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Sunday, May 1, 2016

In Your Shoes

Friday, November 2, 2012

This week for "In Your Shoes," I headed to Center Point to hear a sound one doesn't normally hear around here -- the roar of lions and tigers.

That's right -- I visited the Exotic Feline Rescue Center to meet Head Keeper Rebecca Rizzo. When I arrived, Rebecca and the other staff were preparing meat for the exotic cats. I walked into a building with blood all over the floor and immediately felt like I was in a scene from a horror movie. There were big knives on the counter next to me and strange animal sounds behind me -- not my average day at work. But for the 15 staff at the rescue center, it's very normal.

Beginning at 8 a.m., Rebecca and the others begin cutting meat for the cats, hauling it from a big freezer room into a trailer. I have to admit, I opted out of going inside the freezer with all the meat. I wanted my breakfast to stay in my tummy. You would have to have a strong stomach to be a keeper. It was quite a site seeing those girls carrying out a cow leg covered in blood.

The rescue center uses 3,500 pounds of meat each day to feed their 228 cats. All of the meat is donated from local farmers.

Medicine for specific cats is stuffed inside some of the chunks of meat. Crushed vitamins are sprinkled onto all the meat, and then the girls haul the trailer out to the cages.

During feeding, the cats get pretty anxious. I like watching them fight with each other and pace next to the cage walls, as well as hearing them whine for food. They reminded me of myself when I'm hungry. I can get pretty whiney and grumpy when I need food too. Then once they are fed, they're as happy as can be -- like me with an ice cream cone.

While the cats are eating in the small sections of the cages, the staff goes into the larger sections of the cage to clean, lay dry straw and water the cats. Keep in mind the cages are sectioned off, so a worker is never actually inside the cage with a cat. Rebecca said their main goal at the rescue center is safety.

The keepers know all the cats by name, just as if they are pets. Can you imagine having more than 200 pets? They have nine different species of cats including lions, tigers, cougars, leopards and linx, among others. All of the cats are brought in from places across of the country that couldn't take care of them. The Exotic Feline Rescue Center has mostly tigers -- 129 in total -- as they are the number one animal on the black market.

"There are so many cats out there that need homes," Rebecca told me, saying many times people will have no idea the neighbor next door is housing exotic animals. "It happens more than people think."

When I asked how many people are on staff, Rebecca replied, "Not enough." The rescue center relies heavily on interns and volunteers. They have a lot of tasks to get done, and feeding itself can take all day sometimes. They also give tours, water the animals, put down fresh straw, make box or cage repairs, put more gravel in cages and clean. Safety is their number one goal, but cleanliness comes second.

"Can you imagine what this place would look and smell like if we didn't clean it everyday?" Rebecca asked. I could imagine, and it made me sick to my stomach. The smell wasn't pleasant even with their cleaning.

But worse than the smell was thinking about the conditions some of the cats lived in before they came to their new home at the rescue center. Two of their male lions had been neutered, causing them to lose their beautiful manes. (A lion's mane grows from testosterone.) Rebecca told me the stories of some of the cats while I walked between the cages. But her least favorite part of the job is when they lose a cat.

"Sometimes you can't always save them," she told me. "And you have to keep going. The other cats still need fed the next day."

But Rebecca's favorite part of her job is when she can rescue one of the large cats. She said she loves putting a cat into its new permanent enclosure.

"You see them running around, enjoying life -- it's the best thing," she told me.

It was obvious the keepers at the rescue center truly care about the animals -- doing whatever needed to be done to ensure they are healthy, safe and well cared for.

I loved watching the powerful lions, fast leopards and striking tigers during my time at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. The center is funded primarily through the money they make from tours or what they can raise through fundraisers. They also try to apply for as many grants as possible.

To help support the feline rescue center, I encourage you to go on a tour. The center is open to the public Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $10, or $5 for children 12-under. They also have a wish list on their website of things they could use such as office supplies, bleach, gravel or plywood.

If you haven't been before, the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is definitely an awesome place to visit.

If you have an interesting job or hobby, please contact me at tlfry@anderson.edu or by phone at 446-2216 ext. 233 for the opportunity to be featured in "In Your Shoes."

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