The Cat’s Whiskers

The Cat’s Whiskers

Struggling to know what to buy the cat lover in your life for Christmas? Perhaps book them an experience at the Big Cat Sanctuary. Or, treat yourself instead and hope they’re happy with a lump of coal…


The Big Cat Sanctuary in Smarden is an animal charity with a primary objective of breeding endangered cats, as well as giving sanctuary to retired cats who have lived their life in either circus or zoo environments. Since the Sampson family arrived in 2000, the sanctuary has become a charity and now has in excess of 50 cats including African lions, white lions, amur leopards, north Chinese leopards, snow leopards, Amur tigers, Sumatran tigers, cheetah, lynx, fishing cats, jaguars, pallas cats, pumas, rusty spotted cats, jungle cats and servals.

This year has seen big changes for the sanctuary – as well as a rebrand and developing their breeding programmes, they’ve also welcomed a new face to the team. The arrival of Giles Clark, their new managing director happened in June. Giles arrived from Australia Zoo where he had been head of big cats, and produced the documentaries Tigers About the House and Tigers About the House, What Happened Next, where he hand-reared two Sumatran Tigers in his home in a bid to raise awareness and funds for Sumatran Tiger Conservation.

As well as around 30 dedicated staff members who look after the welfare of the animals, the sanctuary relies on 35 passionate volunteers who give up their time to help look after the cats in their care. Although they
hold an official zoo licence, they don’t operate as a conventional zoo – the site is supported independently by funds raised from personal big cat experiences, these include tours, big cat photography, overnight stays and adoptions.



The ideal gift for anyone who’s a dab hand with a camera, these photography experiences allow the participant to get up close with the cats and capture some amazing shots in the process. With group options where you can enjoy shooting with friends, to one-to-one workshops where you can really build up your portfolio, these day-long experiences will put you at one with nature, and you’ll have beautiful pictures to preserve the memory too. From £149 per person.


Afternoon tea, VIP treatment and sleeping close to the creatures – the big cat walking safari and overnight lodge experience is the ultimate must for animal lovers. The immersive experience includes the chance to hand feed one of the cats, a VIP tour and food and drink, as well as a night’s stay in the luxury lodge where you’ll wake to the sound of the lions roaring. From £500 per couple.



Get to know the cats in a whole new way, by joining a keeper as they go about their daily activities. As well as preparing and delivering food to the cats cleaning out enclosures, you’ll be given an exclusive tour by one of the keepers, who will explain about the conservation work both in Kent and around the world, and you’ll have the opportunity to hand feed one of the cats, as well as the chance to get some really good photos as mementos of your day. From £275.



Much more fun than spending time at home with your pet, the big cat encounters are a fantastic opportunity to meet one of the professionals who look after the big cats, and enjoy a guided tour of the site with the chance to hand feed one of the cats. Your tour guide will explain to you the conservation status of the cats and how work is helping to save many of them from extinction. From £199 per person.