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Step into the shoes of big cat keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo and learn what it takes to care for these fascinating felines.

A few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning, Philadelphia Zoo employees begin streaming through a back gate. Each person flashes photo identification to security, then taps a card on a machine to gain access to the zoo.

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I sign in on the guest log and head to Bank of America Big Cat Falls to participate in the zookeepers’ morning routine.

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Kay Buffamonte, lead keeper at Big Cat Falls, meets us at the exhibit. She takes us to an open-air office, and shows me a task checklist and communication log. Kay explains that the keepers track animal observations and leave notes for the other exhibit employees to ensure the health and continuity of care for the zoo’s animals.

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Kay offers a warning right from the start – Amur tigers frequently lift their long tails and mark their territory. “They can spray quite a ways,” she says.

“Well, how far is that?” I ask and Kay points to our feet – urine has pooled on the floor of the cement walkway.  From this point on, I consciously juggle a notepad, camera, conversation and the awareness of tigers marking the space around me. 

The first order of business at Big Cat Falls is “life checks.” Each animal must be accounted for and observed at the beginning of each shift, with special consideration for pregnant and elderly cats.

Zookeepers must answer these types of questions: Where are all of the cats? Did anyone get sick or injured during the night? Is each exhibit safe for the animals?

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Kay keeps a quick step as we follow her lead through the outdoor and indoor Big Cat Falls neighborhoods – she calls the cats by name, often speaking in a high-pitched, sweet-natured tone, and many approach the fencing at the sound her voice.

After life checks are complete, Kay and her team must outline the day: Where will the animals be fed? What’s the weather going to be like? What animals need to be shifted to another exhibit space?

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The “shifting” component makes this a highly innovative zoo  exhibit – Big Cat Falls has an overhead wire tunnel system that allows access between the neighborhoods.

For example, there are five outdoor spaces at this particular zoo: Amur tiger, puma, jaguar, African lion and snow leopard. Three of these exhibits are closed-top spaces that are safe for the smaller cats to enjoy. The big cats – tigers and lions – are allowed predetermined, designated access to all five neighborhoods. The key to this shared exhibit is that the different cat species are never in the same space at the same exact time; rather, zookeepers designate the zone where the cats will be for the day.

In addition to providing these big cats with new stimuli, the tunnel system also allows for “soft introductions” (such as a male and female that could potentially breed) and the opportunity for behavioral training (like moving towards something on command, or away from a particular area when asked). The tunnels also give the cat species an ability to roam and explore – one of their natural behaviors – in a captive environment.

Kay emphasizes that they read behavioral clues to determine where the cats want to spend their time – for example, yesterday the jaguar preferred to stay in the puma’s outdoor exhibit for the entire night. So this particular morning, Kay encouraged the jaguar to enter his interior bedroom space for the day with a piece of meat.

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Protected contact with the animals is strictly enforced at all times – once the Jaguar was safely secured inside, Kay went to clean this outdoor exhibit. Then, we followed Kay as she shifted the tunnels to allow the Amur tigers access to the puma’s yard.

These tunnels were left open for the day so that the tigers could roam back and forth, or even hang out in the tunnels themselves.

I ask Kay if she trusts the animals at Big Cat Falls – after all, she’s worked there 19 years and has known many of these felines since their infancy. Kay pauses a moment, considering this, and shakes her head, “No.”

Some zoos house big cats born in captivity, but many animals arrive at zoos because they were abandoned or severely wounded in the wild.

And while tame big cats can have sweet personalities, these animals are stealth predators. The zookeepers never have unprotected contact with the animals, and this species is known to snarl, roar, slap the floor, charge and jump on the fence. And in the wild, big cats tend to pounce on prey from behind.

Kay explains further: “We work to take their aggressive tendencies out, to encourage them to be calm. We try to find out the reason behind the aggression: Are they afraid of something? Are we standing too close to them? Are they hungry? Aggression is usually for a reason. Our job is to determine what they need.” 

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Before the zoo opens, the Big Cat Falls zookeepers patrol the exhibit, wiping handprints from glass and updating zoo signage with the daily news.

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And after the care of the big cats, Kay juggles quite a few other duties, from feeding other animal species to completing paperwork to following up on the resodding of an exhibit. Kay and her team at Big Cat Falls also swap out enrichment toys, monitor the shifting of tunnels, train new employees, and meet and greet zoo guests.

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Visit Bank of America Big Cat Falls at the Philadelphia Zoo and learn more about how the animals share exhibit space.

Want to see more photos of big cats? Check out this gallery of incredible big cat photos and learn more about National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative.

Photo credit: Jodi Kendall


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