Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue is still far from finishing its 56-acre animal refuge in Fair Bluff, said Rhonda Billeaud, co-chair of the nonprofit organization’s board. In the meantime, “We get at least one call a week to rescue a tiger and every three days to rescue a wolf or wolf hybrid.” So the volunteer group is working to complete and open parts of the grounds while continuing to build the remaining areas.
Billeaud said Thursday that the next workday is Saturday, Nov. 19, and she hopes to get "a massive turnout" to put up fencing and install 14 gates.
In 2019 SWF founder Shazir “Shizzy” Haque described the planned facility as not only as a home for mistreated animals but a place “for people to come by and spend an hour or an hour and a half and enjoy seeing some of the animals and learning from an educational standpoint what they can do to be conservationists in their daily lives.”
Billeaud told The News Reporter that some calls are to rescue animals from cub petting operations, roadside zoos or closing circuses, but most come from private owners. Shizzy’s has already rescued animals, which “are being cared for at other accredited sanctuaries until we can finish construction,” she said. “Many of the animals have been inadequately cared for, injured or sick, and we are the last option before euthanasia.”
SWR’s has held outreaches throughout the summer and fall to gather more volunteers. Billeaud said the nonprofit has workdays about twice a month and needs at least eight people working at a time to safely build fences around the animal habitats.
‘Unknown’ number of animals in need
Billeaud said that North Carolina is one of four states in the U.S. that have few to no rules or regulations on owning exotic animals or dangerous predators.
“The exact number of exotic animals being kept in basements or backyards is unknown,” she said. “It is easier and cheaper to buy a tiger cub online or at a back room at a gas station than it is to buy a purebred dog.”
But buying an animal is only the beginning of a “very expensive” process, Billeaud explained. “It costs around $10,000 a year to feed just one big cat,” she said, “not including vet care.” As a result, “Many of these animals will have lifelong ailments due to the lack of appropriate nutrition and care.”
Billeaud said the exotic animal owners become “overwhelmed” and call “begging for our help.”
Billeaud hopes the Fair Bluff sanctuary can open next year. “The COVID-19 crisis put us behind, and we will be excited to complete the 7 acres and bring [the already-rescued animals] home,” she said.
Some of the established sanctuaries SWR works with are Big Cat Rescue in Florida, Noah’s Ark in Georgia and Carolina Tiger Rescue in Raleigh. Roger Harvey, site manager of the Raleigh group, has been a valuable advisor and helper in building the enclosures at Shizzy’s, Billeaud said.
SWR pays to feed the animals being cared for off site until they can move to “their forever home” in Fair Bluff. “We can’t bring in the animals until their home is built,” Billeaud said, “so the main priority at the moment is getting help with the final fencing construction.”
Since work began more than two years ago, SWR has built one tiger enclosure large enough to house two tigers, two wolf enclosures large enough to hold a total of seven wolves and four small cat habitat enclosures.
“We had been hoping to build the sanctuary, renovate the damaged buildings on the property and have everything completed first before we opened,” said Billeaud. However, the need “has prompted us to construct the first 7 acres of the 56-acre sanctuary and make a push to start rescuing sooner.
“More habitats will be constructed as more animals are rescued. Each animal enclosure has to be built to specific species guidelines.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates conditions for exotic animal care and inspects sanctuaries for compliance, Billeaud said, but SWR subscribes to standards set by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries that “the most successful animal rescues” follow.
Funds and hands-on help needed
SWR aims to begin building a second tiger habitat soon, followed by a jaguar habitat, Billeaud said. She wants to recruit a core of 30 volunteers to complete habitat construction and to help a paid staff of 15 operate the refuge long-term.
SWR is based in Greensboro, where founder Shazir Haque lives, and so far most of Shizzy’s helpers have come from outside the county, some from thousands of miles away. Most have full-time jobs and squeeze their volunteer time in when they can, she said.
Billeaud said a group of “amazing” volunteers have come from “Charlotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville, you name it.” One man from Fayetteville has been “volunteering since the beginning, starting with cleanup of thousands of pounds of hurricane debris, removal of trees and now habitat construction,” she said. “I can’t remember him ever missing a work event.
“Another volunteer, Steven, lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia,” Billeaud said. He drives four hours each way, “sometimes sleeping in Walmart parking lots,” she said, “and not once was ever late to an event.”
Actress Jessica Parker Kennedy of “The Flash” and “Black Sails” flew in from Los Angeles to help build an animal platform, Billeaud said. “We’ve even had a volunteer fly in from Colorado to volunteer just for one day.”
However, several of Shizzy’s core volunteers have had to drop out due to illness, injury or personal obligations, so “we need to recruit more,” Billeaud said.
During the early stages of site preparation, SWR also received help from the National Displaced Workers program administered through Southeastern Community College’s NCWorks Career Center.
Billeaud said even if someone can only help out for a few hours one day, that’s “still amazing and very appreciated.”
Shizzy’s is located at 658 Main St. in Fair Bluff, on the former site of Fair Bluff Motors. The number to call for information is 910-840-1886, and the email is email@example.com.