Left: “Me and Bosco, he is a precious bobcat and is about over one-year-old, you can see Ishon creeping in the background!” Right: “Me training Pepe, an African male lion. Here he is performing a “rise,” but I think it looks like we’re doing the thriller dance.”
I first met Katherine Clough back in 2011, when we were both working as baristas at a local coffee shop in Marblehead, Massachusetts. She had just returned to the Northeast after spending three months in Texas as an intern at Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, located in Tyler, Texas. Founded in 1997 by Brian and Terri Werner in an effort to rescue tigers that were being neglected or abandoned because of the exotic pet market, Tiger Creek now serves all species of big cats — from leopards to lions — and works to conserve their dwindling numbers.
It was clear from the start that Kat was passionate about what she did — you’d have to be to get up the gumption to hang out in a cage with a grown tiger — and almost four years later, she’s gone from hopeful intern to Senior Keeper. That passion has turned into an impressive career helping endangered wildlife. I recently caught up with Kat to talk lion taming (seriously), career paths, and what it’s like working to preserve multiple endangered species.
Left: “This is the one and only Cybil, an Asian leopard. Cyb is nutty and very vocal!” Right: “Bon was brand new in this pic, we got him last July. He is a male golden tabby Bengal tiger. Golden tabbies are super rare and actually do not exist in the wild, one has not been spotted in years. They only exist in captivity currently, around 100 of them. We have three!”
How many years have you been doing your job?
I have been at Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge for almost three years.
Can you tell us how you got your start?
I always knew I wanted to work with animals. I was terrified to go to college so I picked a local school, like, very local … it was a 10-minute drive from my house in Marblehead, MA to Salem State College in Salem, MA! I graduated with a degree in biology. The big cat thing started blooming during my senior year. I had amazing professors that pushed me to follow that dream but they could see I was timid, so I started small and spent a year volunteering at Stone Zoo in Stoneham, MA. I learned a lot from the keepers there, they worked their butts off; there is nothing harsher than working outdoors during a New England winter! Eventually, a friend of mine with whom I worked with at Atomic Café in good ol’ Marblehead pulled up Tiger Creek’s website and showed me that they had an internship available. I thought to myself, “Pfft! Are you kidding? Go to Texas for three months? Nope!” But it sounded amazing, and even though I was so scared, I applied. And I got it! I was over the moon. I completed one of the most labor intensive three-month internships ever and I came back to Marblehead in a daze. I could not get Tiger Creek off my brain. It was incredible and I wanted more. So I asked them if I could come back for a second internship, and BOOM, landed it! I wanted to prove my dedication, plus these cats were stealing my heart! Well, they then asked me to stay on for a third internship. (Terri Werner, the park director and co-founder, asked me personally, and when she did, I turned into a stuttering fool.) HECK YES I will stay on for a third! So when the third internship came to an end, I bought my ticket home, incredibly sad to leave Tiger Creek behind, that is until they approached me and asked if I’d stay on for another term. I thought, “Do you even have to ask me?” Of course I stayed. Four internships, that’s one year of experience right there. That is hard to get.
During my fourth internship my mind was turning. I wanted to stay — yeah me, the homebody wanted to now live in East Texas. I know people say this stuff all the time but I just had this feeling in the back of my mind that they might hire me someday. So, trembling with the fear of rejection I went into Terri’s office (let me describe this amazing woman: She is phenomenal, she is your boss, your friend and your mentor … all at the same time — still, I was so scared). So I sit down and start giving this spiel and she cuts me off and says with a smile: “You want to be permanent.” I just sighed with relief and said “yes.” She said the only reason she couldn’t hire me was because she doesn’t have a place for me to live (at the time all the keepers lived on-site), conveniently a fellow keeper was getting married moving off property … so that meant a spot would be opening up. I ran this by Terri and after a few more conversations, I was brought on full-time.
Did you always imagine yourself working in biology? What was your dream job as a girl?
I really wanted to be a vet. I played “vet” as a little girl with a neighborhood friend. We would patch up our stuffed animals if they were “hurt.” I knew it was always animals, always, but I was so stumped on how to get into the big cat world; it is not easy to land a job in this field.
As Senior Keeper, what’s a typical day like for you?
It’s always different. We have a routine, but there is never a day like the other! It’s great. As a keeper, safety is your first priority. You also have interns that work with you, so you need to ensure their safety as well. As it’s summer, we have twelve interns — that’s a lot of people to keep track of. If you’re outside, mornings start with poop pick up. Glamorous. You also check the cat’s water, to make sure it’s clean. Keepers give out medication to cats that need it. Once the food is prepped, feeding begins! It’s usually a frenzy. Feeding time is loud and fast, and can be super overwhelming for a first-timer. Feeding a fussy and very hungry large cat is pretty awesome. “Oh, you roared and spit in my face, thank you!” You wait for the cats to finish eating and then take the food tray back, which is fun because some cats don’t want you to take back the tray. So here come the roars, the spit, and the meat that may fly onto you. Our food slots are an incredibly safe design, it’s put together so the cat cannot reach their paw out and grab you. Hooray for that!
Once feeding is done we then clean enclosures, give tours to the public, weed and mow the grounds, and work to train some of the cats. Training uses operant conditioning, which is positive and negative reinforcement. We train all our cats for medical reasons. We capture the natural behaviors they exhibit, and train them to execute that behavior when prompted. For example: training a cat to open their mouth can help us if we need to check their teeth. The cats that train love it; it’s a form of enrichment. Their treat is meat.
Left & Right: “This is Tin Cup. The love of my life. He is a puma and is a total ham — just look at him! If I’m ever in a bad mood, I go sit outside his enclosure and he always makes me laugh.” Middle: “This is Sierra, she came from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch! Her original name was Thriller. She’s gorgeous and her nickname is Mrs. Chufferton because she loves to chuff, which is a noise that tigers make. She’s always rolling around.”
What’s the craziest or most unexpected thing you’ve had to do for your job? Any lion taming on your resume?
I train a lion. No joke. She’s such a dramatic lioness, her name is Kenya and she loathes my voice. We have a serious love-hate relationship. I love her but when she tests me — oh and she knows how to — she can turn my frustration on high. She’s a goof, though, and loves to play and run around sometimes (big emphasis on sometimes, big cats are lazy!), but if she’s hanging near the fence, and you go to say hi, don’t expect a polite “hello” from that girl. Ever. Her ears go flat and brace for the snap of the jaw and yell!
We don’t have direct contact with our cats except for Terri, the park director. She will go in with Pepe, an African male lion and Kenya’s pride mate, and brush his mane. It’s such a sight to see. Pepe melts as Terri brushes him and gives him love. I want nothing more than for her to put a bow or a top hat on him.
Tiger Creek’s mission isn’t just about housing displaced or discarded big cats, but more specifically, the organization strives to conserve the genetic diversity of tigers. That’s a huge undertaking! Can you talk about that?
Our mission is huge. And when I stop to think of it, it can be overwhelming. It’s almost impossible. And we’re not a huge refuge — we have 38 cats and around 35 – 40 acres — but we are doing our job to work towards that mission and to get the word out there!
What do you hope to achieve with your work as a keeper with Tiger Creek?
To give these cats the chance they deserve at life, to give them the best care possible with barrels full of love, to educate the public about our mission and spread our word. I also get to teach people like me the ropes of big cat care through our internship program, I try to make it fun. My work environment is such a happy place, I can’t take myself too seriously. Why can’t you laugh at work AND pick up poop at the same time?
What’s the toughest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is losing a cat. They are your babies. They make me laugh and bring tons of joy as I see them happy because of what I do everyday. You turn into a mother working at Tiger Creek. If a cat is sick or injured, you fret and worry and check on them often. Losing one just crushes you; steps on your heart. I always immediately call my parents back home after we have to put down a cat. My mom always makes me feel better by telling me how that one cat received so much love and care while at Tiger Creek, and to take comfort in that. Take comfort in the fact that I added happy years to that cats life.
“This is one of my favorite photos I’ve taken. It’s Pepe in his house escaping the cold, and if you look closely you can see his two ladies in the back: Scrunches is the little one underneath the platform, and Kenya is on the platform.”
What’s something about the big cats that would come as unexpected? I read that tigers like perfume? Please tell us more!
We put perfume on their toys and platforms as a part of enrichment. Vick’s Vapor Rub is always a hit with them! We also pass out watermelons and pumpkins as toys (they love to sink their claws and teeth in). Cybil, our Asian leopard ate just about the whole thing. Seeds were all that was left behind!
June is National Adopt-A-Cat Month, so we have to ask: Do you have any cats at home? Do you notice any shared qualities between your house cats and the big cats?
I have the coolest cat in the world, his name is Gussy and he is insane. I see so many people on tours at Tiger Creek who watch our cats and say, “Wow, they’re just like massive house cats!” And it’s true! When we take Gussy outside and he gets into “stalking mode” it’s amazing to watch. He looks just like a tiger or lion stalking its prey in the wild. Their curiosity is the same as well … and mischief!
What advice do you have for girls interested in a career like yours?
If relocating your life means landing your dream job, then do it. If I never did that first internship, I don’t know where I would be today. Although I get homesick and miss my family and Marblehead’s beauty by the ocean, I love my life out here. I was terrified to move here. But this homebody did it. And if I can do it, ANYONE can do it. The big cat world is not easy to find a job in, start local if you can and go for an internship. Ask questions, go pick your coworker’s brains. Go pick your boss’s brain if you have the opportunity. Making connections is one of the most important things in this field, if you interned (and stood out!) at a reputable place, and then apply for a job at another facility, you’ll stand out. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and to be cliché: Don’t be afraid to follow your dream. It’s never easy but it’s possible.