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a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is June 4, 2020

Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary

Mississippi’s safe haven for domestic and exotic animals

By Sandra M. Buckley

Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary

“We are not a zoo, and we are not a shelter. We are an animal sanctuary.”

—Nancy Gschwendtner, executive director

“Caring for animals is not what I do, it’s who I am.” Kay McElroy, founder of Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary in Caledonia, often stated these heartfelt words. 

Earlier this year, Kay passed away – though she has left a lasting legacy through Cedarhill’s compassionate mission to save domestic and exotic animals that have been abused, neglected or exploited. “Kay created a safe haven for all kinds of animals that lost their rightful place in society, by no fault of their own,” said Nancy Gschwendtner, who has stepped into the role of executive director. “We, here at Cedarhill, will continue to carry on for Kay.”

Kay’s mission to rescue and protect animals began in 1987, soon after she moved to Mississippi, when she happened across an ad in the Sunday paper that read, “Six-month-old cougar cub for sale. $1,000.” Curious, she contacted the owner and visited the cub. What she found there left her heartbroken. The cub was chained up in a small pen, malnourished and despondent, and its paws were severely infected from an unprofessional declawing procedure. After weeks of discussions, the cub’s owner finally agreed to trade it for an old tractor Kay had. 

As the new owner of a cougar cub, who she named Zack, Kay knew her limited options were to find a zoo that would accept him; place him in a rehabilitation center; build a special enclosure on her property and keep him, or euthanize him.   

Kay decided to keep him; and from then on, her life’s work became focused on Zack and rescuing other domestic and exotic animals from all across the country that were in need of a safe, secure and loving home. 

Cedarhill was officially incorporated in 1990 and has since become an accredited member of the American Sanctuary Association. For nearly 30 years, it has faithfully served as a refuge for an array of animals with often harrowing backgrounds – including bobcats, chickens, cougars, deer, dogs, domestic cats, goats, horses, leopards, lions, parrots, pigs, rabbits, tigers, wolves and more.

“We are currently the only true animal sanctuary who has the range of animals we have in Mississippi,” Nancy said, adding that Cedarhill is presently home to 264 animals, with several being disabled or blind. “We have four exotic birds, three bobcats, 204 domestic cats, 20 dogs, nine horses (two being miniature horses), one donkey, two lions, seven potbellied pigs, two rabbits and 12 tigers.”

Many of the animals that make their home at Cedarhill experience problems socializing with other animals and people. “We do not adopt out any of our animals because of the neglect and abuse they have gone through,” said Nancy “In March, for example, we took in three cats from a hoarder who kept them in small, separate cages their entire lives. They couldn’t stand up properly; their bodies are proportioned incorrectly because the cages were so small, and they had no social skills. After one month here, Baby Love, Gizmo and Hope are in love with their caretakers. Hope even jumps on the couch and lies in her caretaker’s lap from time to time.” 

Due to these animals’ tragic histories, Cedarhill is not open to the public. “We like to keep it as calm as it can be for them,” Nancy added. “Once they enter the gates, they don’t leave. We are not a zoo, and we are not a shelter. We are an animal sanctuary.”

The gated property sprawls across 25 acres and is surrounded with a dense, wooded habitat. Nancy described the sanctuary as having “two horse barns and a beautiful horse pasture; 12 tiger enclosures, each with their own special pool for swimming, along with luscious green grass and flowers that bloom every spring; two lion enclosures, each with their own raised den; a bobcat enclosure, which has trees and tall grass for the bobcats to hide in; the Big Cat House, which houses 140 domestic cats; the Senior and Disabled Cat House, which houses 46 cats; eight large dog enclosures, each with their own special den; a dog run field; and a pond full of turtles.”

To run an animal sanctuary of this magnitude, it takes a dedicated staff of 15 people, ranging from groundskeeper to exotic cat caretakers. “Our caretakers are extremely dedicated to the animals,” she said. “This is not just a job to them; they would do just about anything for their fur babies.”

The day-to-day management, upkeep and financial commitments at Cedarhill are substantial. For example, there are constant medical and vaccination needs as well as endless demands for bulk purchases of cleaning products. In addition, feeding the exotic cats, such as the bobcats, lions and tigers, requires 2,000 pounds of beef plus 1,200 pounds of chicken each month. Horses require 4,000 pounds of horse feed, totaling about $1,400 per month, in addition to bales of hay. Every month, the dogs eat up to 560 pounds of dry dog food and another 50 cans of canned wet food. The domestic cats each require 1,125 pounds of dry cat food, hundreds of cans of canned wet food and 2,700 pounds of litter. 

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Cedarhill relies on financial support and product donations. “We have some amazing donors who have kept us going all of these years, especially after the storms that blew through our area and destroyed our walk-in freezer, which was holding about $9,000 worth of meat for the exotic cats,” Nancy said of the recent April 18 storm. “We had so many people from the area reach out to us and donate meat in our time of need.” 

Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary began with a passion to combat animal abuse, neglect and exploitation. And thanks to Kay’s vision and years of dedication, it has resulted in the rescue of hundreds of innocent domestic and exotic animals that found their “forever home” in Caledonia.

“My hope is that we can do right by Kay,” added Nancy, “and continue her mission long into the future – making the world a better place for animals.”


How to help:

  • Sponsor a resident animal, then receive photos and updates throughout the year
  • Make a one-time or recurring financial contribution
  • Follow and promote on social media through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube
  • Start a Facebook fundraiser
  • Shop on Cedarhill’s Amazon Wish List to purchase needed items that are directly shipped to the sanctuary
  • Choose Cedarhill as your AmazonSmile charity – a free and easy way to help
  • Choose Cedarhill as your Kroger Plus card’s charity – also a free and easy way to help
  • Be an advocate and help spread the word!


“Without the help of others, Cedarhill would not be here.”  
—Nancy Gschwendtner, executive director


Visit or call 662-356-6636 for more information. 

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