Big Cats: The Exotic Feline Rescue Center 

Joe Taft hurries past me carrying a bloody cow bone that is nearly as long as he is tall. He's got the physical stature of John Mellencamp, and the forthright demeanor to match. "God I love a dead cow," he mutters, half at me, half at the air.

Jean Herrberg, a former fifth-grade teacher, is patiently picking through a bucket of shiny-skinned rodent parts. I can't help noticing how much they look like dismembered human embryos. She holds a head up for closer examination and says, "I think it's a squirrel. What were people doing with frozen squirrel heads in their freezer?" Shaking her head in amazement, she gently holds it out to Charlie, a blind cougar with eyes that look like shiny, green river rocks sparkling in the morning sun. He cocks his head with interest, revealing a scarred face, and puts down a toy ball.

It's feeding time at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center (EFRC) in Center Point, Ind. - one of the largest and most widely respected not-for-profit exotic cat rescue centers in the United States. According to Lynn Culver, legal affairs director of Endangered Species Conservation Federation, Inc., "As far as rescue centers go, they are at the top of the list."

With 126 hungry exotic felines to feed each day, the EFRC takes whatever meat scraps they can get, including horse and cow carcasses from local farmers, donations like the squirrel parts, venison from hunters and sometimes fresh roadkill. I'm told the bobcats like unlucky rabbits.

In cool weather some lions won't be full until they've eaten 30 pounds of meat. Medium-sized cats need around 5 pounds per day. The cats prefer a diet of red meat, but since together they can put away around 2,000 pounds of meat each day, it is augmented with chicken. The sanctuary spends roughly $15,000 a year on chicken. Vitamin supplements and labor add roughly another $5,000-$7,000 to annual feeding costs. Joe, the director, doesn't take a salary and provided the start-up costs himself. Jean, the co-director, works for almost nothing. For both of them, being around the cats is payment enough. Lynn Culver is amazed by the EFRC's ability to stretch a buck. "A greater percentage of donation dollars reach the cats than in any other organization of its kind."

Cats in the country

With the exception of the lack of an onsite cat hospital, which the center hopes it will be able to afford one day, Joe has created a self-sufficient facility. There is a butchering station onsite as well as an incinerator for intestines and bones and a compost for what Joe calls "The world's largest pile of cat shit." I'm taken aback by the size and surprised that it doesn't smell, and there are no flies. That wasn't always the case.

When Joe first moved to the farm, purchasing a house and 14 acres, flies came from all around. He recalls that the entire west side of his house was once covered with black flies. In the past 11 years he has ousted the flies, luring them into the incinerator with poison, and otherwise perfected the habitat for his cats.

He's acquired 15 adjoining acres and recently 80 more, thanks to a couple of generous donations. Some of the enclosures have ponds stocked with fish, turtles and frogs. I'm relieved to hear the cats don't eat these, but Joe has seen a lion take a wayward duck. There are climbing towers, swimming tanks, trees and shade. The cougars have tall grass where they like to hide.

It's not the Serengeti, but for many cats who spent the first years of their lives living in cages, it's better. It is the transformation of these types of cats that Rebecca Horner, who worked for EFRC for two years before moving to Connecticut, misses the most. While watching Raja, a circus cat, acclimate to his new habitat, she got to see his first reaction to water, a cow leg and she saw his first signs of play behavior.

"These cats are so appreciative to be able to take a nap in the sunlight and engage in other normal cat behavior." She believes that this is a place where they are not on display or somebody's pet. "Here they can just be cats. Elsewhere they are prisoners."

It started with a fast ride

Joe knows each of the cats by name and where to locate them across the 110 acre sanctuary. He knows their backgrounds, medical histories, personality quirks and diet preferences. Molly, a tigress, for example, likes sweet corn.

But perhaps most importantly, Joe knows where they like to be scratched.

He acquired his first cat in 1965 while attending college in Terre Haute, after he had an off-the-wall, late-night fantasy about driving fast in a Lotus with a cheetah riding shot-gun. He ended up with an ocelot named Ozzy and an MG.

"The minute that cat arrived I was hooked. I was just completely enamored." In addition to an outdoor enclosure, Ozzy had the run of Joe's house and slept in his bed for the next 20 years. His passion turned to service in 1991 when he met a couple of young tigers in dire straits. They were locked in the back of a Volkswagen van and had been touring around the country with some leopards, making money for a guy who used them in photo booths. When the two tigers outlived their insurability, Joe took them from the gentleman, a native New Yorker who was later charged with animal cruelty.

The cubs, B.C. (Blind Cat) and Molly, were crippled, blind and had mouths full of rotten teeth. Today, B.C. weighs 450 pounds, his sight has been restored with corrective surgery and his sidekick, Molly, is doing equally well. They share an indoor/outdoor enclosure configured into one of three rooms Joe has converted to cat rooms. They also live with Kiki, a spotted leopard Joe got when Ozzy died of kidney failure. They are the founding cats of the rescue organization, and there is an air of satisfaction about them, as if they are saying, this place is great. Reflecting on the past 37 years, Joe says, "The MG didn't last, but the cats did."

How the cats got a mother

While Jean, the co-director, feeds everybody, Joe walks ahead and makes sure they all get some individual attention. As Jean continues feeding the cats, she recalls when she first visited the center eight years ago.

"I was living over in Columbus at the time and heard from my mother, who lives in Center Point, that some guy down the road had a bunch of large cats. While I have always been a cat person, at first I hesitated in going to see them. I didn't want to see some idiot who had a bunch of lions and tigers. I had never taken my children to a circus. I just don't believe in that."

Once she met the cats she couldn't stop coming back for visits and soon found herself taking home some lion cubs that needed bottle feeding. They stayed with her during the week and were returned to the center on the weekends. She brought a lion cub into the school where she taught. It wasn't long before she quit her teaching job of 16 years to work with the cats full-time - she's been with them ever since.

"I've always liked cats, but this became a passion," Jean explains. "There's nothing like having 500 pound lions run up to you, because they are letting you be a part of their lives."

When asked if she has a favorite feline, Jean gets misty-eyed. She presses her gloved hands together and says, "It's hard to not feel closer to the ones you've taken care of since they were babies. Many of them recognize me as their mother."

Catching up with Joe at an enclosure with eight young tigers, I notice a small ribcage sitting in the sun on top of a climbing tower. He follows my gaze.

"That's from a pigmy goat. A local farmer lost 30 of them to Yoder's disease." Joe has to be knowledgeable about which diseases can be transmitted to felines. Currently, he has a concern about venison. If chronic wasting disease spreads to Indiana deer and a cat eats venison from the infected deer, Joe will lose the cat.

Three tigers crowd around the gate as Joe lets himself in. They're all chuffing - making a noise that sounds like an amplified purr. It signals affection, or sometimes an apology. Venus, a female tiger, vies for his attention by lifting a massive paw and resting it on his shoulder. He is busy with two other tigers, but she is adamant and starts clawing at his leg.

"Damn it, Venus," he warns, "no claws on your dad!"

When she doesn't back off, he gives her a gentle whack on the head with a small shovel and, casting her amber-colored eyes downward, she retreats, tail hidden between her legs.

When three other tigers notice Joe, they tumble down the hill in near somersaults to get to him. He plays with all of them and scratches behind many black ears, while talking to me and listening to Jean on his walkie-talkie. She's got breaking news about the serval, a medium-sized African cat they have in quarantine. He was picked up by Bloomington Animal Control officers the day before when a woman found her sitting on the doorstep as she stepped out to get the morning paper. Like many cats, she arrived at EFRC with little background information.

"Her name is Majae and the owner isn't coming to get her. He says he was thinking about bringing her here anyway, before she escaped. He sounds young and a little scared. I think he really cares about her."

Joe's eyes light up as he learns about Majae, but they darken when he hears that her owner had been grilling her chicken. Add getting her to eat raw meat to the list of things she'll have to endure while she adjusts to her new home.

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