My Sanctuary of Wildcats

Tammy Thies is the founder and executive director of The Wildcat Sanctuary. She has a passion for saving animals and mentoring other non-profits with the same goal. (Photo by John Gleim)

Twenty years ago my goal was to be a top executive at an advertising agency, raising a family in a traditional setting. Life has an interesting habit of twisting in new ways.

Today I am the CEO of my own company. It is, however, a small non-profit, with no view of downtown skyscrapers. My family consists of more than 100 wildcats, a handful of domestic ones, and my husband and extended relatives.

It has been 20 years since my life path took a 90-degree turn, taking me deep into the pine trees of northern Minnesota.

It began in Georgia. I was a marketing executive at Coca-Cola — the youngest executive in that department. Eventually I also worked for other international, high- profile companies.

I volunteered for an animal organization on the side. Being naïve, I also volunteered for groups I later found out were breeding and selling exotic cats I helped care for. I learned quickly how harmful it is for the wild animals who are sold to private owners as pets. Most are declawed, do not receive a proper diet, and often do not live on grass.

While juggling the demands of my career, I started a small non-profit to care for 10 exotic cats on a few acres in Georgia that had been former exhibit animals or were sold as “pets.” For the first several years, I received no salary, and invested tens of thousands of dollars of my money to build habitats and care for the animals.

Eventually I decided to return to my home in Minnesota, where I could be supported by family and friends as I began a full-time life, saving exotic cats’ lives. The Wildcat Sanctuary is now a premiere refuge in Sandstone.

We are home to more than 100 rescued tigers, cougars, lions, and more. The animals are not on exhibit and have spacious habitats, where — often for the first time in their life — they get to choose what path to walk down or where to sleep. They have temperature-controlled buildings to escape the winter, plenty of fun things to do, and first-rate veterinary care.

Our advocacy work is “to keep the wild in your heart, not in your home.” Our educational message is spread through our
internship programs, outreach events, and to almost 3 million people on social media.

It is rewarding to have an impact on each animal and watch them heal physically and emotionally. Compassionate and talented board members, staff, interns, volunteers, and supporters, make a difference every day. It only takes one person to harm an animal, but it takes a community to do the right thing and help rescue that animal.

Yes, this life is an emotional roller coaster of many highs and many lows. How many people get to discover and realize a life passion? I’m lucky to say that I can.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), more tigers live in cages in the U.S. than exist in all the wild. Texas is estimated to have one of the world’s largest tiger populations, due to private citizens’ propensity for keeping these big cats as pets. A largely unregulated trend is the hybrid breeding of wild cats with house cats.

Few federal laws protect wild animals, who may be forced to perform or kept confined in small cages with little to keep their minds occupied and bodies well.

State laws vary considerably, with some states banning the ownership of wild and exotic animals, while others have virtually no regulation whatsoever. Minnesota ranks 21st by the ALDF for its level of animal protection laws.

It is expensive and difficult to keep wild animals in captivity. These animals often live in inhumane conditions, and pose a serious threat to public safety.

Never patronize traveling exhibits of wild animals or get your photo taken with a cub. Donate your time and talents to accredited sanctuaries. Contact your federal representatives and let them know you support the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Details: