Big Cats

I took my daughter to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center yesterday. It should take about an hour to drive there from Bloomington, but the directions given on the website, while technically accurate, are missing some key information.

We took highway 46 west out of Bloomington. Easy enough, although, before we left the house, I did briefly forget about a 4 year old change which road you take from downtown Bloomington to get to 46 west. I grew up here, but didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 21 and living in Arizona (just north of where Senator Highway became a gravel road, just south of Goldwater Lake), so I had no motorized automobility prior to moving away in the first place. In addition, I don’t often have a reason to drive in that direction anyway, so that part of my mental map of my hometown is less developed than some others.

A few miles west of the very tiny town of Bowling Green, a normal right turn onto a nondescript perpendicular is called for. I passed it, then I turned around and drove back to the redolently named 200 E. I headed north, past Ashboro Road, along which is housed the EFRC, for about three miles. I looked, briefly, at state-sized maps of the whole state, then at the covers of maps of Ohio, Louisville, and similarly inappropriate locales. I headed south, back to a utility worker working on utilities along 200 E, and asked him if he knew where I could find an Ashboro Road.

We found the turn marked by a sign amid much lush flora, facing west such that, when you approach the Ashboro-200 E intersection from the South, it is nearly invisible. A half-mile or so east of the secret sign, we parked next to the entrance.

The facility is amazing and bizarre. They depend quite a bit on donations and volunteer labor, but despite the low budget, they’ve put together an impressive array of enclosures. The website says they have over 200 cats (the guide today told us 192 cats, and the 2006 mid-year report says something about some of the cats dying) in enclosures covering 30 acres.

First you see a shed and a fork in a gravel drive. The guide met us, told us the rules (no petting the cats, stay at least 3 feet from the fences, a third rule I can’t remember, and if a cat turns its ass toward you, it’s likely to spray you with a very stinky liquid territory marker. We were advised to step to the side to avoid the spray, as moving back merely (slightly) delays the arrival of the stink.

The tour began on the left fork, with cougars in smallish enclosures on the left, lions in a large cyclone-fence enclosure to the right. The landscaping inside each enclosure is left up to the cats. Apparently, cougars like plenty of vegetation, whereas lions do not. Some of the enclosures have fencing-material tops, others have electrically live wires along the rim, still others are high-walled but otherwise open on top.

Because the function of the EFRC (i.e., because it is not a zoo, but, rather, a life-long home for the cats), neither the facility itself nor the population of cats is not designed for show. Whereas a zoo might have a single lion pride, a couple of tigers, and a few other cats, we saw something like 40 tigers (one of which is a genetically rare white tiger), 30 lions, a dozen and a half cougars, two bobcats, a couple of black ‘panthers’ (or melanistic leopards), some standard leopards, maybe a jaguar (?), a serval, and probably some others that I am forgetting.

Although a small number of the cats that live there were born there, the vast majority have very sad backgrounds. There are a a bunch of ex-circus cats (including one 23 year old tiger whose canine teeth were worn to nubs from incessant chewing on the bars in her small circus cage), and quite a few cats who belonged to people with very bad ideas about what makes a good pet. Three of the cougars were found in an apartment in (or near) Chicago. One of the tigers was found in a residence that also contained a meth lab. Another tiger was owned by a man who later pled guilty to over a hundred counts of child molestation (the tiger was child-bait, apparently, and had to be dealt with after the guy moved to the slammer). A disturbing number of them were found in various towns just wandering around.

Keeping track of my daughter (and myself), trying to enjoy seeing such amazing animals up close, and hearing horrible story after horrible story, I quickly became overwhelmed and felt a bit numb.

On a somewhat lighter note, they keep the names the animals arrive with. Somewhat surprisingly, there are no lions named Simba at the EFRC. There are, however, quite a few Tonys and Tiggers (and variations of Raja) among the tigers.

In one area, a male tiger tried to spray us. We hurried by and avoided any incident, although on the way back out of the area a few minutes later, my daughter was not happy to learn that we would have to walk back by the spray-happy fellow. Not helping matters was the fact that, while we listened to that and the other nearby cats’ stories, a young lion pounced on the fence behind us. We must have looked like a fine set of meat-based toys. If this ‘kitten’ had weighed about 200 pounds less, its behavior would have been adorable. It was fairly terrifying instead.

I brought my camera in hopes of snapping some national-geographic-worthy photographs. I got one (with the help of an employee) late in the tour, which can be viewed here. Because of the rules and the fencing materials used in the enclosures, it is very difficult to get good pictures. After realizing this, I quickly came to wish I had brought an audio recording device instead. The sounds were simply amazing. I don’t know why, but a number of the cats were very vocal throughout our visit. Some of the lions seemed to have important things to roar at each other. Some of them were clearly excited about feeding time (some of them excited enough that the yowls and roars repeatedly made me flinch and feel a bit panicky). Some were happy to see the woman guiding us, including a very chirpy cougar and a large number of ‘chuffing’ tigers (chuffing is kind of a snorted tiger greeting). In any case, the sounds were loud and clear. I plan on returning to record at a later date.

All in all, it was a fine field trip. A bit frustrating to find, but well worth the time and effort. They house cats from all over the country, and they do so with not a lot of money. I highly recommend visiting and, if you can afford it, donating or volunteering, too.

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2 Comments

  1. Joshua
    Posted September 16, 2006 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Did they trigger your cat allergies?

  2. noahpoah
    Posted September 16, 2006 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    No, but I made sure to take my asthma medicine before going.

    Also, as there is a no petting rule, it was unlikely that my allergies would act up. Cats only really bother my allergies if my eyes or nose come into contact (usually via my hands).


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