I expected to be interested. I expected to be impressed. I expected to take lots of photographs and mental notes. I expected to do a lot of telling children to keep back from the fences.
I did not expect to be moved to tears.
The Exotic Feline Rescue Center saves big cats from people about whom I cannot say enough bad things. I do know what kind of person would take an apex predator captive and abuse it, keep it hurt and frightened, and I don't like those people. It's not okay to take our sick power trips out on any living creature, especially an innocent animal, but the fact that these people have done these things to animals that we specifically see as powerful and majestic is some of the worse kind of ugly.
Our tour guide, Marissa, gave us a brief biography of each of the big cats that we saw--enough information for us to understand what specific cruelties had been committed, but not enough to scare the children (if you're interested in more details, you should check out the cat biographies or the back issues of the EFRC newsletter). She spent most of her time, however, helping us understand how awesome each big cat is, explaining each one's unique personality, and even interacting with the more loving and playful ones so that we could see that, too. She also gave us time to simply stand and look; our gravel pathway was three feet from these enclosures, so we really were close enough to really see and be seen:
This cougar actually gleefully ran up and down along the fence, playing chase with Marissa as she ran along the path:
Although this tiger wasn't in the mood to play today, Marissa said that it sometimes likes for her to crouch on the path with her back to it so that it can stalk her. We all looked away and tried to appear as unwary grazing beasts, but the tiger was too busy doing tiger things to humor us:
This cougar, whose bobbed tail came from damage taken after it was abandoned in a barn with other large animals, broke my heart:
Yours, too, right?
Although big cats are pure carnivores and aren't supposed to eat vegetation (and there's another big cat there with permanent neurological damage from being forced to eat cat food instead of meat), this cat has a really bad habit of trying to eat grass. After it was abandoned, it didn't have any food, and so it filled its belly by eating grass. When the EFRC rescued it they had to perform surgery on it and remove a giant mass of undigested grass from its stomach; here Marissa is pulling more grass blades away from the fence edge, where it's trying to reach them:
Our tour guide was a celebrity of sorts, actually. I recognized her from a couple of articles in the newspaper a few months ago--she was very severely mauled by a tiger at the EFRC, after she perhaps accidentally left a connecting gate open when she went into part of its enclosure (memory loss is pretty common with traumatic injuries), and suffered some permanent damage. And yet there she was, right back with the big cats, still clearly loving them as much as ever, still educating and inspiring us and our kiddos:
She was also my favorite type of tour guide. No matter what question popped into anyone's head, she had an answer. I had a bunch of random questions about endangered animal captive breeding programs, based on a Jane Goodall book that I'd read, and dude--she ANSWERED them! She talked zoo policies with me, animal enrichment, genetic mutation and survival of the fittest, laws involving exotic animals in bordering states, large animal vet care... I was really nerdily spoiled.
And also, the big cats loved her, and always wanted to come over and say hi when she was with us:
We also got to see this tiger track a preschooler who wandered down the path away from our group. It was one of those times when you know you're safe but you're also terrified:
At one point, our path narrowed, and there was only three feet between us and the enclosures if we walked exactly in the middle and kept our hands well in:
So many tigers that shouldn't have been possessions:
If they can't be in the wild, it's much better that they're here:
Our tour ended with a visit to see some tiger cubs! These cubs were born from a pregnant tiger that was rescued from a horrible roadside zoo (Don't ever go to those! So many damaged cats came from private "zoos" and traveling circuses) in Wisconsin, and they are amazing. Seriously, look at this tiger cub play with a stick!
It's never going to be able to really play out in the wild where it's supposed to, but it's also never going to suffer what its parents had to. At the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, it's safe.