Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A visit to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana

Joe Taft loves his job. It’s a most unusual job: he rescues lions, tigers, and other “wild” cats from neglect, abuse, and destruction – and he provides a home for them for the rest of their lives. I met Joe when I took a tour of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, which he founded in 1991. A volunteer named Larry was giving my friend Charlie and me our personal tour when Joe came shuffling up the narrow, slushy trail between animal enclosures. He greeted us warmly. Then, with a mischievous grin, he turned towards the nearest cage and pressed his face against it. The 600 pound tiger inside, which had been eyeing us with distrust, sauntered over and returned the gesture, furry cheek to bearded one.

When they were done cuddling, Joe pivoted towards the much larger enclosure on the other side. Four enormous tigers padded restlessly about. They all quickly gathered in front of Joe, pressed together like a living many-headed Hindu deity. Joe murmured “who will give me a kiss?” Then he leaned, spread-eagle, against the fence. We stared in astonishment as one of the four leaped up, mimicking the posture. The man and the beast leaned into one another, nearly embracing in a moment of unforgettably tender intimacy.

Did I say Joe loves his job? What he loves, primarily, are these incredible animals.

Lest my story lead to a false impression, I must quickly add that these are dangerous animals. Although bred in captivity, never allowed to roam freely, they live the paradox: a breathing embodiment of urban wilderness. Not domesticated, not wild: theirs is a purgatory on an earth where our species has decided it can make the rules. But if I put my hand on this fence, I would lose fingers.

In the words of Saint Exupéry, Joe and the tigers have “established ties.”  The fox says to the Little Prince, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world.” Since we were visitors like every other untamed visitor, Larry had coached us not to stray near the cages or even reach out towards the big cats. As a demonstration, Raja, one of the biggest tigers, lunged viciously against the thin chain link when Larry stepped close to it. (I wish I could reproduce the loud, alarming sound track that goes with the image below!) “Most of the felines here,” he said, “if they were let out, would rough you up pretty badly before letting you go, they way a house cat might toy with a mouse. Raja would eat you.” The volunteers learn each feline by name and personality. We gave Raja as wide a berth as the narrow lane between enclosures allowed.

Most of the tour was calm, but unnerving roars would break out unpredictably to remind us not to get complacent. We learned many things. Lions can tolerate cold but hate snow while tigers don’t mind getting their paws wet. Servals, small lanky cats with large ears, have superb hearing and are among the best hunters, but are themselves prey to lions and leopards. The rescue center feeds its 225 felines about 3,000 pounds of meat a day. Most of this is freely donated by neighboring farmers, who benefit by not having to pay for the disposal of sick or aging livestock.

The most important lessons gleaned from our visit were the many, often shocking, stories of how these cats came to be rescued. I’d read about the lucrative market for illegal wild animals – and animal parts – but had no idea that so many “wild” animals are bred and raised in the US for that market. Truly wild tigers, for example, number somewhat less than 5,000 worldwide. Larry informed us that there are probably 10,000 tigers in the US alone. Some are bred to turn a profit in the circus and entertainment industries. Profitability, however, is tenuous at best and often short in duration. Many large felines are simply killed or allowed to be “hunted” at point blank range for trophy heads and skins.

But, incredibly, the most common problem is people who think that they can own a tiger or cougar or bobcat as a pet! It is much more prevalent than I would have imagined – if I’d ever imagined owning a wild animal with sharp teeth and claws – and unpredictable temper. Apparently they are easy enough to acquire. An internet connection brings buyer and seller together in the back corner of some Wal-Mart parking lot and for $150 or so a tiger cub becomes a “pet.” That’s cheaper than a lot of dogs! But what happens when the cub becomes an enormous and unmanageable menace? Many are confined in small cages, left to suffer in their own filth, and starve to death. The lucky ones are discovered by inquisitive neighbors who then alert understaffed state agencies and, if there’s room, brought to a place like this Center. Here they can live out their unnatural lives if not in freedom at least in peace. Joe and his intrepid staff of volunteers make sure of that.

“You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.” Saint Exupéry

For much more information, pictures, and personal stories about the animals, go to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center website. And if you’re ever in the vicinity – just east of Terre Haute off I-70 – it’s well worth a visit!

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