Sunday, February 2, 2014

A True Sanctuary: Judy & Jim Morrow

(From The Way-Back Files: Just Cats!, Nov./Dec. 2000)

Harley started it all, really. The baby cougar came into Judy and Jim Morrow’s lives in 1986 and grew into their 200-pound familiar, sleeping with them every night. (Eventually, they had to upgrade to a king-sized bed in self-defense.) Harley was joined by two Canadian lynxes; two bobcats; a baby fox called Tassy (short for Tasmanian Devil); and several African servals, including a kit named Chopper, who, like Tassy, had to be bottle-fed.

Then “Firestorm 91” tore through their peaceable kingdom, and they lost three-quarters of their animals, including Harley, Tassy, and Chopper. The Morrows slowly re-built their home and wildcat refuge with help from animal lovers from four different states. They also nursed back to health the animals who had been injured in the fire, including Amanda, a severely burned serval who had made her way back to them on her own and who had to have reconstructive surgery. New cats – among them Kisha, a Siberian lynx; Cassie, a serval; Simba, a caracal; and Sequoia, a baby cougar – joined them. They didn’t take the place of Harley and the other animals who had died in the flames, of course. But they brought their own kind of love and healing with them.

After awhile, though, it dawned on the couple that all this wasn’t quite enough. People needed to see these wildcats, many of whom were endangered, in order to more deeply appreciate the beauty and magic of their personalities. But “the laws in Washington State were too restrictive to do anything commercial with the cats,” Judy notes. So, in 1996, they re-located to Keystone, South Dakota and started the Wildcat Valley Sanctuary of the Black Hills.

“We want to show people that these are living, breathing, loving creatures,” she emphasizes, “and that it’s time that we do accommodate them – that we go out of our way to make sure they have a place…We believe that knowledge is the key. If people know about something, they lose their fear. When people don’t know about something, they’re afraid of it, and they want to destroy it. Knowledge is so much. Ignorance is evil.”

The line-up at Wildcat Valley currently includes: Sequoia, Shoshone, Moglee, Rikki, Sassy, and Lakota, the cougars; Keenya, an African serval whose partner-in-crime is a gray-and-white badger-sized housecat by the name of Angel; Amanda, Sheva, Sundance, Watasha, Kisha, Screamer, and Kiowa, the lynxes; Cheyenne, a bobcat; a raccoon; and assorted foxes and de-skunked skunks. And, at the time of the interview, a brother-and-sister fox team and a six-month-old Canadian lynx, Sunshine, had just joined the group from an out-of-state fur farm.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Judy says of Sunshine. The love in her voice is palpable. “They had hand-raised her. She loved them, and they loved her, and they wanted her to have a better life.” Within weeks, she adds, the lynx cub will be spayed and de-clawed – both necessities. The Morrows are trying to provide a sanctuary for these animals, not breed them; and the wildcats have to be de-clawed as babies so that they can be handled safely later on. There’s no question of them ever being released into the wild: all of the animals at Wildcat Valley were born in captivity and couldn’t possibly survive on their own.

The difference in the cats’ personalities is fascinating. The lynxes, for instance, are very laid-back. They’re shy, they’re non-aggressive – and they’re totally different from their bobcat cousins,” Judy observes. “Sunshine has the beginnings of a good winter coat, but she sleeps with us every night. Saturday, I was the only one here, and she followed me all around like a little puppy dog.” Despite all the lynxes she has cared for, there’s still this sense of wonder in her voice when she describes how “Screamer’ll just lie there, legs apart, wanting her tummy rubbed, and I’ll tell people, ‘This is why they’re probably going extinct.’ Now, bobcats are funny. They’re characters – some people love ‘em – but they’re at the bottom of our lists as pets.”

The cougar remains their favorite wildcat, however. “It’s the most loving, the most bonding, and probably the potential for abuse is the greatest with them. People get them as six-pound blue-eyed spotted babies and don’t know what to do with them when they grow up. Some people find out that it’s illegal to have them [as pets] in their area. Some cougars end up on hunting ranches. Some are just euthanized.

“There’s really no place for them. Sanctuaries are filled up. Zoos don’t want them. At any given time, if anybody wants an adult cougar – and I wouldn’t direct just anybody to an adult cougar – there’s more than one who needs a home.” Problem is, it’s all too easy to buy one in the first place. You can, she explains, purchase a baby cougar for $400 to $500 – less than many purebred Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA)-variety cats cost. “Who can resist? These people don’t have bad intentions. They just think with their hearts.”

What the Morrows are offering folks is an education about what these cats are really like. After a visit to Wildcat Valley, one woman told her, “You know, I have a lynx coat at home, and I will never wear it again.” Judy’s response? She congratulated the visitor and then suggested that she donate the coat to the sanctuary for an educational tool.

Sassy the cougar (who had already had the tips of her ears frozen off by the time she came to live with them in 1999) does her part for her kind, too, “put[ting] on quite a show with Jim. She just loves him. She purrs when he comes out and stops purring when he goes in. She’s small

—only 70 pounds – so she just jumps into his arms. And she’s leash-trained. Between her and Screamer and several of the others, people are just blown away. They just cannot believe that these ‘wild’ animals can act like that.”

Update: Sadly, Judy Penland Morrow died of cancer in July 2009. The last mention I found of Jim Morrow was in an April 2011 interview: at that time, he still owned six large cats, but he had transferred them to Spirit of the Hills Sanctuary in the Northern Hills for safe-keeping. He was having health issues of his own; and without Judy, he told the interviewer, his heart just wasn’t in Wildcat Valley anymore.
Still, for more than 20 years, they provided a haven for these beautiful frequently misunderstood wildcats. Judy and Jim, you done good.


Gwynn Rogers said...

I loved this educational piece. I have always wondered if the "wild" could co-habitat with people. Since I love large animals I have often wondered about these species. Yes, Washington State's laws are tough as most people mistreat their wild animals. However, at the same time I would love to believe... and hope and pray that there will always be enough safe wild land for our animals. However, sadly people are taking over.

You told a fabulous and loving story. Thank you... well done... I LOVED it!

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Gwynn. Sometimes I'm moved to run an older piece and do a "where-are-they-now?" update. That's how it was with this interview. Part of me was, of course,saddened to learn that Judy Morrow had died and that Wildcat Valley was no more. But another part of me said, "They kept that sanctuary running for over 20 years....What a triumph."

Samantha Mozart said...

Fascinating and edifying story, T.J., and I love what Judy says about fear of the other and knowledge being so much.

A poignant story and sorry to hear about Judy's succumbing to cancer. But, thankfully, Jim's and Judy's legacy lives on.

I love the "where are they now?" stories. Thank you for resurrecting this one. Beautifully written, as always.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Samantha! I don't know what got me thinking about this piece again. It was one of the last pieces I did for my "Making a difference...." column -- JUST CATS! ceased publication shortly afterwards -- and Judy herself had a way of telling a story so that it stayed with you.
I miss that column. It gave me a chance to talk to all sorts of people trying to make a difference in animals' lives. And Judy and Jim did just that.

John Hamilton said...

Unfortunately, today we have saddening news. Wild Cat Jim Morrow past away this morning due to his health issues. He was a great caring man and will be missed.

T. J. Banks said...

I'm sorry to hear that, John. I never spoke with Jim -- it was Judy whom I did the interview with -- but I got a strong sense of him from her words. And together, they created something incredible at Wildcat Valley.