A Place for Weary Wildlife
Pride Rock in Terrell Takes Care of Exotic Animals with Nowhere to Go
An air-conditioned trailer rattles across the rolling hills of East Texas, its only passenger entirely unaware of the safe and loving home awaiting him.
His name is Rambo and his story, up to this point, is a sad one.
A tiger born into captivity — like most exotic cats in Texas and the United States — he spent the first few years of his life imprisoned in a dark basement with no access to sunlight or the outdoors. His owners neglected him and were ill prepared to keep such a large and potentially dangerous animal as a pet.
Rambo’s journey ends at Pride Rock Wildlife Refuge in Terrell, and his future appears much brighter. An East Texas nonprofit started a quarter of a century ago, Pride Rock is a sanctuary for abused, surrendered and confiscated exotic cats, including lions, tigers and cougars. Nestled in Terrell’s piney woods, it goes unnoticed by everyday passersby, but owners Gary and Carol Holliman share their nine-acre property with close to 30 exotic animals — ranging from bears and wolf dogs to hyenas and other tigers like Rambo.
In 1992, the Hollimans moved from Carrolton to Terrell with several wolf dog hybrids. Shortly thereafter, they saw an ad in the local newspaper for a lion named Gabe. Because they had the land and Carol had always had a fascination with large cats, the couple adopted the lion and raised him in their own home — a practice they strongly discourage for untrained others due to the potential dangers as well as unpredictable expenses, plus the likelihood of unintentionally improper animal care.
After further research and the experience of caring for Gabe, the Hollimans’ taste for animal rescue grew. Word spread about their situation and they were increasingly approached by people and organizations about other big cats in need of rescue. In the ensuing years, the sanctuary’s roster of residents grew and the Hollimans have dedicated their lives and land to saving and housing abused, neglected or abandoned animals with nowhere to go.
Typically, the animals are brought to the refuge when private owners, zoos or entertainment companies make contact after they’ve run out of options for the care and safe keeping of their exotic charges. The sanctuary has rescued big cats from locations stretching from West Virginia to California, making long trips with a transport trailer large enough to hold up to two cats at a time.
Unlike many private owners, the Hollimans have educated themselves in the proper care and protection of exotic animals.
“It’s our mission to rescue the animals and give them the best life they can have after — sometimes — a horrible prior existence,” Holliman says. Funded entirely by donations, the organization provides species-appropriate habitats, daily enrichment activities, and proper nutrition and veterinary care to all their animals.
And despite an original focus on exotic cats, Pride Rock recently took on a hyena and three black bears. The hyena, named Helena, came with Diego the lion from a private facility in East Texas in early 2016. The bears were saved from potential euthanization in 2015 and, with Pride Rock’s year-long effort to build proper habitats, were finally able to step foot on dirt for the first time in their lives in September.
“We didn’t have a place for black bears,” Gary says, “but I decided that the most important part was just to get the bears moved from that property so they didn’t get euthanized,” he explains. After that, he spent the better part of a year raising the necessary funds to build separate outdoor habitats for the bears, complete with individual swimming pools and play structures.
Corey Allison, Pride Rock’s operations manager and head keeper, says that if they have the room, they will take any animal.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” he says. “We’ll take a 20-year-old lion on its deathbed if we think we can give it a better quality of life for the remainder of its life.”
Education is a key element of Pride Rock’s mission, and marketing director Robyn Wheeler gives presentations to the public about the humane treatment of animals and the dangers of buying and selling wildlife species. She also speaks to a variety of civic organizations and attends events to publicize the cause and recruit donors and volunteers. When giving presentations to children’s groups and at venues like local libraries, she says children enjoy hearing recordings of animal sounds from the
sanctuary and learning about the differences between dogs and wolves.
Although Pride Rock Wildlife Refuge communicates regularly with community members via its presentations and through blogging and social media, the sanctuary is not open to the public because the Hollimans want to provide a peaceful and stress-free environment for their charges.
Meanwhile, staff members and volunteers say the benefits of what they do are evident every day.
“Watching them play in a bubble bath or take their first steps on soil is humbling,” Wheeler says. “It’s a tremendous feeling to know we have done everything we can to make these animal’s lives just a little bit better.”
Each year, the organization hosts a variety of fundraisers and, in the fall, participates in North Texas Giving Day. Monetary donations are welcomed year-round along with gifts of labor, material and food for the animals. For more information about Pride Rock Wildlife Refuge, visit priderock.org.