News & Politics » Feature

His Wild Kingdom

Joe Taft's 200 big cats get to live out their lives in peace. He gets to live a lifelong dream.



Center Point, IN

Joe Taft wants his bedroom back. For four months it's been inhabited by a baby tiger named Max, while Taft, who's 60, crashes on the couch. "I can't get him out of my house until I move these other cats into the new pens being built," he says. "Then I can finally have a bedroom. The walls are pretty raggedy in there." He means claw marks, like the ones in his kitchen and living room.

Taft walks into the bedroom and pushes open the sliding door to the pen where Max is. The tiger immediately dives for his ankle. "Now don't bite your dad," he says. Max then tries to get his paws around Taft's head.

Taft is director of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, which provides homes for big cats--lions, tigers, panthers, pumas--that have nowhere else to live out their lives. The cats come from across the country, primarily from government agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Natural Resources, which take the animals from owners who've neglected or abused them--sometimes circus people, mostly private individuals. Taft can't take all the cats he gets calls about. "There are a number that we don't take that are put to sleep," he says. "Several cats that we didn't take remained where they were and got in trouble--bit people or escaped. Some of them were placed in other centers." Taft usually won't take a cat he doesn't have room for, but Max was a special case--the DNR rescued him when he was just seven weeks old.

The EFRC has been operating since 1991, when Taft moved to Center Point with two tigers and a leopard. It's now home to 200 cats on 110 acres. Taft doesn't advertise, but word of mouth brings him around 7,000 visitors a year, most of them kids on school trips. There aren't many other reasons to visit Center Point, a sleepy place 240 miles southeast of Chicago that's like a ghost town--the main drag has a boarded-up general store and antique shop, a diner with no patrons. But that's exactly what Taft wanted. When he was scouting properties he told the real estate agent, "I'm looking for a place with no neighbors."

With good reason. Taft put the butchering area right at the entrance to make it easy for farmers to drop off sick or dead livestock, so the first thing a visitor often sees is a blood-spattered employee hacking up a cow with a chain saw. And the area reeks of urine, feces, and rotting meat, though the rest of the center just smells like an ordinary zoo. At one point while Taft's giving a tour of the center he walks up to a ten-foot pile of mostly eaten carcasses on pallets. "One of the most unending jobs we have around here is waste control," he says, squirting charcoal lighter fluid on the heap. He lights one match after another and tosses them on the pile, and finally flames shoot up. A barbecue smell fills the air.

The center's head butcher and assistant director, Suzanne Taylor, takes the admission fee from visitors, then warns people not to get too close to the fences or put their hands through the mesh. "If a cat appears distressed by your presence walk away quickly," she says. "If it turns its back end toward you it's going to spray--and that's when you should run." But people keep coming because the EFRC provides a more intimate experience than a zoo.

Around 130 cats are on display in the main visitors' area, and 30 more are down the road in overflow pens in the yard behind Taft's house, which also contains the EFRC's offices. People who want to watch the cats at night can pay $120 to sleep in his extra bedroom, from which they have a great view of three of the tigers in the lighted backyard. Another 35 cats are in a restricted area an eighth of a mile away because they're aggressive. "This tiger killed his trainer," Taft says, as he walks past its pen. "Those two tigers sticking their heads around the bend are extremely aggressive. We don't let anybody near them."

The chain-link fences separating people from cats are 12 feet high and topped with barbed wire. Visitors walk through the narrow pathways of the main visiting area unsupervised by staff. Near feeding time tigers sometimes stalk them, licking their chops. Taft says that the enclosures are more than sufficient to keep the cats on their side and that because the animals are well fed they're not dangerous.

Taft's affinity for big cats goes back to childhood. Raised in Colorado, he loved the Denver Zoo and remembers when it first opened outdoor enclosures for its cats. During his undergraduate studies in philosophy at Indiana State University one of his professors talked about having once kept a lion as a pet, and shortly afterward Taft stopped at a pet store near his apartment. "I asked them about keeping big cats, and they said, 'Oh, sure, that's something that people can do.'" He says he started fantasizing about "driving around with a well-behaved cheetah in a Lotus."

He bought his first cat, an ocelot he named Ozzie, from the pet store. Soon he dropped out of college and moved to Chimayo, New Mexico, where he could let Ozzie run unleashed in the national forest--something he says he'd never do now. "My education began with Ozzie--living with her was a tremendous learning experience," he says. "I also read a lot of books on animal behavior, on keeping pet ocelots, about people who'd spent time with the circus, and books like the 'Born Free' group, which was a series of books and then movies by Joy Adamson, whose husband was a game warden in Africa. They raised three orphan lion cubs who pretty much ran loose. I also went to places where they kept cats and saw how other people did it. I went to zoos--I've always been a big zoo fan. I went to Texas, where there are a lot of private owners and facilities, a few of which were nice and many that were horrifying. I've also visited facilities in the Las Vegas area, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Indiana."

After Ozzie died Taft got a leopard, Taaka, from a private owner in California who'd kept her in the parking lot next to her mobile home. Taaka had the "run of the house most of the time" during the two decades she lived with Taft. "I probably spent the first two years thinking that I'd made a terrible mistake and being halfway afraid to be home," he says. But that changed. "She'd sleep on my bed in the winter."

Taft stayed in Chimayo for 20 years, running a construction company and working as an excavation contractor. But he knew he wanted to open a rescue center. "All I ever wanted to do is share my life with cats," he says. He wanted a place where he could give the animals a lot of room to move around, and he knew he could do that in Indiana. He also knew he'd have access to plenty of livestock there. Taaka and two tigers in tow, he drove back to the midwest.

Today the EFRC has 11 full-time and 2 part-time staffers and a $375,000 yearly operating budget. Last year visitors' fees brought in approximately $135,000; additional money came from fund-raisers like the Run Through the Jungle 5K Walk/Run as well as memberships, sponsorships, grants, and the sale of T-shirts, hats, and magnets with cat images on the Web site. Vet care costs $15,000 per year--there's a clinic in the office basement for the vet, who lives nearby. The center's cat food may be essentially free, a gift from the local farmers, but Taft says processing it costs approximately $35,000 a year, since one staffer "does nothing but go around and pick up dead livestock." The cats go through 3,000 pounds of meat per day. "If we weren't able to process our own livestock," he says, "if we had to do some kind of commercial carnivore diet, we wouldn't be able to do this."

Taft's construction skills come in handy at the center. "A large part of [keeping cats] is being able to build," he says. His formal education hasn't proved particularly useful, but he prefers hiring people with relevant degrees. "If they've stuck it out for four years in school, then they'll probably stick it out for a while on a job," he says. "The college grads we've had are better at record keeping, noticing aberrant behaviors, noting the onset of illness and disease. And they make more astute observations about mating cycles and all the attendant aggression--and certainly make for better tour guides."

Rebecca Rizzo, a 24-year-old staffer wearing glitter eye shadow and blood-and-feces-stained cargo pants, studied zoology. "I always loved animals, wanted to work with big cats," she says, "so I put two and two together and found this place." The work is primarily feeding and cleaning. "It's just loading carts and pens and remembering who eats what, cleaning the cages. Sometimes I butcher up deer and calves."

Nine of the 11 staffers are women. "We've had guys interview but the pay is just not there, and to guys that is usually a big issue," Rizzo says. "Some of them also had trouble working under women. And I think the cats are just used to women."

Taft and his staff spend as much time as they can educating people about the plight of the cats. He occasionally gives lectures, and Jean Herrberg does presentations at schools. The center also publishes a seasonal "Cat Tales" e-newsletter and offers guided field trips, a volunteer program, and credit and noncredit internships. Many of the volunteers and interns are from Indiana University, staff and students who drive the 35 miles from Bloomington to build cages, clean pens, and sometimes prepare meat for the cats. Taft has no interest in having anyone train the cats. "We don't try to teach our cats to do anything," he says proudly.

All exotic-cat rescue centers are supposed to be licensed by the USDA. The EFRC is, and the agency periodically inspects it. DNR officials have also checked it out. "The animals all appeared to be well cared for," says the department's Linnea Peterchaff, who went to see how Max was doing this past winter. "Their cages provide a lot of space in a natural habitat, with plenty of room for the cats to walk around and jump on platforms. Some even have ponds in which the cats can swim and play. The cages and perimeter fence were all secure." She calls the staff "very knowledgeable."

In 15 years there's been only one accident at the center, and Taft says it was because safety procedures weren't followed. The pens have two sets of paired guillotine-style slide gates that allow workers to open the outer one and set down food, then close the outer one and raise the inner one so the cat can get it. They also use the gates to corral the cats while they clean the pens. "This kid had worked for a while and was cleaning a cage, and instead of paying attention to what he was doing, he got distracted," Taft says. "He started looking at this beautiful girl who'd walked up--he pulled on the cable to open the slide gate and was standing there looking at her with the door open. The tiger came up to him, grabbed his shoulder, dragged him to the feeding pile, and bit him in the butt." Taft was nearby, and when he heard the girl scream he ran toward the cage yelling. He says as soon as the tiger heard him it let go of the guy. "I picked up the shovel and a bucket that we used for picking up poop, because having those things in your hand does a lot in terms of managing them and making them move around. Not that I ever hit them with the shovel or anything, but having something in your hand always impresses them. You'll see that sometimes circus trainers have just a little stick in their hand, and cats respond to it. So I went in, and the tiger backed off from me, and I pulled him out." After getting cleaned up at the hospital, the guy went back to work. Taft says he's never been seriously injured in 41 years of dealing with wild cats. "I've only gotten cuts and scrapes. Had a good chunk of hand sliced off by a lion's claw once. It hurt like hell but wasn't life threatening."

Just because a rescue center is licensed doesn't mean it's well run. Taft has two leopards that came from a man who ran a center near LA. "When state and wildlife officials went to his home--which was not where he was supposed to have cats--they found almost a hundred dead lions and tigers and other cats in really bad shape," Taft says. "A lot of them were babies. With babies you can make money by letting people take pictures with them or by selling them, but once they're grown you have to feed and house them, and they become a liability." According to a New York Times story, the man was sentenced to two years in prison. The guy who owned Max had a USDA license to breed and sell his animals, but after the DNR raided his property last fall they seized most of his 24 tigers and other exotic animals. According to an Associated Press story, the head of the DNR called the conditions there "horrific."

Taft, who frequently accompanies DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and USDA officials on rescue missions, thinks the main reason cats wind up being mistreated is that people have unrealistic expectations about what owning them entails. "People that get these animals don't realize how big they are," he says, "how aggressive they are, and don't realize the kind of care or food it takes to feed them."

Despite the abuse he's seen, Taft believes some people can handle them as pets. "I know people who do a really good job with these cats," he says. "It is very important that people be able to develop relationships with animals, and if people aren't able to build relationships with animals, then there's a lot of things about them and about us that we'll never know."

He goes on, "I think there are direct and strong parallels between the way animals behave and the way people behave--and I'm not trying to be anthropomorphic here. I mean, we all deal with aggression and flight and hunting one way or another--providing our sustenance, dealing with social interaction. And animals do all of this just like we do. So I think a relationship with animals with that in mind opens us up to learning things about ourselves, and that understanding in turn helps us understand animals in a better light."

Taft isn't married and has no children. "At least none that are bipeds," he says. As he's walking through the pens he sees three male lions scuffling and chastises them: "Now daddy told you to stop that!" One of the lions comes up to the fence and roars in his face. "Tucker, do not growl at me!" Taft says, looking offended. "Do! Not! Growl!" A moment later Tucker begins nuzzling Taft's leg through the fence, suddenly an amorous house cat. Taft walks past a leopard. "Hi, Kayla," he murmurs. Kayla hisses, baring teeth. "It's OK, sweetie," he says, chuckling.

Taft is usually the only staffer who goes into a pen with a cat. "We make sure that there are two people there, and one is outside the cage to call for help or close doors," he says. "You certainly have to always have that awareness that it is a wild animal, that they do have this potential for aggression, that they are bigger than you are, and that if they're becoming aggressive you're not going to hold up to them or be more aggressive than them. Some people will tell me, 'Yeah, I'll just go in there and back it down.' But these are animals that take down multi-thousand-pound prey, like 2,000-pound water buffaloes. They're certainly not going to back down to a 200-pound man."

The only other precaution Taft takes is to be armed with his bucket and shovel and "my awareness." Asked what makes him different from exotic-animal lovers like Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the documentary Grizzly Man, he says, "Well, if Max would decide to eat me he could eat me--and I'd make sure that he'd still be locked in the cage. It's the exposure of other people to risk and the exposure of the animal to an escape potential. To be in the audience where some idiot walks an unleashed tiger through a bunch of people, that's nuts. I'm not getting on the same side of a fence with a strange tiger, nor would I let anyone get that close to one of my tigers."

Yet he confesses that there are "a handful of cats that I go in the cage with just because we're friends and I want to spend time with them." They include Kiki, a spotted leopard. "She was one of the three cats that was with me when I first started this place," he says. "When I come to her cage she will stand up on her hind legs and hug me. You know, that's pretty special."

Exotic Feline Rescue Center

When: Tue-Sat 10 AM-5 PM

Where: 2221 E. Ashboro Rd., Center Point, Indiana

Price: $10, $5 for children 12 and under

Info: 812-835-1130 or

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

Add a comment