Every February for the past three years I have had the most incredible opportunity to visit a wildlife sanctuary in Apopka, Florida, The C.A.R.E. Wildlife Sanctuary. It is located on a beautiful piece of property tucked away in the middle of rural Florida amongst the trees. C.A.R.E. houses two bears, two black leopards, three tigers, venomous snakes, raccoons, foxes, monkeys, a cougar, a panther, even a variety of barnyard animals. They are all cared for by an amazing woman named Christin who founded CARE back in 1998. Of course she has staff and volunteers that help her but when she walks around, the property, the animals only have eyes for her. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting her you will be as drawn to her as they are. She is like meeting a powerful warrior princess. This incredible woman has scars from being bit by every animal imaginable and when sharing her war stories, she will humbly tell you how it was her fault she was bit. She takes amazing care of each and every animal housed on her property and knows every small detail of their personality. They all exude health and happiness which is a rarity for many sanctuaries and a testament to her love and care.
What brings me here each year is my business partner Kathleen Prasad of Animal Reiki Source. Kathleen teaches a three-day animal Reiki teacher training class once a year at the sanctuary. I have the incredible honor and job of being her assistant during class and educating the students of the benefits of joining our non-profit, the Shelter Animal Reiki Association (SARA). CARE is an official SARA shelter which means they are open to animal Reiki and happily allow it to be offered to the animals by SARA members.
Although each of the animals at CARE is amazing in their special way, for me the two Bengal tigers, Tigger and Punkin, are the draw. As soon as I arrive I run to the back of the property to sit with them and enjoy their overwhelmingly powerful energy. There is simply nothing better in life than those moments I share with the tigers. I am not really a cat person but these cats are an exception. They have a strength and beauty you can’t help but admire, respect and fear. All you have to do is be around them at feeding time to realize they can switch from calm to fierce in the blink of an eye, reminding you that as cute as they are, they are still wild animals. If you still don’t get it after witnessing the fierceness at feeding, Christin will be sure to give you a lecture on all the reasons wild animals do not make good pets. Unfortunately some of the animals at CARE are there because they were being raised as pets and the owners quickly realized they were in over their heads. Luckily for them, their stories ended well by being rehomed at CARE.
During my first visit to CARE, I was immediately drawn to Tigger and Punkin. On the first day of class I couldn’t wait to get up to their area and practice Reiki on them. As a Reiki practitioner I sometimes find myself in the mindset of “I’m going to offer Reiki and make you feel better” which is my ego getting the better of me. The tigers who are masters at sensing bullshit, immediately corrected me and said “No! You’re going to let go, stop doing, stop feeling sorry for us and see what true Reiki feels like!” And once I let go of all thoughts of doing and all thoughts of “oh you poor caged tigers”, I was able to connect with them and feel their energy wash over me. In that space of connection it was like riding a wave and feeling completely loved and free. The strength of it was overwhelming yet it was at the same time calm and peaceful. If I had to paint of a picture of the feeling it would be of a beautiful sunset with the sky bathed in deep orange, red and pink. The kind of sunset that takes your breath away and you hope never ends. As I sat with them in the Reiki space, I let go of all worries, all thoughts of doing and immediately was in a place of just being. They reminded me that this is what the true nature of Reiki is – being without thought or expectation. For a control freak like me, on my own this is a very hard concept to grasp but in their presence it was easy and natural.
Their energy is addictive and impossible to leave but eventually leave you must and it is with a very heavy heart when you do. Luckily with Reiki I found I could easily tap back into that energy and bring them into my meditations to help guide me back to the place of just being. During the year between our first and second visits, I practiced with them on a regular basis. I felt so blessed and thankful to have such amazing Reiki teachers. Frans Stiene and Kathleen are my two human teachers and I don’t want to sell them short because they are both beyond anyone out there, but Tigger and Punkin are masters on the level of Buddha. Actually, I can’t help but think he would fall short too!
The year between my first visit and second visit seemed like a lifetime but finally, February 2012 arrived and Kathleen and I were back at CARE! We were both excited and anxious to see if the animals would have any memory of us at all. Although our hopes were high our expectations were low. As great as we might think we are, we know from personal experience animals will be the first to pop your ego and let you know you’re really not!
Our first visit was to Makoto, a beautiful black leopard who just happened to be a man-eater. Yes, a true, “I would just as soon as eat you as look at you” kind of a leopard. No one could believe Christin took this boy on but she did and in her care he was at least manageable for her. But for the rest of us lowly people, he only had contempt. The year before, Makoto had made a very special connection with Kathleen which had been surprising given his nature and history. During the year between our visits, Kathleen had been connecting with Makoto through Reiki to help her find the strength to not only beat cancer but to live and thrive. For her, this first visit was unique because she wanted to thank him for all he had done to get her through the darkest moments of her life.
Quietly we walked up to his cage where he sat still, looking at us out of the corner of his eye. Kathleen started talking to him sweetly and thanking him for all he had done. Makoto turned and looked into her eyes and then started sniffing the air. He tried to stick his nose out of the cage to get a better smell. And then the most amazing thing happened. He started purring and rubbing his head on the cage like a domestic cat happy to see his partner! Wait, isn’t this the man-eating leopard that tolerates no one? To say we were shocked at his response to her is a huge understatement.
After some much needed Makoto love for Kathleen, we were off to the tigers. I could barely contain myself! As we walked up the path to their area we started talking to them. They immediately jumped off their perches and came to the fence where they started chuffing – a sound they make when they see a friend – and rubbing their bodies on the fences close to us. What a wonderful hello and welcome back! It was such an amazing feeling to know these beautiful beings remembered us and were so happy to be seeing us again!
That visit and our most recent visit with them made me realize that when I let go and connect with my heart to the tigers’ hearts in the meditation space, they are really truly feeling it as much as I am. Of course this is something I always tried to believe, wanted to believe, but my ego always had reasons why it may not be possible. Their response to me removed any and all doubt. They let me know they felt the connection as deeply as I did. It was such an amazing lesson to know that in the space of connection, there really doesn’t exist any time or space. In that space of heart connection, you are truly together. So profound yet so simple. It was this lesson that made me realize Tigger and Punkin were the real teachers and that I was just a student who had a lot to learn.
Looking into the eyes of a tiger is an incredibly humbling experience. There is no hiding your insecurities, weaknesses and dishonesty. They see you for exactly who you are and if you come to them with an agenda, they will quickly let you know they are playing no part of that. Like true masters, they teach you to be mindful of the precepts. Do not come to us with anger or worry. Be humble, honest and compassionate to yourself and others. If you are anything but, the tigers will show you their backs and insist you do not bother them again until you can sit in their space without ego. I wish I could say I have never been reprimanded by Tigger and Punkin or felt their cold disconnect, but I am human and needy and in practicing the honesty precept I will share that I have once or twice gone to them with an agenda expecting them to look at me and do their cute chuffing sound and make me feel special. Unfortunately, tigers, much like homies, don’t play that game. They give you a disdainful look for a quick second before they turn and pretend you are nothing but a pesky fly. If you have never been dissed by a tiger, be glad. It is a very humiliating feeling!
A few months have passed since my last visit but every day I am with them in my meditations. When I close my eyes and let go of the day’s worries, I connect to them with my heart and feel their powerful energy bring me to a quiet place where my body and heart start to heal. They generously offer this beautiful space where I can connect and experience, if only for a moment, what it feels like to really live in the precepts. A human teacher may be able to offer this too, but the animals bring it to you in a way that allows you to experience this lesson with every cell in your being.
If you ever have a chance to get to CARE (and really you have no excuse not to since Kathleen offers a class there every year!), be sure to take a moment and sit with Tigger and Punkin. You will find yourself in the presence of two beautiful Buddhas whose looks fill you with a sense of peace and love you never knew existed.
If you were inspired by this story and would like to help Tigger and Punkin and the other animals at CARE, please visit www.carefoundation.org.
Kathleen Prasad of Animal Reiki Source will be offering another Shinpiden Animal Reiki Teacher Training course in February 2014. For more information, please visit www.animalreikisource.com.
About the author: Leah is the Vice President of the Shelter Animal Reiki Association (SARA). She has taught animal Reiki classes at the Humane Society Silicon Valley, the Homeless Cat Network, Rabbit Haven and offers regular classes at Pregnant Mare Rescue in Aptos, California. She is currently teaching the SARA Animal Reiki for Reiki Practitioners teleclass. Leah is available for in person animal Reiki treatments.