The trouble started innocently enough, back in early May, when Cairo the tiger had a snotty nose. Vicky Keahey, the president of In-Sync Exotics, the Wylie rescue society where Cairo and several dozen other big cats live, wrote down the nose leakage in the cat's logbook on May 5.
"I didn't really think anything of it, because he's had a snotty nose in previous years," she said this morning. She started him on antibiotics, but didn't see any improvement in a week. So she switched antibiotics, and another week went by, and the tiger still didn't seem to be feeling any better. Then, suddenly, he had a seizure. Keahey was terrified. Cairo is the second tiger the former vet tech ever rescued, and the two are especially close.
"He's every breath that I breathe," she says, tearing up.
But soon after the seizure, Keahey realized what the problem must be. "I was like, 'Shit," she says. "What about canine distemper, because of all the friggin' raccoons that we've had around here?"
For the past few months, the staff at In-Sync has seen about four raccoons around the property, slinking in between the cats' enclosures. None of them appear to have made it into the cages, Keahey says, but nonetheless, they may have somehow climbed onto the cages and urinated or defecated.
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That's a big problem, because since February or so, Plano and the surrounding areas have seen an outbreak of raccoons and other wildlife with distemper (or what the Morning News termed "zombie raccoons,", because pageviews). The disease is usually rare among felines, so much so that Keahey's cats, which receive vaccinations against feline distemper, weren't vaccinated for the canine kind, since doing so can actually be risky on its own.
Now, the sickness has spread rapidly among Keahey's cats. As of this morning, she said, 22 of them are symptomatic. "Some of them have gone like a week without eating anything," she says. "We're gonna have to start administering fluids. Some of them have gone four or five days and didn't eat but are now beginning to eat. But it doesn't mean they're getting better. From what I understand it could just mean that they're going from one phase of the distemper to another."
On Saturday, In-Sync canceled their annual Big Cat Birthday Bash, and instead sent out a plea for donations and prayers. Keahey, who lives on the property, has been working full-time with a cadre of volunteers to medicate and care for the cats. They've trying to tempt the cats to take their meds by hiding them in meats they don't usually get. (And if you've got any lying around, they could use donations of raw, unseasoned ground turkey, turkey breast, chicken breast, brisket, pot roast, boneless pork, beef tongue, beef heart or deer. They're also looking for donations of vitamins C and E, as well as cod liver oil.)
"We've got lots of volunteers that are helping the cats get through it and helping us with meds," Keahey said, still sounding tearful. "And I know that God is at work here. And he's gonna make sure everybody's going to be OK."