Up Close and Personal by Nicola G. Karesh
My husband said today that he is in the business of making dreams come true. He also said that it was important to keep me and our family happy. He was instrumental in two of my dreams coming to life this year, so I guess, I am in the business of living my dreams and feeling happy!
This week, we drove up to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana. The EFRC probably first came to my attention about a year ago when I saw a book review on “Saving The Big Cats: The Exotic Feline Rescue Center” by Stephen D. McCloud. I was torn between wanting to buy the book and feeling like my heart just couldn’t bear the stress of reading about these animals’ sad beginnings. I did not buy the book then, but I did do an internet search to find EFRC’s website.
I read most everything on their site. The idea was born, that one day I would visit. Not being up on my Geography, I did not see going to the Rescue Center as a feasible road trip from North Carolina. This year, I actually checked the mileage and it was a little over eight hours. An easy day trip to me!
Several times this year, I mentioned wanting to go to Indiana. Lo and behold, my husband had a business venture to check out just twenty miles away from the EFRC. What are the odds really?! We were off!
Turning on to E. Ashboro Road in Center Point, my husband asked if I was sure that this was the road. No big billboard announcing the place, but I knew it was the road. Four miles later, we pulled up.
A tour was just starting and I could barely contain my excitement as my husband tried unsuccessfully, to get me and the children to focus for his camera. Mediocre subjects at best, we did not behave for the photographer!
We were ready to see our big cats! They already seemed so familiar to us. Endless hours poring over one picture after another on Stephen D. McCloud’s site and one biography after another on EFRC’s site.
The tour began. Children to stay with their parents and a tour guide at all times. Three feet away from fences. No touching of animals and watch out for being sprayed!
Jean Herrberg, assistant director of the EFRC, lead our group on our tour.
Up close and personal was my husband’s later comment and it certainly was! For me, it was a richly rewarding and deeply satisfying experience. My heart felt continuously full. My eyes brimmed over with tears easily. I felt a tremendous surge of love and heartfelt gratitude for these animals, those who cared for them and for the support that allows it all to be.
There was a sign at the entrance stating that if any visitor touched an animal, they would have to leave. I did not notice the sign until the end, but common sense suggested that I not stick my hand into any cage! However, during the tour, I witnessed the amazing bond between creatures and Jean. They knew her. They obviously felt loved in her presence and they seemed to want her attention and affection. They looked like big, sweet kitty cats! I would love to have been able to stroke their fur and hear them purr for me.
But, they are wild animals… predators by nature who have no established bond or connection with me. These are not domesticated house cats that I could just reach out and pet at will. That could be a fatal mistake.
I have never felt so engaged at a zoo. The animals were just right there, so close, and I could feel their personalities so clearly… so distinctly. They all had names. There was lots of visible interaction between staff and animals. Definite strong smell of lots of spraying. Felines talking to each other. Big cats coming up to the fencing for Jean’s affection and petting. Creatures capable of affection and capable of killing. It was real, vivid and personal.
Encountering the cats…
A young lioness who had neurological damage. Wobbly gait, appearing a little unbalanced and disoriented. A sweet cat who the EFRC had installed a special step for, so she could easily get up on her perch… Her perfectly agile male room-mate who was happy to make life easier for himself and use her step… Opportunist!
The tiger who was happy to aim repeatedly at the fence in his attempts to spray us as we went by…
The talkers, the purrers, the roarers, the quiet ones, the seen and the unseen ones…
Near the beginning, there was a somewhat narrow path that we had to walk down through two enclosures. The tiger “sprayer,” Raja Boy, on the right and a family of three lions on the left. I cautiously stepped down, eyes on the tiger. I did not want to be sprayed! Two of the lions, Jasmine and Lauren (a mother and daughter duo), spotted my seven and five year old children. They lunged at the fence. Dinner! We hustled by! I had never seen that predatory instinct in operation up close before. Those lionesses were totally focused, fixated and intent on their next meal. If there was no fence in place, it was obvious what the outcome would have been.
I became really present and focused myself! I barely let go of my children’s hands the whole time and was totally attentive to their staying on the gravel at a safe distance. My protective instincts were on alert.
King, was the sole lion with the two charging females. He was perched at the top of his many tiered wooden perch.
Jean called to him to come down and he got up. Immediately! Very cool.
The animals were so responsive to her. He clearly wanted to come down, but seemed a little hesitant or reluctant to descend. The result of a botched de-clawing job by his previous owners, we discovered.
India, a blind, white tiger who I fell in love with on the internet, had such a sweet, gentle personality. Jean was paying a little too much attention to the lions across the way for India, who came up to the corner of her enclosure to protest. Making a loud purring noise that I heard over and over again from many of the cats, she tried to engage Jean. She was successful! She began to claw at a tree trunk and looked ready to climb. That wasn’t in her future. Another de-clawed animal.
Brumby, born at the EFRC, was another favourite of my daughter and myself. We found this active black leopard pacing back and forth at his fence.
He was very happy to see Jean.
I am not sure about us though. We sat quietly and very still, while Jean went into Brumby’s enclosed area. Not all staff are allowed in with animals. Jean was able to stroke him at length and unfurl his long black tail. Pauli Ann, the room-mate paid no attention. I was reminded of my three house cats back home. These were no tame house cats though!
Herman, one male in a group of tigers, apparently got tired of our group standing too long in front of his house. He roared, charging at the fence. Jean hurried us along. He charged again. Time to move on.
Most of the cats on the tour seemed comfortable with daily visitors. There were others who were not so open to the public for various reasons. Reading and hearing about many of their stories, it seemed clear why many would be fearful of or aggressive towards humans. It was heart-wrenching, yet emotionally rewarding to hear about these different cats and how they came to be at the rescue center. So many had been mistreated in the past, but were now here, living their lives out with dignity and respect.
We, as a species, are able to conceive of unimaginable cruelty on one hand and incredible love and beauty on the other. I felt happy to see that these fortunate felids were now experiencing the latter. They deserved it.
The personal element really did reach out and touch me at EFRC. I could easily feel the devotion with every staff member that I met. Devotion to the animals and to their work. I could easily witness the responsiveness in return from the animals. A truly beautiful and magnificent experience to behold.
There is a huge cost, commitment and responsibility to care for these animals. The EFRC truly is a genuine rescue center and sanctuary that can use our interest, energy and support.
If you live nearby, check out their wish list online to see what you can donate. Read about what it takes to volunteer or intern at the facility, or how you can organise a field trip or classroom presentation. Drive up. Visit. Stay overnight at the guest house – adults only. An unforgettable experience with wildlife right outside your window!
Read the cats’ biographies. Open your heart. Fall in love with these precious creatures. Do what you can financially to support the continued success of EFRC. Buy the book “Saving Big Cats: The Exotic Feline Rescue Center” . A portion of the proceeds from the sale are donated to the EFRC! After our visit, I finally bought “Saving Big Cats”, so that I could take a slice home with me. The experience is indelibly etched into my heart.
Spread the word. Educate yourself about legal matters pertaining to exotic felines, so we can better care for these majestic creatures. Share this article and the links with other cat lovers… other animal lovers. Do what you can to make a difference.
My dream was everything that I believed it would be and then some!
Nicola G. Karesh, copyright © 2007 – All rights reserved.