Largo artist welding very strong cages to move the beasts at Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue

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Largo artist welding very strong cages to move the beasts at Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue

Welder and artist Mac McCarthy is accustomed to seeing neighbors stroll over to his front-yard work space to check out his latest steel creation — a chandelier, maybe, a sculpture, or even a belt buckle.

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But his recent pieces are starting to draw something of a crowd.

The Largo man is fashioning steel transport cages strong enough to contain the largest beasts at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa — tigers, lions and leopards.

“They ask if ‘tiger cage’ is a nickname for something else,” McCarthy, 59, said with a laugh. “Then they say, ‘A tiger, for real?’ For real.”

He’s built one already and is finishing two more for Big Cat Rescue, the 67-acre compound in Citrus Park billed as one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world for abused and abandoned big cats.

The new cages will mostly be used to move the animals around onsite, from their enclosures surrounded by steel fences to Big Cat Rescue’s medical center.

McCarthy has repaired and modified cages for Clearwater’s Loving Friends Transport, which carries tigers and other animals across the country. This is the first time he’s made any from scratch.

In the past, Big Cat Rescue purchased used transport cages.

“Even those are hard to find,” said spokeswoman Susan Bass, who added with a chuckle, “They don’t sell on Amazon.”

For McCarthy, this is the project he has taken the most care with.

“When I do this, I think of every single weld because I know if the cat gets out someone may be killed or the cat may have to be killed,” he said. “I have to pay attention to what I am doing.”

Of the 73 cats now on the premises, 12 are tigers, five are leopards and three are lions. The largest is a 500 pound tiger, Bass said.

Each 4-by-7-by-4 foot cage is made of 1,300 pounds of metal, roughly equal to the weight of two very large male tigers. It sits on 10-inch rubber wheels and is tailored to suit Big Cat Rescue’s needs.

The spaces between the 25 bars on the cage’s long sides, for instance, are slightly more than an inch apart — just large for a sedation needle to fit through.

For added protection, the four corners — where employees are positioned while moving the cage — are covered with a steel panel. This is a new feature Big Cat Rescue requested.

“This is definitely an improvement,” Bass said.

The rescue’s old cages had a single, heavy, awkward door that slid open on one side. McCarthy’s cage has doors in front and back.

For better balance, the back has a sliding two-sided door. In front is a single “guillotine door” that slides up using a pulley system.

Moving the animals from their enclosures into the new cages is also made safer by features that enable workers to push the cage flush against the sides of the enclosure. The steel bars are notched behind the guillotine door to accommodate straps that lash the cage and enclosure together tightly. Before, straps were just wrapped around bars.

This enables workers to sit atop the cage and open the guillotine door safely.

Big Cat Rescue operates on a budget of about $3.65 million a year and provides a permanent home for animals that have been abused, orphaned or retired from performing acts, according to its most recent tax statement. Animals are provided food, shelter, veterinary care and enrichment activities.

The nonprofit also has an education and lobbying mission, working in the past to seek a ban on the private breeding and ownership of big cats and on exhibits that allow the petting of tiger cubs.

Big Cat Rescue gives tours to about 26,000 visitors a year for $36 apiece and maintains an active web presence, including YouTube videos that have drawn more than 120 million views, according to the tax statement.

The new cages cost $9,000 each and three have been ordered with an option to order two more later.

That’s the cost of peace of mind, said McCarthy, who recalls repairing a cage for Loving Friends Transport that a tiger had “ripped apart.”

“This is stronger than any cage I’ve seen,” he said. “I’m not concerned.”

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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