“A safe haven for endangered wild cats”
Linda Weldon has a passion for saving endangered wild cats, especially ocelots. I spoke with her about her feline sanctuary in Chiriqui, Panama. According to Linda, she runs a “wildlife rehab and rescue center located in Northwestern Panama. We release animals that are suitable for release and provide long term care for those that are not.” If you live in the area, have some free time, and love animals ~ volunteers & visitors are welcomed!
Where are you from originally, Linda?
I was not born in Panama. However I was raised here from about the age of 4. I grew up on the old Canal Zone, hence I’m a “Zonian”. I have always been interested in animals. I would sit out behind our house in the old Ancon hill and just wait till the jungle would move again. The deer would come out and so would the ñeque, iguana, and the mono titi’s.
The felines you rescue are not common housecats, right?
Basically I am a small exotic feline center/sanctuary. I house at the moment six ocelots, two of which were the first and second captive born in Panama. Not even Summit Zoo can claim this! I have had margay and oncilla as well. I have not had jaguar or puma or the smaller Jaguarondi as yet. But I’m sure my turn is coming sometime in the future.
How did the feline center get started?
I first started saving birds and parrots. Always had parakeets on the porch, brown birds in cages getting ready to be released, and others. Then I went away to college and the so called “real world” in the USA. I was a psych nurse working with kids and gang bangers. Anyways, one thing leads to another and I returned here to Panama to my family’s finca where I manage things. I started back into rescuing parrots and parakeets and other birds again and at one time I had over 30 Amazon parrots. I would go out and rescue the baby parrots from the lorreros and bring them home, raise them, and find good homes for them. It was then I decided to build a huge aviary for the parrots. This was over 10 years ago. Anyways, word gets around and someone rescued a caged ocelot. My vet knew of my cage and that’s how I got Dori, my first ocelot. About the same time I received Michi, my first oncilla. Then, I got two more and it just seemed that whenever I built a cage I got a cat and it was as if God was saying go for the cats. So I did and have.
Where do the cats come from?
I receive cats from those that find out they don’t make very good pets after they get a certain size. They will never be a domestic cat, ever. So they find their way to me hopefully before the black market gets ahold of them. I also take in the occasional bird that broke a wing or somebody found it and didn’t know what to do with it.
Is your program recognized in Panama?
I was approved twice by ANAM for what I do. They told me there wasn’t any other place quite like mine. I have the first and second ocelot born in Panama (documented). I started doing research about the cats in Panama online and even had some people come down to help me as I had not a CLUE about exotic cats! There is a need in Panama for places like mine. No, I am not advocating that just anybody can have a permit to have these animals. If I had been ANAM when I first started I would have denied me a license. I didn’t know anything about these animals. Seriously! But with my studying and educating myself and reading up everything I can get my hands on about exotic cats in the Americas, plus my own observations through the years, I guess I can say I know a thing or two now. I would never consider myself an expert. I’m still learning.
*Note: ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente) is the governmental authority that regulates at the national, regional and local levels non-governmental and governmental activities which bear on the protection, conservation, improvement and restoration of Panama’s environment.
Are the rehabilitated animals returned to the wild?
They will NEVER return to the wild as they have been socialized. They depend on humans to eat. If they ever were let go, the first place they would go is to a human and if it kills a chicken, it’s basically a death sentence. So I am looking into sending the cats as ambassadors from Panama to facilities outside Panama that want to preserve the species, and help to educate the public.
What are you doing to educate the public?
I think there is a lack of education for protecting the wildlife here in Panama. I do not charge people to come see the animals as I believe education comes first before the dollar. Especially since many of my visitors are children whose parents hunt these cats for the black market or because they ate one of the family’s chickens. I tell the people who come here that it is sad to see these animals in cages. These cats are on the soon-to-be-extinct list because of the deforestation and poaching and such that goes on. I don’t do formal education. I just talk to whoever is listening and I hope it sinks in.
Do you think you are having an impact?
My impact…..well, I don’t know. I have heard that people know me as the “cat lady”, so word has gotten out about me. ANAM knows me…..so does the Smithsonian and Summit Zoo.
What can someone who is interested do to help?
Again, I don’t charge to see the animals but a donation sure does help. I would happily accept help from anybody who wants to get involved “hands-on” also. Right now, I do this on my own. Why? Because I believe in it with all my heart. I still rescue the odd parrot and bird that happens to fall out of a tree, too!
Linda’s Chiriqui Feline Center is located on the main bus line to Cerro Punta. She offers the use of her garden, overlooking the ponds and flowers, to enjoy nature, bird watch, or for a picnic. You can even camp out if you like, at no charge.
Anyone who would like to visit the Chiriqui Feline Center should email ahead at LDEBRD@Hotmail.com.
You can see beautiful photos and read stories about the cats at CHIRIQUI FELINE CENTER