Around 1990, Joe Taft of Center Point bought a leopard and named her Kiki. Not long after, he took in two tigers, Molly and B.C., that had been badly abused. Later, "someone said, 'Hey, you want a lion?'" Taft's Exotic Feline Rescue Center, located at 2221 E. Ashboro Rd., has grown from there and he now cares for over 160 felines, including lions, tigers, cougars and leopards. He claims to have the "largest collection of big cats in the United States."
The Rescue Center is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment. Taft or a member of his staff will take people on a tour of the area for minimal donations of $10 per adult and $5 per child. Since he lives there, he is on hand "all the time."
Besides the gate fee, the Rescue Center depends on private memberships; sponsorship of individual cats; and the sale of merchandise, including hats, T-shirts, keychains and calendars.
Taft contends that he is "not in the cat business," meaning that he does not buy or sell them. They also "try not to have any born" there, but since it costs around $1,000 to spay or neuter a lion or tiger and ties up the staff for two or three days, unplanned pregnancies do occasionally occur. And Taft says they have, on average, taken in about two cats per month for many years and have only had six deaths in the last 12 years. Therefore, the numbers have been "growing rapidly."
Taft's pet leopard, the only animal that predates the Rescue Center, has been there since she was 13 days old. She has been, Taft admits, "spoiled silly her whole life." She is kept in a cage with the first two tigers he saved. Their cage wraps around the house and the three even have access to a room in the house. They are all "sleek and shiny and fat" and Kiki will even stand on her back legs and hug her owner.
The Rescue Center has acquired felines from a number of different places. Taft says most of them were raised as pets. Six years ago, he took in 10 circus tigers. One of the lions was a guard at a meth lab in Missouri and another was seized from the car of a drunk driver. A cougar that was once turned loose in a State Park also now resides at the Rescue Center, as do seven lionesses that were featured on "Dateline" a few years ago.
Four tigers and three lions were around 14 months old and weighed only 50 to 80 pounds when Taft took them in. The tigers, like many he has rescued, were blind. They had all been locked in a man's basement, starving to death. Taft imagines that they were "probably bred to sell," and when the man couldn't sell them, he "left them there to die." This group will get the next "really big cage" available.
A tiger named Anna was rescued from a home in Minnesota after a fifth-grade boy began falling asleep at school and showing up with scratches and bite marks. He informed his teacher that the tiger slept in his room and kept him up at night. The police found feces, urine and raw chicken on the floors of the home. Anna was malnourished and had sores on her neck from a collar that was too tight. "I won't even tell you what I think should be done to those people," says Taft.
According to Cat Tales, a Rescue Center Newsletter, California Fish and Game agents raided a "so-called sanctuary" in April. The agents found "30 dead tigers and other big cats scattered around the property in various stages of decomposition; 61 dead cubs in a freezer; 13 live tiger and leopard cubs in an attic, dehydrated, malnourished and near death; two alligators in a bathtub; and their 8-year-old son living with rotting food, dead cubs, animal tranquilizers and hypodermic needles, mounds of trash and animal feces in all rooms."
After this bust, Taft's was the "only major organization to step forward." They took in eight leopards that were all as "thin as could be." Taft describes it as "the worst situation we've ever encountered." The staff took one leopard's temperature, shaved its leg, tried to find its vein repeatedly, shaved its other leg, gave it fluids and came back four hours later to administer fluids again, all without sedating it. As Taft explains it, "That's a sick animal." After a couple of months at the Rescue Center, it was able to eat.
Although the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is not affiliated with any other particular sanctuary group, animals are often referred to the Center by members of such organizations. This is partially due to the fact that Taft's is "really the only sanctuary this size that offers cages like this." The cages are "probably more spacious than any zoo in the country."
Actually, Taft hires construction workers to build the cages, which are built specially for the large cats. Each cage has two compartments that are connected by a chute. A door on each end is left open most of the time so that the cats become accustomed to walking through it. However, when necessary, the animals can be corralled on one side to clean the other, or they can be trapped in the chute in order to vaccinate them.
This system definitely makes things easier most of the time. Taft says the staff makes an effort to "clean every cage every day," but "if seven lions don't all want to get on one side, there's nothing you can do."
In addition, Taft tries to keep a large enough staff "so everyone gets fresh water, food and a clean cage" everyday, but the Center is "a major zoological operation." There are usually about 10 people on the animal care staff. The assistant director taught school for years. Taft thinks the "best help has always been people with college degrees."
Now that winter is coming up, Taft says they will cook a lot more meat and give the cats "lots of fresh straw." He adds that the animals all "do quite well in winter," especially the tigers. "Tigers love winter."
Taft is also having a new veterinary clinic built. Currently, Taft has the majority of the necessary veterinary care done at the University of Illinois, which is 100 miles away. After completion of the clinic, Taft hopes to do a "substantial amount of work" there.
Despite a great deal of media coverage, the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is still a "well-kept secret," according to Taft. He says that he has been on all the local television stations and has been on the cover of local newspapers, as well as the Enquirer and the Chicago Tribune. The Rescue Center has also been featured on "Inside Edition" and the story of seven lionesses that reside at the Center was covered by "Dateline." Nonetheless, Taft says, "It is amazing how many people don't know we're here."
More information can be obtained at www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org.