Animal Moments

Lions and Tigers and Pumas and Leopards and Oh My!

April 30, 2007

Cozily ensconced in the woods of west central Indiana is the Exotic Feline Rescue
Center (, a sanctuary for about 200 big cats
(tigers, lions, leopards, pumas, etc.). The EFRC calls their mission “simple”: “We
provide permanent homes for exotic felines that have been abused, abandoned
or for some reason have nowhere to live out their lives, while educating the public
about these beautiful cats.”
We joined about forty other visitors to the EFRC on a delectable spring Saturday
to help the Center celebrate their “Spring Fling.” This annual event offers an
extensive tour of the Center grounds and an introduction to most of the feline
Joe Taft (the director) owns about 100 tigers, which represent one fourth of
all the tigers known to be in captivity in the United States. When we asked what
species they were, Joe said, “They’re just tigers.” These animals are a genetic
jumble, since for the most part they are the result of (usually illegal) breeding
for a range of appalling purposes, such as the pet trade (for example, grown lions
and tigers have been rescued from situations where they were serving as guard
animals for drug dealers), photo-boothing (where the subject holds a baby lion or
tiger while the picture is taken; once the animal gets bigger, it cannot be used any
longer), and for the exotic hide market.
The magnificent cats are kept in large reinforced mesh enclosures situated
among quiet, shady woodland. That is, it’s usually quiet. Occasionally during our visit,
one cat would let out a roar, and others would chime in from all over the habitat.
It was thrilling and a tiny bit scary.
When we first arrived in the morning, our small group was permitted to visit an area
not part of the normal tour. This is where the more “difficult” animals are kept, the
ones most likely to be stressed by visitors and lots of human activity. As we watched,
several keepers wheeled a large wagon filled with chunks of cow and chicken (most
of the meat is donated by local farmers) into the area and served it out among the
animals. It takes most of the day to feed about 200 animals. The cats are fed six
times a week in the summer and every day in the winter. (We asked how the cats get
along in the winter weather and were told that they do fine: ­they eat up to four or five
times as much in the colder weather, 30 pounds, say, instead of the four or five pounds
a day they eat in summer.)

I am used to seeing one, or maybe two, tigers at a time. One of the enclosures in the
back area housed no fewer than NINE tigers, the offspring from two litters which
the EFRC raised from kittenhood. It was quite a sight to see these nine 400-pound
animals moiling and roiling in the smaller feeding and holding area that is built into
every enclosure. Although most tigers in the wild are loners, the captive animals
apparently benefit from having companions.

Joe early on told us the most important rule at the EFRC, and the posted signs
reinforced it: “If you touch a cat, you will be asked to leave.” We were asked to
keep at least three feet away from the fencing. Joe, however, is naturally above the
rules, and he went from enclosure to enclosure, going right up to the fencing,
greeting the animals by name, and letting the cats smarm on his face
while he scratched them affectionately through the mesh.
Another warning had to do with a typical cat behavior: a big cat is likely to turn
around and spray a visitor with urine (even as they spray one another), perhaps
as a form of greeting. Early in the morning, before I was aware of this behavior,
I was standing by the cage with nine tigers and felt a light sprinkling of what
reminded me of liquid sunshine (the light rain that falls in full sun in Hawaii and
other parts of the tropics). It was only later that I realized that my pants were
speckled with droplets of urine! No matter. It wasn’t so bad that I had to buy
one of the t-shirts the EFRC now features: “I was
sprayed at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center.”