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Hear Them Roar

by Mark Wright
featured image courtesy of the EFRC
additional photos by Mark Wright

When Joe Taft was a free-spirited college student at Indiana State University back in the 1960’s, he badly wanted two things: a car and a cat.  But not just any car and not just any cat.  Joe wanted a Lotus and a cheetah. Neither was very practical for a broke college student, so he ended up settling for an MG and an ocelot.  The MG was fun, but it was the ocelot that won his heart.  “She had me hook, line, and sinker.”  Little did Joe Taft realize that ocelot was the start of a lifelong dedication to exotic cats which would lead him to the formation of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, the largest USDA- approved big-cat facility in the United States.  It’s one of Indiana’s best-kept secrets, famous among those in the business of feline rescue, but largely ignored by locals.

I am like many – living in Terre Haute, I have known the facility existed for years, and I frequently said, “We need to go check that place out.”  But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I finally did that; now I wish I had done so years ago.  It is absolutely fascinating.  “I hear that a lot,” says Joe. “We have more visitors from Chicago than we do from Terre Haute.”

Located on 109 acres of woods in central Clay county, just a couple of miles south of Center Point, the EFRC is home to just under 200 big cats (the numbers fluctuate frequently).  Right now there are tigers, lions, leopards, ocelots, pumas, lynxes, servals, bobcats, savannah cats, Bengal cats, and Asian leopard cats.  Joe and his staff have erected enclosures in which the cats reside—around a hundred “pens,” with more being added as needed. Each enclosure is designed with specific cats in mind. Basically, the pens consists of fenced off areas throughout the woods, varying in size, some with top fencing, some without, depending on the climbing habits of the animal.  Some enclosures are as large as an acre, with trees, water, and vegetation left as they were. Each has a smaller enclosure within it where the cats are confined while their enclosures are being cleaned or they are being fed. Oh yeah, being fed. They eat 3000-4000 pounds of meat every single day.

Joe Taft and friends. Photo by Mark Wright
Joe Taft and friends.
Photo by Mark Wright

It all sounds very interesting, but seeing it is something else again.  On my first visit, I found myself strolling down a path, eyes darting around, looking for whatever might be lurking behind the fences next to me.  Suddenly, a movement caught my eye to my lower right.  There, two feet from me, lay a 6-foot long tiger, eying me lazily.  Yes, there was a fence between us, but still it was a tad disconcerting. You will never have such intimate encounters with animals as you do at the EFRC.  You can’t touch, but you can look up close—very close.

Each feline has a story—often heartbreaking—and Joe and most of the other 15 or so full-time workers know each story intimately, happily sharing with visitors.  For the most part these are animals that have been abandoned or abused, perhaps seized from illegal operations.  When officials learn of these cats or seize them from some abusive owner, Joe Taft often gets the call remove them from wherever and provide them a home.  There are cats rescued from photo booth operations, cats no longer wanted by circuses, cats seized from roadside zoos, cats that were illegal pets until they were discovered, cats that were victims of meat and hide harvesting operations raided by the federal government. The list is long and deeply disturbing.

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It breaks your heart to hear what some of these animals have gone through.  Many of them pace endlessly, doing figure eights, the only kind of exercise they had ever known until they arrived here.   Zooey, a retired circus tiger, paces in a small circle because she spent her last 4 years in a 5×7 cage.  There are tigers with one eye, lions with chemically burned paws, animals whose paws had never touched grass until they arrived here; many of the stories bring visitors to tears.  Ten cats were brought here from a St. Louis- area temporary pen where an undercover officer had hidden them after rescuing them from slaughter for their meat and hides.

Today, though, these cats are livin’ the dream, at least comparatively.  Fresh meat every day, loving keepers, regular medical and dental care, and comfortable places to roam and exercise.  An agreement with the University of Illinois brings vet students and doctors to the site, as well as others who perform studies on behavior and habits.  A couple of times a year a Colorado foundation sends multiple dentists to EFRC who stay for a couple of days and perform all kinds of procedures on as many cats as possible.

Photo by Mark Wright
Photo by Mark Wright

The EFRC is not without its critics.  There have been attempts to close the facility or have it more highly regulated, stemming from area residents who fear the cats might escape, in a big storm, for example.  “We keep a close eye on the weather.” The cats are locked down in the inner cages when storm warnings are threatening.  And the cages are built so that they might collapse without the fencing losing its integrity.  “I’ve found that most of those who are critical of us have never been in here. Once most people come and see us, they want to know what they can do to help,” says Joe.

Costs to run the non-profit EFRC are staggering, and reliant on the generosity and hearts of organizations and individuals.  Visit their website at http://exoticfelinerescuecenter.org/   There you will find beautiful photos of the various residents, information, volunteer opportunities, special events and operational details. Plan a visit yourself; you’ll likely leave with a deep respect for what Joe and his staff are doing. And once you hear them roar, you’ll promise yourself to return.

About Mark Wright

After almost 40 years teaching high school English—most of them at South Vermillion—Wright now teaches composition part time at ISU. A member of the Wabash Valley Musicians’ Hall of Fame, Wright and his Band—The Crowe Committee—have become a popular attraction in the Terre Haute music scene.

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