Big Cat Sanctuary

Every year over a long weekend in July, the Wildlife Heritage Foundation Big Cat Sanctuary near Smarden, Kent, holds its annual Open Days - an opportunity to go and see the amazing work the Foundation does, see the beautiful cats they care for, and have a great day out.

I visited a few years ago, but since then things have clearly moved on as this year it was much bigger and better, with what felt like thousands of people walking around the site enjoying the warm sunny weather, and a variety of food, drink, and craft stalls to look around.

WHF looks after well over a dozen different types of big cat (although some are much bigger than others!) and is involved in conservation, rescue, and breeding programmes around the world trying to preserve endangered species, and learning more about these magnificent animals.

Though not normally open to the general public, the summer open days are always well attended, and the very knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to give talks about the various cats, to answer questions about the work at the sanctuary, and are clearly passionate about what they do.

Looking around on a very hot day didn't necessarily turn out to be the best idea as a number of the cats prefer to sleep in the shade, so there were some, like the snow leopards, clouded leopards and pallas cats that I didn't see. Even those animals who were outside, in general, weren't very active, with the exception of the cheetahs - although that might just be because they were being fed!

However, with many of the cats dozing in the sun, it did provide a great chance to take plenty of photos, with some more obliging than others when it came to facing the right way.

Narnia the white tiger is apparently one cat who likes to pose for an audience, so made sure her snoozing place was in full view of as many people as possible, and the white lion pride enclosure is large and open enough to ensure a mostly unobstructed view.

Fortunately, there was time enough in the day to go round everywhere twice, so although some of the cats were indoors in the morning, after lunch they came out to see what all the fuss was about - the jaguars in particular were enjoying playing with some 'enrichment' toys (hessian sacks filled with straw from what I could see).

It really is a treat and a privilege to see these incredible cats so close up, and clearly fantastically well cared for. I'm definitely hoping to visit again, possibly for one of the photography workshops or ranger-for-a-day experiences that are run throughout the year.

(Click on photos to expand)