One of the most incomparable places to visit within a few hours of Chicago is hardly known by the public. When I told people I’d be going to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, the only ones who had heard of it were my sister and brother-in-law in suburban Indianapolis.
Since the center’s chief source of income is the small entrance fee of $10 for adults and $5 for children, it could benefit from as many visitors as it can get. So, I have to think that the staff keeps so busy taking care of more than 200 exotic animals that there’s little time for publicity. Maybe this post can help a bit.
The Exotic Feline Rescue Center sits on 108 wooded acres in Center Point, Indiana, about 20 miles east of Terre Haute. Nine species of exotic cats, including lions, tigers, pumas, leopards, bobcats, and servals, have a permanent home there.
The animals are rescued from circuses, roadside zoos, private owners who think it’s cool to have exotic pets until the cats get to be too much to handle, and drug dealers who keep a lion or a tiger for protection.
Many of the cats suffer from mental or physical problems caused by inbreeding and early mistreatment. They’re not wanted by zoos because they are not perfect genetic specimens. They come to the EFRC, the US’s second-largest rescue center for abused, unwanted, and neglected exotic felines, to spend the rest of their lives.
Touring the EFRC is not like going to a zoo. There are no paved walkways, refreshment stands, or even flush toilets. The habitats, with chain fences and handmade wooden climbing platforms, look rustic in contrast to the multimillion-dollar “natural habitats” at today’s zoos.
But the EFRC is not a primitive operation — it’s just that the vast majority of its resources are spent on providing exotic felines with the best possible life. The animals have space, nutritious food, stimulation, social interaction, and onsite veterinary care. They enjoy a mostly natural, concrete-free environment in the woods.
And lots of love. Until I saw our guide, Andrew, rub cheeks with a tiger on the opposite side of a fence, it had never occurred to me that a human being could have a relationship with a tiger. Andrew kept warning us not to put our hands on the fences that he touched without losing fingers because the animals know him.
Andrew calls each of the cats by name and understands their personalities — “friendly,” “hissy,” and so on. Coo (male puma) loves to talk, Gabby (female lion) is more playful than most lions, and Mickey (male white tiger) is very sweet. We meet about six dozen felines on the one-hour tour — the ones least bothered by the parade of human visitors, Andrew says.
He invites a tiger to play by turning his backside to the fence and bending over. For us visitors, it’s awesome to see a large tiger leap up against a fence three feet in front of us. If you get that close to a lion or a tiger at the Lincoln Park Zoo, you’re separated by unbreakable glass, and the cat is probably resting.
Even as the playful interaction shows the human-animal bond, it also serves the purpose of discouraging any thoughts of getting a big cat for a pet.
“The cute cubs grow up to be incredibly strong and powerful,” Andrew says. “They could kill you in playing. They are not good pets.” The keepers do not go into an enclosure without pulling down a guillotine-like barrier to separate them from the cats.
As we walk the gravel path alongside the habitats, Andrew fills us in on the plight of exotic animals and the work of rescue centers.
Federal laws don’t regulate possession of animals such as tigers. Each state sets its own policies, which range from a complete ban to no regulation whatsoever. Lax oversight has allowed a billion-dollar trade in exotic animals. Owners are often negligent, confining the animals in small, dirty cages and not providing adequate food and veterinary care.
The EFRC started 25 years ago with a rescue of three exotic cats. As more land was bought through donations, its population grew. Many of the animals came from seizures by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Department of Agriculture, and departments of natural resources in some two dozen states.
When called to rescue cats they determine they can take, EFRC staff respond by driving to the location in rented trucks loaded with transport cages. The center has been averaging two intakes a month but has to turn down more animals than it can accept. It does not breed cats. Mongrel cats are not candidates for species survival programs, and there are already too many of them
Acquiring food is a constant need when your carnivorous residents eat 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of meat a day. Local farmers help out by donating dead livestock. Although the center butchers deceased animals, it doesn’t raise any animals for meat. “We care about all animals,” Andrew says. “We don’t raise animals to be eaten.”
I was struck by how content the center’s cats seem. Only one displayed the pacing behavior you often see at zoos, and Andrew attributed it to neurological damage from abusive early years. When I remarked to a keeper about the happy campers, she smiled and said, “That’s our goal.”
If you’re anywhere near the EFRC in the future, I think you’d find it worth a side trip, even if you avoid zoos because you believe that exotic animals should not be in captivity. These felines wouldn’t survive in the wild, and their home at the center is heaven compared with their previous circumstances.
The EFRC is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors who want a more extensive tour can arrange to spend the night in a cabin on the grounds. For more information and directions, see the center’s website at www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org.
If you’re inspired to do more, you can press your state and federal legislators to support a ban on the private breeding and keeping of exotic animals.