By Joy Neighbors
It’s a beautiful summer day in central Indiana. Fields flourish with an abundance of growing crops while tree branches toss beckoning shadows into the neighboring woods. Just down the road a sudden majestic roar fills the air. Your heart leaps and pounds; your skin prickles in anticipation … Welcome to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, one of the largest big cat rescue centers in the nation.
The EFRC is home to more than 150 big cats including at least 100 tigers. Their mission is to “provide permanent homes for exotic felines that have been abused, abandoned, or for some reason have nowhere to live out their lives, while educating the public about these beautiful cats.”
EFRC meets numerous guidelines to be designated as a rescue sanctuary, including:
- Being in operation for at least five years.
- It is composed of at least 20 acres.
- Has large enclosures for the cats.
- There is a permanent staff and volunteers.
- The sanctuary does not buy, sell, trade, give away or breed any of their cats.
- Guests are not allowed to touch, pet or interact with any of the cats on tour.
- No animals are taken off-site.
- Proper veterinary care is provided.
- Educational and awareness programs are offered to schools and the public.
- The sanctuary offers a “forever home” to all of its animals.
All tigers in the U.S. are considered endangered species according to a law passed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1970. But regardless of this law, our country has a “tiger problem.” To put it in perspective, consider that the world’s largest population of wild tigers numbers approximately 3,200. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 7,000 tigers, more than double all the wild tigers in the rest of the world!
The EFRC’s big cat sanctuary is one of only a handful of organizations where state and federal agencies bring confiscated cats in need of compassionate care and a responsible living environment. For almost 30 years, founder and owner Joe Taft has taken in hundreds of big cats including tigers, lions, cougars, pumas, lynx, bobcats, ocelots and servals to care for at his 260-acre sanctuary. These cats have been removed from more than half the states in the country due to abuse, neglect, abandonment — even threats of extermination at the hands of owners, breeders and traders.
Once a big cat arrives at EFRC, he has reached his “forever” home. Taft and his staff of more than a dozen, plus interns and volunteers, see to the daily cleaning and feeding needs along with providing a stable living environment and the social groups the cats need. Regional university vet schools assist the group by providing veterinary care.
The sanctuary offers daily tours as a way to acquaint the public with these beautiful animals; to tell their individual stories and educate visitors to the current plight of tigers in the U.S. EFRC staff stress that regardless of how friendly and laid back these animals appear in their facility, visitors need to remember these are wild animals and should be treated and respected as such.
Tigers in America, based in New York, is a national group that rescues and transports abused and abandoned tigers to qualified facilities anywhere in the country. TIA works with 17 approved tiger sanctuaries, including the Exotic Feline Rescue Center.
I’d had a trip to the EFRC on my calendar for months, but in this new era of stay-at-home orders, I had to rethink my trip. Luckily I had visited the EFRC a few years ago, took the tour, talked with Joe Tate and his staff, and snapped some photos. While a few things may have changed, and Joe may have aged a wee bit, this Day Tripper is one “Road Trip Destination” you won’t want to miss.
For now, visit the webpage, www.efrc.org for photos and stories about some of their “cool cat” residents. You can also give a donation, become a member, sponsor a species of cat (tiger, lion, cougar, leopard etc.) or adopt a specific cat by his or her name. Shop online and keep up to date as to when visiting hours will resume by checking their FaceBook page https://www.facebook.com/EFRC1991/.
Why rescue big cats?
Big cat rescues became a necessity in this country after the “Exotic Eighties” when stars, musicians, celebrities, drug dealers, crime groups and Vegas lounge acts decided it would be cool to own a big cat, or two … or 12.
Unscrupulous animal breeders began crossbreeding tigers to satisfy the demand. Soon there were too many tigers so these breeders tried to foist the surplus onto local zoos. But the zoos were not interested. They had their own pure breeding programs and considered crossbred tigers “generic.”
Breeders then decided to sell these surplus tigers to people as pets. What owners didn’t consider was that the big cats take a lot of time and effort along with tremendous amounts of care and space. And they can live a long time if cared for correctly. For example, a Bengal tiger can live up to 20 years in captivity, and a lion can live an additional 5 years giving it a 25-year life expectance. In an attempt to limit extraneous ownership and put the brakes on a growing dilemma, Congress passed another federal law prohibiting the sale and transportation of big cats in 2003.
But it’s difficult to stop those who are unethical and out to make a buck as they continue to sell tigers as pets, encourage baby cub handling attractions where visitors “pay to play” with cubs at roadside “parks.” Others take the big cats to supposed “animal preserves” where once turned loose, they are part of a captive animal hunting program for trophy hunters. Then there are the tigers that are abandoned, or don’t find safe havens. They are killed inhumanly and used to supply tiger parts on the black market.
Today, members of the USDA, Humane Society of the United States, undercover agents and concerned citizens work together across the country to rout out and close down pseudo attractions, preserves and sanctuaries. And that is where legitimate sanctuaries like the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point come into play.
Thanks to the Netflix docudrama “Tiger King,” the abhorrent treatment and public spectacle of big cat owners and promoters out to make money on tigers and their cubs is now out in the open. Hopefully, this upswing of interest will lead to stronger federal laws and penalties regarding tigers and other endangered species held in captivity in this country.