Tiger can be seen behind enclosure on the left, Doyle and Sylvia stand on the to the right, observing


Honors student gets face-to-face with big cats

Spring 2021

Story and photos by Brendan J. Sullivan 


Not even a pandemic can keep Bellarmine University from offering its students richly rewarding educational experiences. In September 2020, Dr. Carrie Doyle, assistant professor of Biology, and Bellarmine Honors student Sylvia Ramsey conducted research for Sylvia’s senior thesis at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana. The center is home to nearly 150 big cats.  

Doyle and Sylvia spent 10 days researching the effects of positive enrichment on the cortisol levels and gut microbiomes in a group of 10 female tigers. 

“I especially feel for these big cats because we as humans have put them here in the U.S.—they don’t belong here,” Sylvia said. “It's people who have done them wrong, that have done all this to them, so I just feel like I want to do my best to make it right on behalf of my species for their species.”   

The Exotic Feline Rescue Center takes in big cats from situations of abuse and neglect, said Tiffani Shearer, one of the keepers at the center. “A lot of them come from the private trade, pet trade, fur trade, meat trade…We are basically a home for those guys.” 

Some of the tigers in Sylvia’s study were fed regular chicken; others had their chicken placed inside pumpkins, which provided “sort of a toy to play with,” she said. “We're going to see if that actually has an effect on their cortisol levels.” The two also took cultures from fecal samples to determine how closely the tigers’ diet in the Rescue Center replicated what they’d eat in the wild.  

The hope is to help keep the big cats healthy. “This gives us the opportunity to give back, and we can give back to this Rescue Center that's really trying to do the best for these animals,” Doyle said. “I think it's really just a great project on both sides.” 

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