Nikita Wildlife Sanctuary

While most were celebrating Valentine's Day, caretaker Elyse and I were rushing tigress Nikita to the emergency clinic.

She wasn't acting like herself and had gone off food, so we wanted her seen as quickly as possible. Little did we know, she wouldn't be the only one we'd be rushing there that night.

I know this enewsletter is long, but I hope you'll read it all the way through. Below, Elyse shares her experience with Nikita so eloquently for you.

And later, in the middle of the night, we had another emergency. I'll share that with you a bit later.

Nikita. Just her name speaks of strength, intelligence and a powerful grace.

She was all those things and more, but to list them would not do her justice. Having to say goodbye to her so soon at 15 is heartbreaking, made even more so by seeing how far she'd come.

Nikita was always one to hide her discomfort or pain. When she started to show us, we knew it was time to act immediately for her.

Sadly, even with our rushing her to the emergency clinic, the diagnosis was not a good one. She was in the end stages of renal failure.

Though we wished it wasn't so, all we could do for her was give her the dignity to pass with peace and suffer no more. A promise we try hard to keep for our residents at TWS. We'll choose what's right for the animals always, even if it's so painful for us.

Anyone who follows TWS knows Nikita and her painful history of abuse and neglect.

She was born at a facility well known for breeding and selling animals for profit. A notorious animal abuser named Sam Mazzola bought and raised her, using her as a photo prop for anyone willing to pay him.

His abusive ways were not just to animals, but people as well. A Google search brings up dozens of articles documenting his exploitation and convictions.

One can only imagine what Nikita saw at this facility. The abuse suffered from living in a small cage on a cement slab, having to fight for her food.

Being chained and forced to pose for photos, struck with objects like aluminum bats to keep her submissive and under control.

Seeing her fellow cage mates in similar or worse conditions took a toll on her.
Tim Harrison, a fellow rescuer from Outreach for Animals, described Nikita as "the most aggressive and violent big cat that I have ever met (wild or caged)."

If you'd met Nikita then, there was no questioning his statement. She had no trust for humans.

She'd never been given a reason to trust. It'd been broken in her at Mazzola's facility. She picked the only way she could survive. To be stronger and fiercer than what hurt her.

After Mazzola's death, she was rescued by an Ohio couple who took her in. They showed her not all humans were like Mazzola. Not all wished her harm or would demand things of her.

There she started to learn what compassion was, though her trust was going to be a hard thing to win back.

When more restrictive ownership regulations were passed in Ohio, TWS was contacted by the couple. They were looking for a reputable and safe home for their big cats.

And that's when, in 2012, Nikita came to her final forever home at TWS. She was just as fierce and dangerous. When we heard the story of her past, knowing the horrible abuse she'd suffered, it was understandable.

We don't blame any of the cats who come to us for how they behave. It's how they've learned to survive. They don't speak our language, and we can only show them our intentions through our actions.

I share her history, an understanding of Nikita, because I wanted to share the real Nikita who was hiding under all that fear and aggression. The quirky and kind of dorky, playful side to her she finally became comfortable enough to show us.

Her love of paint was immense! She so enjoyed getting nose deep in the vegetable paint and would spend the afternoon with it. It was so nice to see her enjoy something in earnest, rather than be fearful.

The first time I met Nikita when I started at TWS, she was one of the cats who had a long list of dos and don'ts. All ways to help keep her stress level down, as well as safety for the staff.

She'd roar, jump at the fence, and become defensive when others approached, especially if she didn't know them. It was clear that showing Nikita we could be trusted was going to be an immense task.

Meeting Nikita, I really wanted to show her we knew she deserved respect. She deserved to be allowed freedoms and joys.

I saw her change. She seemed to enjoy the company of other cats around her, chuffing at them or engaging them through the fence, especially Shazam.

It was the first time I saw Nikita wasn't truly broken. She still had compassion herself toward other cats.

When I started working with her daily, it took a great deal of time to gain her patience, to work around her without her being upset.
Feeding time was typically when she'd be calmest. She'd lay down and eat, but she'd never take her eyes off us, even then.

This past summer, there was a moment that brought a lightness to my heart, even as it brings tears to my eyes now.

I went down to Nikita's habitat to see if she wanted to participate in operant conditioning. It was up to her, of course.

I'd knelt down in the grass by her fence and called her again. But all I got was a one-eye stare from her comfortable position. So I figured her answer was "no" and I just sat there to spend some time with her.

It surprised me when, after a minute, she slowly rolled onto her side, sat up giving a bit of sneeze, then got up with a rather exaggerated stretch.

I thought she was going to walk off into her shrubs, away from where I was. Her typical "not interested," which was fine. If she wanted alone time, she deserved to have it.

But she walked over and stood there staring at me for a moment. Then, she laid down right there by me. We shared a bit of time in silence, enjoying the sun.

It was one of those moments when all the work we do, all the hours and the hurt of goodbyes we feel, all the pain and sorrows that our residents come with, show us how worth it it is to do this.

Seeing her calm and willing to sit there with me for the time she did, just to say, "Okay, I suppose you're an okay human, I'll trust you enough to share a moment," are reasons to keep going....even when the sorrow feels so heavy it's almost crushing.

She also allowed me one close-up photo of her that day. She didn't growl, she didn't get upset that I asked to take one. She let me.

I even got one chuff, just one meaningful chuff. Then, she stood up and walked off calmly to have her time alone in her shaded trees.

I cherish that moment greatly with her, and I'll never forget it.

When we said goodbye to Nikita after having rushed to try and help her, that was what I saw, that time with her.

Not how she looked just then at the hospital. But instead, her calmly walking forward into the brush, moving to her next life, free of the pain she saw here.

She didn't have to run away, she could walk calmly and safely into that light, into her next life without fear or anger.

Thank you Nikita for giving us the time to show you that not all of us are like those in your past.

Thank you for that gift, and showing us that no one is ever truly broken, you just need the right compassion and understanding to grow.
Senior Caretaker Elyse


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