When you think about lions or tigers, you probably think of African savannahs or Asian jungles… or the zoo. You probably don’t think about exotic cats living in the
house next door. But the number of big cats in homes has grown over the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports on one woman who has turned her home into a sanctuary for big cats that need a place to live:
When you think about lions or tigers, you probably think of African savannahs or Asian
jungles… or the zoo. You probably don’t think about exotic cats living in the house next
door. But the number of big cats in homes has grown over the years. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports on one woman who’s turned her home
into a sanctuary for big cats that need a place to live:
“Hi, handsome… hi, handsome. He loves to be scratched. He has absolutely no teeth.
He had every single one of his teeth taken out and he was declawed by a movie producer
in California. So he’d be safe to sit next to stars. Isn’t that sad? You can scratch and
cuddle him. He can’t hurt you in any way.”
Charlie is a big black panther.
He lives at “Valley of the Kings Sanctuary and Retreat” in the little town of Sharon,
About fifty big cats live here, along with bears, wolf hybrids, goats, foxes, chickens,
domestic cats, geese, ducks… and pretty much anything else that needs a home.
Before they got here, some of the animals—like Charlie— were altered so they’d be less
of a threat to people.
Others were mistreated in circuses… or zoos simply couldn’t take them in. Nearly all of
them would have been killed if they hadn’t found a home here…
Valley of the Kings is a private non-profit run by Jill Carnegie and her husband Jim Tomasi.
They live in a modest farmhouse on the sanctuary grounds. But even that has been partly
turned over to the animals.
At least five domestic cats roam the main floor, and Charlie the panther lives in a room
that’s been modified into a cage.
Jill Carnegie says animals have always been important in her life. She says they fill a
void. Carnegie says in her big family, she didn’t always get the attention she felt she
“I never felt loved, but I always felt it from the animals. Their love was unconditional.
They didn’t lie to you. They didn’t betray you. They didn’t stab you in the back. They
didn’t hurt you. They were always, always 180 percent there for me. Always.”
Then, when she was about four years old… Carnegie says she came to believe she had a
“I remember going out into our side yard, and sending a message to the squirrels to come
and they would all come. And I would have bread and treats for them. And they would
eat, and we would just be really happy.”
Carnegie believes everyone has the ability to communicate with animals, but most people
choose to ignore it. Carnegie says it has helped her understand the big cats in her care.
Out on the sanctuary grounds, it’s clear that every big cat has a personality, like Kia.
Block: “She has a thing about women. She doesn’t like them (laughs).”
Chris Block has been volunteering at the sanctuary for about eight years. He says some
of these animals come from people who wanted to keep them as pets.
“But she’s this way to basically most people. She’s very antisocial. (cougar hisses) She
was owned by a truck driver, a cross country truck driver who wanted to get a baby
cougar and wanted to take her in the cab with him.”
Block says average people who buy exotic animals as pets don’t know what they’re
getting into. The cats can attack unprovoked, need special food, and get a lot bigger than
they are when they’re young.
Jill Carnegie, the sanctuary owner, has allowed some big cats to roam free in her house,
including a spotted Asian leopard.
Carnegie would sometimes even let the leopard sleep in her bed at night.
But at least one expert says this is going too far.
Richard Farinato is the director of captive wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the
“Every time you come into direct contact or you allow someone to come into direct
contact situation, with a big cat, you’re just playing the numbers game. It’s only a matter
of time before someone’s going to get hurt. Badly.”
Carnegie says she knows the cats are dangerous. But she says her bond with the big cats
and her experience working with them sets her apart from the rest.
“Again it goes back to common sense. I’ve been doing this for 32 years. We’ve never
ever had an injury, ever. And again, we’ve only had a handful of cats that have been safe
in the house, that I would trust anybody with.”
Authorities and neighbors have had some concerns about the sanctuary. Jill Carnegie
says she’s not even thinking about giving it up.
But, partly because of the concerns, Carnegie wants to find a new location for Valley of
She says then she’d have more room to expand and take in additional animals that need
homes and care.
For the GLRC, I’m Christina Shockley.