Where the Wild Things Are

(Appeared in the February 17, 2010 issue of Time Out Chicago)

There are crazy cat ladies, and then there’s Joe Taft.

By Christina Couch. Photographs by Michael Jackson.

“We only have two rules,” Joe Taft tells me while standing outside of his Center Point, Indiana, home on a near sub-zero night in January. “Don’t touch anything, and if you see one of these guys turn around and lift his tail, run.” Had I gotten that advice 60 seconds sooner, I might not have kicked off my stay at Taft’s place with tiger urine streaming down my face. But feline pee showers are sometimes part of the package when you rent a room at Exotic Feline Rescue Center, a 110-acre sanctuary four hours (and about 239 miles) southeast of Chicago. Sharing his land with more than 200 lynx, leopards and ligers (cats born from the breeding of a male lion and a female tiger), Taft also welcomes lionhearted tourists who aren’t afraid to spend a night outside the tiger cage.

It all started in 1965 with one simple dream—to own a Lotus sports car and a pet cheetah to ride shotgun. Unable to find an affordable edition of either, Taft settled for an old British sports car (an MG) and an ocelot, a painted leopard named Ozzie, with whom he shared a home for nearly 20 years.

“That was complete anarchy,” Taft says. “I didn’t like the MG but loved the ocelot. I’ve loved big cats ever since.”

Love isn’t quite a big enough word. Taft lives for big cats. Twenty-six years after adopting Ozzie, Taft bought 15 acres just outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, and started taking in abused animals from private owners and defunct roadside circuses. Since opening in 1991, Exotic Feline Rescue Center has expanded to include space for up to 300 cats, 12 full-time employees, a veterinary clinic located in Taft’s basement and a meat-processing plant that turns 3,000 pounds of dead livestock from local farms into cat food every day. It’s basically a Jurassic Park for exotic felines where some of the world’s deadliest killing machines freely roam acre upon acre of open land, with nothing more than a thin metal fence separating them from their would-be human suppers.

Visiting Exotic Feline Rescue Center is an experience almost as strange as finding a couple of hundred exotic cats living in the middle of Indiana. More than 22,000 guests take the 90-minute public tour each year. Led by volunteers, the tour ($10) includes a bit of background on the center, the chance to view approximately 40 of its tamest cats and an overview of each animal’s back story. But the best way to see the sanctuary in all of its strange, delightful glory is by renting Taft’s spare room ($150/night). Accommodating just two guests at a time, the jungle-themed room is a cozy, separate addition to the house (so don’t worry, you won’t run into Taft while heading to the shower) and overlooks enclosures for tigers, ocelots and leopards, all of whom will stare intently at you as you sip your morning coffee. Overnight guests check in anytime after 2pm and are greeted with a public tour as well as a special behind-the-scenes tour that includes a private showing of 30 less-socialized beasts, a peek at feeding time and a glimpse at the center’s meat-processing area (hold your nose and enter with caution). At night, sleepover guests venture out to Center Point or Terra Haute for food, then return to the compound to be lulled to sleep by the, uh, piercing calls of several hundred magnificent and terrifying cats. At night, their roars can be heard in the darkness up to five miles away.

Be warned—this is a grittier experience than the typical zoo excursion. Along with 200 mammoth cats comes a proportionate amount of mammoth cat poop and food remnants. Don’t flinch if you see a lion gnawing on a horse leg, hoof and all. The center removes 500 to 800 pounds of de-fleshed bone from the animals’ cages every day. Visitors might also encounter impromptu urine showers, but no need to fret too much. Unlike house-cat urine, tiger piss is mild and smells like stale popcorn.

The golden showers and carcass guts are all part of Exotic Feline Rescue’s larger message: Healthy cats in the wild are dirty, ferocious and fantastically beautiful. Seeing them up close in a natural environment is exhilarating, awe-inspiring and more than a little humbling. Unfortunately, Center Point, Indiana, is one of the few places in the country where tourists can see these animals as they actually are and watch them interact with someone who’s dedicated to giving them their feral lives back.

“A lot of times, nobody really gives a damn about these animals,” Taft says as he rubs the belly of a leopard who used to sleep in his bed. “To other people, they’re just throwaways, but this is my life.”

Exotic Feline Rescue Center is located at 2221 E Ashboro Rd, Center Point, IN (812-835-1130). Public tours are $10, overnight stays are $150.

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