facilities throughout the country.

"The cats we have in our sanctuary are here for life," Quist said. "They’re never traded, bred, sold or destroyed. And we make sure it’s the same where we place the cats we can’t accommodate."

Her house is located on the sanctuary grounds, and when Quist retires for the night she is joined in her bed by a 21-pound serval, a 45-pound caracal and, occasionally, a 50-pound Lynx named Jasper. "I pretty much sleep around them," Quist said.

When they all wake, the cats purr as she pets them good morning. Then Quist dons her executive suit and drives an hour into Atlanta for her day job, the one that brings in the bread and butter.

Quist works in the marketing department at the Coca-Cola Co. Last year she headed up the 1999 Coca-Cola Classic summer program targeted toward teens, the largest promotion the company has ever done. Now she’s working on the summer 2000 promotion.

A typical day at Coca-Cola sees Quist working on proposals, briefing and meeting with ad agencies and other departments, running focus groups and writing marketing plans. Other, more glamorous tasks include promotions at concerts (where she often gets to meet artists such as Collective Soul) and attending the Super Bowl.

Quist got hooked on animal rescue shortly after she began her climb up the corporate ladder. A marketing and journalism major, she graduated from St. Thomas in 1993, the same year as her mother, Sue Quist, who attended St. Thomas through the Parents’ Program. Following graduation, Quist worked for several Minneapolis advertising agencies and loved what she did. But one day she worked on a photo shoot featuring a Bengal tiger and a black leopard, and that was all it took. She was smitten.

Although she continued with her agency work, she gave all her spare time over the next two years to caring for and handling "demonstration" cats, such as snow leopards, tigers and lions, at a private educational wildcat facility in northern Minnesota.

In November 1998, Coca-Cola, whose account she serviced, offered Quist a marketing position at its headquarters in Atlanta. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Determined to continue her work with cats, she began researching local Georgia rescue organizations that supported captive wildcats. She found there were none. There was a need, Quist knew, and she decided that if no one else was going to run one, she would.

Quist says that her years at St. Thomas and in the business world gave her a head start on running her own nonprofit business. In addition to being the sanctuary’s marketing director, she has needed to be an accountant, lawyer, animal trainer, construction worker and general Jill-of-all-trades. What she clearly loves best, however, is working with the cats.

The sanctuary’s current wildcat population stands at nine — the serval, caracal, two cougars (one a baby and one an adult) and five lynx. That doesn’t count the two domestic cats that came with the house. Most of the animals are from private owners who have them illegally, from roadside zoos that have been closed down, or have animals that are too old to work.

Misha, the baby cougar, was purchased illegally by a private party as a pet. The government confiscated her and gave her to Quist’s sanctuary.

Levi, the adult cougar, was placed at the sanctuary by a wildlife park. His original private owner had beaten him so severely that he became wary of people. Because he spends a great deal of his time hiding, he was not a good "display cat" for the wildlife park.

Otis, a Siberian lynx, was rescued from a fur farm. Jasper, another lynx, arrived at Quist’s as a baby from an illegal fur farmer in Georgia. Now he comes to above her knee.

The number of cats that the sanctuary can accept is limited by its funds and the size of its facility. If it can’t keep a cat, it often arranges to pick up the animal, supervises a medical examination and any necessary treatment and transports it to its new home. Recently, it worked with the state of Georgia to place Kaiser, a lion, at Shambala, a sanctuary in California operated by Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith’s mother.

The Society for Wild Cat Education gets approximately 30 calls each month from people wanting to place cats, and there are more calls in the spring. They come from among private owners whose exotic kittens have grown up to be wildcats, from sanctuaries similar to Quist’s that are conducting rescues, and from the government, which has confiscated an animal. People who work in zoos occasionally will know of someone keeping an animal illegally and let Quist know.

On a typical day at the sanctuary, Quist makes the rounds to say hello to the cats and refresh their water. Next she cleans their litter boxes. (Yes, Quist has them trained. "It doesn’t come naturally to big cats, but it sure makes things easier," she said.) Some of the animals like to be on a leash so they are taken for walks or tethered outside and played with. Nearly every day, time is set aside for building perches, dens and platforms for the cats, or creating new enclosures for what seems like a never-ending supply of animals. Once a week, all the enclosures get raked out.

Adult animals are fed, usually chicken, once a day. They’re also given two kinds of vitamins made especially for exotic cats, and sometimes a treat of commercial diet, a kind of processed, raw meat, "but that’s pretty expensive," Quist said. It takes about 45 minutes to portion out the 30 pounds of chicken that the cats consume each day.

Quist uses behavior-enrichment techniques to keep the animals from becoming bored. Chickens are frozen in ice chunks so the cats have to gnaw them apart to get their food. Food is hidden in boxes; enclosures are temporarily switched to give the animals someplace new to explore; and they are given stuffed toys to play with. "The idea is to keep them busy and stimulated in their captive environment," Quist said.

Fortunately, Quist has help with the sanctuary work. In addition to her friend, Calle Danielson (he’s Swedish, but she met him in Atlanta), there are two full-time workers who trade their hours for a place to live on sanctuary property. She also has a lot of volunteers, although she acknowledged that they can sometimes be a problem. "Some people who volunteer want to spend all their time petting the cats and having their pictures taken with them," Quist said. "They don’t understand that what we really need is help doing things like building enclosures. If volunteers show up for the first time lugging cameras, it’s a good sign they’re not going to work out."

At Quist’s, the enclosures are bigger than most zoos. Misha, the baby cougar, will eventually have a quarter acre to herself, at a cost of $7,000. "The enclosures are large," Quist said, "but we want to give the cats a big enough place to run and jump around in. We want to enhance their quality of life, not just keep them alive."

The Coca-Cola Co. is supportive of Quist’s efforts at the sanctuary and her local manager is flexible about her hours. "It’s just a little different," she said. "When I take personal leave time, it’s not to take a child to the dentist but to transport a cougar or be with a tiger during surgery."

Two of her co-workers are on the Society for Wild Cat Education board and, although the facility normally is not open to the public, Quist hosts an annual open house for people in her department and their families. It’s a highly popular event. "When they see the animals it helps them to understand what I’m really doing and why," she said.

Meeting a cat "up close and personal" is an important component in the society’s education program. "We take two or three of them along to school lectures as ambassador cats," Quist said, "and talk to the kids about wild animals in their natural state. We let them know what all too often happens to cats in captivity and educate the children about why wild animals don’t make good pets.

"It’s amazing how many people think it would be great to have a big cat as a pet," Quist said. "There are only 4,000 wild tigers left in the world, but there are 2,500 captive tigers in Texas alone, most belonging to private owners. State laws there are much more lenient and you don’t need a license to have one as a pet."

The Society for Wild Cat Education also lobbies state legislatures to ban breeding for profit. It’s a lucrative industry. Serval kittens, exotic cats resembling miniature cheetahs, sell for $2,500 each; cougars go for $500. Not only are cats bred for the pet market, but they’re bred to stock fur farms, illegal in most states but not in Minnesota or Canada. They are also bred to provide quarry for "canned hunts," the practice of letting captive animals loose on fenced-in acreage to be shot by trophy hunters — for a steep price, of course. "There’s a lot of that going on," Quist said sadly. "It’s cheaper than a trip to Africa."

Quist’s sanctuary has the capacity to keep 15 medium-size cats, cougar size and smaller. It already has made one recent move to larger quarters during its first year of operation, and its most recent to Paulding County was supposed to be permanent. However, the number of captive wildcats needing homes continues to grow and Quist ruefully admits another move might be necessary in five years or so.

Currently, it costs the Society for Wild Cat Education around $30,000 a year to operate the sanctuary and its related programs. Funding comes primarily from private citizens and small businesses in Georgia. The society sends direct-mail solicitations, holds fund-raisers for specific animals, and seeks in-kind contributions from fencing companies, landscapers and similar businesses. Other small sources of income are the donation jars for the care of specific cats that are placed at various local veterinary clinics.

This year the society will increase its fund-raising efforts and plans a benefit concert. To keep the sanctuary’s 501(c3) nonprofit status, the federal government requires that Quist reduce her own contributions to the sanctuary to 5 percent or less by the year 2004. She has a long way to go. During its first year, the Society for Wild Cat Education raised $2,500 to help defray expenses. "The rest came from my checkbook," Quist laughed.

"People have said that I have a great career track job at Coca-Cola and they don’t understand why I’m letting myself go broke with the sanctuary."

But her mother understands. "My mother never questions why I do this." Quist said. "She knows I don’t have an option. It’s something I just have to do."

For more information about the Society for Wild Cat Education and its big cat residents, check out or write to: Society for Wild Cat Education, P.O. Box 93852, Atlanta, GA 30377.

"There are only 4,000 wild tigers left in the world, but there are 2,500 captive tigers in Texas alone, most belonging to private owners."