HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. - Moses and Bailey were abandoned as kittens, but the two Florida bobcats are being pampered now at Tampa's Big Cat Rescue in Hillsborough County.
As they lay sleepily on their backs in their sunny enclosure, the wild cats look as tame as tabbies. But at feeding time, they become deadly serious predators.
"She's fed live rats Monday through Friday and rabbits on Saturday," says the announcer in a video produced by Big Cat Rescue. The three-minute production details the rescue program that involves releasing chubby domesticated rabbits into the bobcat's enclosure right around dinner time.
The feeding of live rabbits along with rats and mice has angered a network of rabbit rescue organizations based in Gainesville.
"We're not asking them not to rehabilitate the bobcats to go back into the wild. We're asking them to look into different and more humane alternatives," said Kathy Finelli of Gainesville Rabbit Rescue.
Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue says she wishes there was an alternative, but does not believe there is.
"With the bobcats that have to go back to the wild, we have to make sure they are able to hunt before we release them. Otherwise we would be putting them out there to starve to death," said Baskin.
The sprawling acreage off Gunn Highway in Hillsborough County cares for wild cats that have been abused, abandoned or given up by overwhelmed owners.
The permanent residents are fed either fresh beef and chicken or a specially prepared ground meat. But the native bobcats that will be released back into the wild are fed live rodents and rabbits.
"They are not scavengers like coyotes, so they have to be able to hunt, and they have to be able to know what their food source looks like," said Baskin.
Kathy Finelli doesn't buy it.
"When a rabbit walks directly up to a bobcat and puts it's nose on the bobcat's nose, how is that training the animal to hunt? The animal is now expecting the animal to walk up to it," said Finelli.
Baskin says wild rabbits could introduce disease to the rescued cats and the rabbits would be doubly traumatized - having to be first trapped, and then eaten by the cats. So they purchase live rabbits and rodents bred as food, and keep them in cages until feeding time.
"We give them treats and lots of places to hide. We treat them with respect. When they're taken out to the cats, it's the hardest thing we have to do," said Baskin.
Both Baskin and Finelli are committed animal lovers who accept that all animals are ultimately food for another. But their respective devotion to prey and predators puts them on a biological collision course that may not be possible to resolve.