While Many Cheer Animal Rescues, One SPCA Holds On To A Big Cat

A photographer, who wishes to remain anonymous, took this photograph of Shadow in his VA enclosure in 2016. Shadow is in the center, front, in the sun patch.
A photographer, who wishes to remain anonymous, took this photograph of Shadow in his VA enclosure in 2016. Shadow is in the center, front, in the sun patch.

**UPDATE: Shadow the leopard passed away at the Virginia SPCA on February 23, 2017. Our original article from February 9 is included below.**



Despite the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) focus on moving animals into adoptive, healthy homes, one SPCA location is keeping a big cat in their own petting zoo.

The big cat, Shadow, is a black leopard. Shadow has been offered a home at a Colorado wild animal sanctuary; however, the Peninsula SPCA in Newport News, Virginia, includes Shadow in their “Petting Zoo” and charges admission for people to see him ($2) or to attend summer camps ($140 in previous years) where they can get up close to Shadow. They don’t want to send the big cat away to a sanctuary.

A “Release Shadow” group is rallying support online to get Shadow out of his concrete cage and onto grass at a sanctuary — which has agreed to take him in. Led by Laura Hill, the Release Shadow group is applying pressure on the Peninsula SPCA to send Shadow to live out his days in a more natural environment. So far, the Peninsula SPCA Board has declined. Shadow is 17 years old, and they say he’s fine where he is, in the only home he has known.

The argument by rescuers is, long-term housing does not mean that it is healthy, in his best interests, or feels like a home.

Online Pressure

In 2016, Laura Hill started the “Release Shadow” group online, with a Facebook page drawing thousands of followers. One recent entry by a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine called for Shadow’s release from a health standpoint.

Also in 2016, Mrs. Hill started a petition on Change.org that has amassed more than 175,000 signatures. Addressed to Denise Vaughn, Chairman of the Board of Directors, and Ellen Thacker, Executive Director, at Peninsula SPCA, the petition has not moved the Board. They have decided to keep Shadow in his enclosure rather than send him to live in a sanctuary.

The Peninsula SPCA may mean well. They took in this leopard is a cub and I’ve cared for him through the years. The world has changed, though, since shadow was taken in and having wild animals on display is no longer considered a good thing. Sanctuaries and big cat conservation groups have grown over the years and are well-versed in veterinary and natural needs of these special cats. An SPCA location focused on adopting pets is different from a big-cat oriented sanctuary.

Natural Habitats

As animal sanctuaries and rescue groups have expanded, so has awareness about treatment of animal “performers.” Ringling Brothers closes its doors this year. Attendance at circuses, aquatic mammal shows, and permanent petting zoos, has been declining for years. Awareness of animal issues and treatment, and education about conditions, lowers the number of people who want to see animals perform or be in cages for them to admire for a moment. The tide has been turning, and more and more people want to see animals in a natural environment where it can be happier. Many people preferred to see open environment. They prefer to show their children animals living more freely.

Things have changed since Shadow was taken in — around 1999. It is hoped that in caring for shadow, the Peninsula SPCA folks will be willing to take a step back. It’s hard. But if they take a step back, maybe they too will see that, in this new millennium, the best place for a black leopard is as free as he can possibly be — without being dumped in the wild.

Human beings can come together and justify just about anything. They often will come to the conclusion that works best for them. There will always be reason why they can say their place is “best” for Shadow: he’s there and he’s used to it, he’s been there so long, change could be hard on him, and change can be hard on his keepers. But really, what is best for a black leopard?

Whether an animal is old and institutionalized or young and yearning for freedom, when the human wants are removed from the decision, and humans step back and take a look — like Laura Hill and others have done — it is clear to see a big cat in a cage who has an opportunity to be free.

In this writer’s opinion, all living things are deserving of freedom.

Rescuing Captive Animals

Animal Defenders International — ADI — is a worldwide organization which, collaborating with other animal groups, seeks to end the suffering of animals. Not long ago, ADI participated in the rescue of a 20-year-old mountain lion (puma) held in a circus in Peru. The puma in this case was 20 — older than Shadow the black leopard is now. Details of ADI actions and the puma’s living conditions may be found in this Huffington Post November 2015 article.

When questioned about the plight of Shadow, an ADI representative had this to say:

“As [apparent] from ADI’s rescue efforts, we support animals being placed in sanctuaries that are best equipped to provide them with quality care and a life that is as close to a wild existence as possible.”

See more about this group/coalition online here.


The Wild Animal Sanctuary has offered a home for Shadow. Their representative, Pat Craig, had this to say about Shadow’s situation:

“Shadow’s case:  Yes, it’s true we have offered him a home where he can live in a wonderful natural environment, as well as transport him, all at no cost.  We have rescued dozens of older cats over the years and have always had great endings to their former lives in unnatural situations.

“The [Peninsula] SPCA is more concerned about the employee that has been the caretaker for the leopard over the past 16 years, than they are for the cat’s welfare, and use age as an excuse.  We have plenty of examples of very old cats coming to the Sanctuary and loving their new home, so there is no truth to their side of the story.”

A big cat runs freely. Source: The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Colorado.
A big cat runs freely. Source: The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Colorado.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary is online here, and their site includes photos of their Big Cat living spaces: http://www.wildanimalsanctuary.org/.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary, 1946 County Road 53, Keenesburg, Colorado covers the crisis of wild animals in captivity on this webpage: www.wildanimalsanctuary.org/captive-wildlife-crisis.

This Colorado-based sanctuary take great pains to give big cats a home as close to what would be in the wild as possible, without releasing them in their natural terrain where — due to long incarceration — a big cat cannot properly find food or safety/shelter.

Shadow’s Fate

Shadow’s fate is still up in the air. There are people on both sides who want him. Each side has different interests.

While there are dozens of possibilities, the most likely may be these:

  • Shadow stays where he is and dies in his enclosure. Peninsula SPCA mourns him and moves on. Animal groups continue attacking them for Shadow’s demise in a cage.
  • Shadow is released and transported safely to Colorado, where he lives out his days on grass and near others like him. He has room to run, sun patches to warm himself, and experienced caregivers for the rest of his life.

The Peninsula SPCA shows no signs of giving Shadow up. The online petition keeps gaining signatures, and online the Peninsula SPCA’s Facebook page is covered with comments against their keeping Shadow.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary is watching, and waiting.

Shadow is waiting too, though he may have no concept of what a safe or healthy environment looks like. All he sees is fencing.

Related Links


Ed. Notes: This rather biased editorial was written by Kay Whatley.

New Article: See related The Grey Area News article released February 20, 2017, on animal rescues.

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About Kay Whatley 2309 Articles
Kay Whatley serves as Editor and Reporter with The Grey Area News. Kay is a published author with over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. Kay Whatley is wife to Frank Whatley, founder of The Grey Area™ newspaper and The Grey Area News online news website.