The lions and tigers of Indiana 

By Kendra Rhonemus

Think tiger and you might picture a cat crouched in the tropical rainforest or vast savannah, ready to pounce on its prey.

Or maybe you envision an orange and black stuffed animal on your child's bed.

But tigers - real ones - in Indiana?

Yep.

Indiana is home to hundreds of tigers, lions and other wild cats. They're in zoos, at rescue centers and maybe even in your neighbor's backyard.

Consider this:

-More than a dozen people in Indiana have state permits to keep a total of 14 tigers, leopards, bobcats, cougars and servals as pets.

-Twenty-six facilities or organizations - including a handful of zoos - have U.S. Department of Agriculture permits to exhibit or breed big cats in Indiana.

-Indiana is home to the nation's second largest big cat rescue center, a rural Clay County facility that houses more than 200 animals.

click to enlarge Tigers are the most common cat at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. - KENDRA RHONEMUS, THE STATEHOUSE FILE

The vast majority of big cats in Indiana are located in zoos and rescue centers. The Indianapolis Zoo - the state's largest - is home to three Amur tigers, three African lions and four cheetahs.

"All the animals here are in the care of keepers who are both highly skilled and extensively trained in their area of specialization and we believe that wild animals that live in human care find the best homes when they are in the care of these individuals," said Norah Fletchall, the zoo's vice president of conservation.

But Indiana is among 21 states that permit individuals to own lions, tigers and other wild felines.

Individuals in Indiana - and a dozen other states - must obtain permits to own big cats. Another eight states have no restrictions at all on their ownership, meaning individuals can have tigers or lions or other animals with no regulations on their care or inspections of where they live.

Most states - 29 of them - ban the possession of wild cats by individuals completely.

Edwin Korte, who lives among farm fields outside Decatur, Ind., raised big cats for years, but his last one - a 14-year-old female cougar named Eepie - died last week. Korte had raised her since she was a cub.

"They are the most gentle animals to have as long as you get them before they open their eyes," said Korte. "They're just like house cats."

The cougar slept in a pen outside Korte's home, which conservation officers from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources checked occasionally.

Eepie was not Korte's first cougar. After a 1984 stint in Oklahoma City for military duties, Korte met a man who owned cougars. So, he came back to Indiana and decided to get his own. For the past 28 years, Korte has owned and bred cougars.

He once owned seven at the same time. Kortes said he has no plans to get another cat.

"I'm too old," he said. "I'm 83."

click to enlarge The Exotic Feline Rescue Center’s founder and owner, Joe Taft interacts with one of the center’s tigers. - KENDRA RHONEMUS, THE STATEHOUSE FILE

But not everyone who gets intrigued by big cats has so much luck raising them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture cautions individuals against trying to raise big cats.

"In most instances, the average person does not have the knowledge or experience to handle such an animal safely at home or in public," the agency says in a position paper advocating against big cat ownership.

"Some owners take their animals into inappropriate public places and situations, such as schools, parks, and shopping malls. Because of these animals' potential to kill or severely injure both people and other animals, an untrained person should not keep them as pets," the USDA said.

Just last month, conservation officers seized four tigers and three other big cats from Rob Craig, director of The Great Cats of Indiana in Idaville, after an inspection found the cats malnourished and their cages did not meet state regulations.

Craig had a permit to keep the cats through the state Department of Natural Resources. But it wasn't the first time Craig had been cited.

In 2010, two of Craig's tigers escaped. Craig had to shoot them; one lived and one died. In 2011, the facility received two more citations. And Craig previously had a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep big cats revoked.

click to enlarge Sahara, a leopard, is one of the big cats that visitors to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center can see. Other cats are kept in pens out of sight of most visitors. - KENDRA RHONEMUS, THE STATEHOUSE FILE
  • Sahara, a leopard, is one of the big cats that visitors to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center can see. Other cats are kept in pens out of sight of most visitors.
  • Kendra Rhonemus, The Statehouse File

This time, conservation officers took Craig's cats to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Clay County, which is the second largest facility for big cats in the country.

The center currently has 231 cats, including lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats, servals and lynx, which have all been rescued, born at the center or had their owners give them up because they could no longer handle raising them.

Owner Joe Taft said cats don't come to the center as a temporary respite. Instead, the staff makes a commitment "to provide for them for the rest of their lives."

Each one has its own story: Some had known only a tiny circus cage as home. Others had never seen a human or stepped foot on the ground. Workers at the center can tell the story of each cat and most are heartbreaking. But the staff say the center has saved their lives.

The rescue center is constantly growing, the result of an increasing number of wild cats that have been discovered in states that don't allow them or have been seized from negligent owners.

"If you can do a good job, that's fine. You're entitled to get whatever you want," said Rebecca Rizzo, the center's head keeper. "Unfortunately it's all too often here that we see people not doing a good job and that's why we have as many cats as we do."

Kevin Richardson - an animal behaviorist known as the "Lion Whisperer" - also advocates against individuals keeping big cats. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Richardson works with wild felines on the sets of documentaries, movies and commercials.

Richard said through a spokeswoman that keeping a big cat is "a huge responsibility and the person needs to have a good understanding of how to keep predators in captivity."

Richardson "often says, if he knew what he knew now he may never have gotten into it," the spokeswoman said.

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