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This is a love story. Probably not the one you are expecting.


This love is not the simple kind. Nor the love-at-first-sight kind. This love you won’t see in Rom-Coms or read in the Modern Love column of the New York Times (of which, let’s be real, I am a die-hard fan).


Instead, this is the real selfless kind of love that transcends pretty much everything- even species. This Valentine’s Day I wanted to share a little about this love with you; A prospective of our work that most people either don’t understand or don’t think about.

I repeatedly return to the story of the tiger Laziz and the so-called “Worst Zoo in the World”. I often bug our staff at FOUR PAWS’ Big Cat Sanctuary LIONSROCK, for Laziz updates.  The tiger ended up at our 3,080+ acre park in South Africa where we provide him and roughly 100 other big cats an appropriate, lifelong home. Laziz was rescued from Gaza and brought to LIONSROCK in the summer of 2016. After undertaking six emergency missions in the Gaza strip, FOUR PAWS’ last mission was to return and closedown the Khan Younis Zoo, a bombed-out facility that was notorious all over the world for continuing to display dead and mummified animals to its dwindling patrons. This is where we came into caring for Laziz, the last pet tiger of Gaza. Laziz had endured years of suffering in a desolate cage, lack of food and fresh water and the variable drone of an active military conflict in and around his enclosure. I bring him up not only because I love him but because his story is a testament to the long-term love I am describing.  

It is easy to say, I love animals. But the decision to love these kind of animals, wild animals, means doing what is best for them. This means providing them with the most natural habitat for their species and one that suits their individual needs. Loving these animals means taking them on, all of them, all their captive-bred neurosis, their aggression, their bonds, their health issues and even their signs of trauma.


Taking on these wild animals - that should have never been in captivity in the first place- is like loving that bad boy from high school that drove a motorcycle and that your mom warned you about. He will only break your heart, she cautioned. But you don’t listen.


And I have never stopped loving the bad boys, the hard cases, the wild cards. That is why I enjoy the work we do here and this organizations dedication to the animals in our care. Even the animals that are hard to love along with the ones that make your heart melt instantly.


Laziz is one of these bad boys. Once at LIONSROCK, his development was slow, mired by setbacks (the area was hit by a hail storm sending the tiger into his den for a few days). Our behavior specialist and keepers work closely with the tiger, gaining trust, building his confidence back. Being at a world class facility like LIONSROCK is the best possible outcome for large, dangerous animals. Laziz has access to top-notch veterinary care when it is needed and freedom when it’s not.


Tigers like Laziz need the right kind of love. Love in the form of specialized care, not coddling. They don’t need belly rubs or cuddle sessions. They need space and time and enrichments items to play and tear apart on their own. They need time to remember what being a tiger is all about. And they certainly cannot do that with cameras in their face and hands holding their fur.


Have you ever heard the saying “If you love something, let it go?” I think in this organization we take that seriously. Our sanctuaries are the closest thing to the natural world that is species appropriate. The closest thing to “letting them go” that we can get while keeping them safe and healthy.


When FOUR PAWS decides to rescue an animal, we decide to take the responsibility of that animal’s physical, emotional and psychological health for the rest of their lives. This often means decades of exhaustive facility upkeep, building on top of intensive specialized veterinary care. This love does not come cheap.


There is a lioness in our care, Emma, who is one of our first new residents at LIONSROCK. Emma is an astonishing 25 years old (almost double the life expectancy of the big cat in the wild!). She was a member of a group that we rescued from an Austrian Safari Park outside of Vienna after they hit financial troubles and could no longer care for the 10 lions. Emma, because of her age, lives in our special care unit. Outside of growing old or other health concerns, a rough estimate for housing, feeding and caring for one big cat sits around $36,000 a year. This excludes the cost of the actual initial rescue and/or transfer and the building of additional enclosures. That is one expensive date!


Like all 97 big cats at LIONSROCK, Emma has her own history and her own individual character. There is no one-size-fits-all for caring for large, wild animals. And we respond to that fact with careful monitoring and adapting our care to suit their needs.


But, like all wedding vows promise, we are in it for the long haul. We are in this not just for the sensationalized rescue and extraction from some dangerous local. We are in this for the years, the decades of food and space and ever-changing enrichment needs. We are in this to grow old together. That is what it means to care for someone for the rest of their lives.


For an organization like FOUR PAWS, this means an aging population of lions, tigers and bears at our sanctuaries and in our care. This will also mean tackling those old-age related-health problems. Each new day is a new challenge in the mission to protect these incredible animals from suffering and exploitation.


But the good news - the happy ending here-  is that our love transcends time. Time for Laziz to learn to be a tiger again without the sound of bombs and gunfire around him. Time for Emma to live out her old age with comfort and security.  And time for us to keep on caring for them, albeit from distance. And this may just be the best love story I have ever heard.



Happy Valentine's Day!




Claire LaFrance, Head of Communications, FOUR PAWS



If you are interested in reading more about our work with bic cats,  click here

If you are interested in finding out more about LIONSROCK, click here.

Or, if you would like to contribute to the care of these animals, click here to donate.