BRANSON — A Branson magician's decision to downsize his act has sent three tigers and two leopards into retirement and marked an end to big cats performing in the southwest Missouri tourism mecca.
All five cats were born in captivity and trained to be an important part of illusionist Kirby VanBurch's show on the Branson strip, the Springfield News-Leader reported. Last week, they arrived at the National Tiger Sanctuary just off U.S. 65 between Springfield and Branson.
The animals will transition from their indoor cages with rubber mats on the floor to large, outdoor enclosures.
"They'll be able to breathe fresh air. They can feel the grass under their feet, they can even roll in the grass," said Michael Murtaugh, a former VanBurch employee who raised and cared for the animals. "They'll get to be cats."
Sanctuary officials applauded VanBurch's decision to stop using exotic animals in his act. Abbie Knudsen, the sanctuary's executive director, said their departure ended a chapter in Branson's history.
"It's really a milestone for Branson," she said. "It's also good for the animals. They can be outside and in the sunlight."
The animals were well fed and in relatively good shape, Knudsen said, but still have some "challenges," such as skin conditions, foot sensitivity, lameness and hair loss. She said the walking issues stem from years of living on hard surfaces instead of dirt and straw, while the declawing process they went through changed the way they distributed weight and has been known to trigger arthritis in big cats.
VanBurch last week announced his new "up close and personal" magic show at a new, smaller theater, and said he would be no longer be using the cats in his act.
"They've been great participants in our award-winning magic show and while touring Branson has been a trip, I think they're ready for some relaxation," he said in a news release.
The nonprofit sanctuary, which now has a population of 27 with the addition of the five cats, is raising up to $100,000 to build new habitats for each animal, Knudsen said. They are being held in cages similar to what VanBurch used, but will slowly spend more time outside until they have transitioned to their larger enclosures.
Fans of the animals eventually will be able to visit them at the sanctuary.