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.
Where do they come from?
For every cat the EFRC takes in, at least 40 are turned away. Joe says, "There are probably more exotic felines in the states of Texas and Ohio than in the wild." Both states hold large, organized, exotic animal auctions. A recently rehabilitated female sibling group of three tigers was purchased in the parking lot of an Ohio auction for $25. Their story illustrates the casual passing of exotics from one owner to the next, like bags of hand-me-down clothes.
A woman bought the tigers for educational purposes, but when they grew increasingly listless and lethargic, she called Joe. Soon after the call, they were packed into a dog crate, placed on the back of a truck and driven for several hours while tarps flapped and banged against their crate. The driver admitted to doing 85 most of the way. They arrived malnourished and sickly and appeared to be in shock, their eyes wild with fear.
The tigers had been mother-raised, then torn from her and relocated a handful of times. Knowing this, it wasn't surprising to the staff that the cats wanted nothing to do with them. They were named the "Shy Girls."
Plans were quickly put in motion to improve their lives. They were segregated from the rest of the cats and placed in a room in the house where they could be fed by hand. They would snatch up chunks of meat, often imparting a hiss and a snarl before retreating to a corner to eat.
Next came a visit to the University of Illinois Veterinarian Hospital, where they had spay surgeries and dental work. Both procedures require anesthesia, and Jean stood by watching their every breath during each procedure, as she does with all cats that require surgery. Upon returning home, the Shy Girls recovered and began gaining weight. Fresh air, water and room to roam also helped improve their condition, but it was still three months before they began chuffing.
Now all traces of timidity are gone, and the tigers have been renamed the "Wild Girls" because they are so active. When I meet them they are tackling each other as they play keep-away with a goat head. Their enclosure has a climbing tower, a hill and a tree that is so huge I have to crane my neck to see the top. A cool breeze sends ripples through the grass where they play. Overhead is the type of bucolic, blue sky that seems to promise spring is here to stay.
The transformation of the Shy Girls to the Wild Girls wasn't easy and, surprisingly, that's the way Joe likes it. For the past four years, the EFRC has been taking in an average of two cats per month. A future goal is to have the resources to receive more. But for right now, they have to be selective. Joe explains, "We are always at capacity. We'll take an animal if the situation is desperate enough. We are much more interested in the lost causes."
As we continue to walk the grounds, visiting each cat, Joe imparts pieces of their histories. Tigger, a 500 pound male tiger from Ohio, mauled a worker, slicing an artery in his neck. The community in Ohio rallied for the tiger's immediate destruction, but arrangements were made to bring Tigger to Indiana.
This story makes me wonder about the danger involved in caring for these animals. I learn that there has never been an accident at EFRC. Joe and Jean are the only ones with keys to the enclosures and employees are not given access to the cages without one of them present.
The cats come from a variety of sources, including private owners, zoos, circuses, nightclubs and Vegas acts. Boomer and Donner, two Wyoming cougar cubs, and the only cats taken directly from their native habitat, were brought in after their mother was killed by a startled hunter. All of the cats are remarkably resilient.
We stop to greet Coco, a gorgeous, dark-maned lion. He's sunning himself and probably just squinting, but it looks like he's winking at Joe as if they share a secret. I learn that after not performing a trick properly, a previous owner took a baseball bat to Coco, fracturing his hind leg and two toes.
King, a 14-month-old African lion from Minnesota, lived inside a small kennel in a barn surrounded by dogs, horses and a bear. His claws had been removed. A neighbor saved him from a woman who had ordered her brother to shoot him at sundown and take him to the taxidermist. The reason: she had no money to feed him.
Sometimes felines are brought to the center because police find them, as was the case with Cosmo, a lion discovered in a meth lab raid in Missouri where he was chained up outside as a guard. "I guess he didn't do his job," Joe says wryly. Gabrielle, a regal lioness, was found in the back of an intoxicated motorist's vehicle in Southern Indiana. She arrived with a broken tail, ringworm and a heart murmur.
We move on to the Pittsburgh cats who were found in a dark basement by Jean and Rebecca, the former EFRC employee mentioned earlier. There were three lions and three tigers between two cages. At a glance, they were extremely malnourished, dehydrated and left to die. As the women's eyes adjusted to the light, they discovered several more felines wedged in cages. The smell was overpowering, and debris had to be moved to locate all of the cats. Eighteen cats were removed from the squalor.
Soon after, at the University of Illinois Veterinary Hospital, it was confirmed that half of them were blind. Their feet were burned from standing in their waste, and they weighed less than a quarter of what their normal weight should have been.
Joe warns me to keep a distance from one of the tigers. "Raja likes to piss on people as they walk by."
Why so many?
We head back to the house so Joe can check in on things. On the way I ask how there can be this many unwanted and abused cats. "The trouble is that while there are some laws and regulations in place, they are often not enforced."
He explains how he doesn't have any use for people who own exotics and don't know how to care for them. "It's very difficult for an exotic feline to live successfully in a captive environment. When private owners get an exotic pet, then give it up because they realize they are ill-equipped to deal with it, they don't realize that the animal has bonded to them." His voice rises and his jaw tenses as he continues. "To successfully care for them you have to meet their psychological needs, which are from their point of view, not ours."
As for the commercial exploits of these animals, he explains how the USDA licenses breeders, exhibitors and brokers with little discretion. "They pass licenses out like candy," he says through narrowed eyes, hands on hips, "and they have neither the resources nor the motivation to do anything for these cats." Joe feels breeders are also to blame. "Things might be different for some of these animals if breeders screened people for licenses and experience levels instead of just asking them how much money they are willing to pay."
In the cat house
Inside I meet Majae, the serval found in Bloomington. From the quarantine room she peers out of her kennel and hisses. Like the Wild Girls, she'll stay in here until she gains confidence in her new owners and surroundings, understands that meals will be regular and has seen a vet.
There are bits of straw all over the carpet and a tapestry of a spotted leopard on the wall. The bookshelves are crammed with old books. It seems like they could fall at any moment. As we sit on the couch Joe explains how this is where he recovered from heart surgery. "We built a cage around me so Mau, at that time a young tiger, could have the run of the house." As he tells me the story of his recovery, the focus is on the cats, not his illness.
Later Rebecca tells me that he recovered quickly because he couldn't stand being away from all the cats. "But while he was inside, the entire atmosphere of this place changed. It was hard for us, and especially hard on the cats. Even the birds weren't chirping."
As Joe takes a call from Jean on his walkie-talkie about Venus's permanent teeth not coming in yet, I go down the hallway in search of a bathroom. Just as I reach the handle of what I think is one, a loud roar emerges from behind the door. I jump back. Joe rushes over. "Come on, I'll show you who that is."
We walk back outside past an enclosure which is attached to a carved-out bedroom. A black, spotted leopard named Princie comes over to us and begins to chuff, rubbing his back against the fence. I eagerly stick my fingers in to scratch him when Joe corrects me, showing how to only go in as far as my fingertips. "That's not because he'll bite you or anything, but the weight of him could crush your fingers."
The remains of the day
Jean walks up while I'm being mesmerized by Princie's coat; it seems to have the color of amethyst in it. Jean's white T-shirt and blue jeans are spotted with remnants from today's meals. It's nearly 4 p.m., which means Dr. Froderman, a local vet who often assists with the cats, will be here soon. He's coming to put down Babe, a 14-year-old lion who has been with the EFRC for four years. Babe was diagnosed with injection-site sarcoma two and a half years ago. Originally given the prognosis of six months to live, she put up a real fight and has only recently been losing ground. Joe explains, "When her long-term cage mate died six months ago, it was like her cancer just took off. Her quality of life is gone." Jean nods sadly in agreement.
For the last several months Joe and Jean have been spending extra time with Babe, who was a big 380-pound cat before the cancer got the best of her. For as long as they have known her, she has walked with a slight limp because of living most of her life on a concrete floor. But she has had a little slice of heaven for the last few years of her life, living them out at the EFRC. Everyone turns to look when Dr. Froderman's pickup truck pulls onto the gravel.
It's time for me to go.
Winding down 46-East toward home, I pass a herd of buffalo lounging in a green pasture and wonder if some part of any of them will ever be used to help sustain the big cats. I begin to replay the visit in my mind, seeing Charlie the cougar's green eyes and two paws holding up a red ball that he can't see. Coco the lion is sunning himself on top of his climbing tower, his massive tail dangling beside him. An enclosure seems empty until two cougar eyes peer out through some tall grass. Raja the tiger makes like he's going to spray me, then prances by as if to say, "Psych!" The Wild Girls chase each other down a hill in a flurry of tiger tails, big paws and sinewy limbs. I see flecks of purple in the coat of Princie, the black spotted leopard, while he chuffs away and Joe and Jean beam down at him. The looks on their tired faces tell me that there is nowhere they would rather be than in the company of these majestic creatures.
Exotic Feline Rescue Center
2221 E. Ashboro Road
Center Point, IN 47840
From I-70: 4 miles south of I-70, exit 23, (Brazil/Linton) on State Road 59. Turn left at the Ashboro Church and go 2 miles east on Ashboro Road.
From Bloomington: Take State Road 46 west about 35 miles. Three miles past Bowling Green turn right onto 200 E. Go one-half mile and turn right onto Ashboro Road.