Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Caring for Carnivores: Feline Conservation Center

Flashback: Feline Conservation Center, Rosamund, CA August 2006

Pulling yellow fat from purple horse muscle, slicing, chopping until the blister at the base of my index finger bursts. Half frozen, the meat holds its blood, but makes my hands numb. This is strange work for a vegetarian. A poignant reminder that my beloved felines are dedicated carnivores.

A cigarette droops from the young zookeeper’s lips. She takes a long drag, then tips her ash in the trashcan, drops the cigarette on the kitchen’s cement floor, squashes it, picks it up with bloody fingers and deposits it in the can. Melanie is pretty and jovial, but just as at the cat shows, the smoking baffles me. Like smoking in church—a sacrilegious act.

The whole kitchen smells like menstruation. And then the wind blows the wrong way and that is overcome by the powerful aroma of scat and decaying meat from the dumpsters.

Most of the people around me are volunteers—none of them studied zoology. Kim owns a Chem Dry carpet cleaning company. Lisa is an electrical engineering student. Jeff, a pear-shaped small animal vet. Roger, a self proclaimed “Building Maintenance Technician” (this said with a zealous mix of discomfort and pride.) Roger loves the bigger cats—the jaguars, leopards, lynxs. His banter with them alternates between sappy falsettos of affection and bursts of foul language.

As I wait for feeding time outside, sweat pools behind my ears. The desert heat thaws my hands. We will feed all the cats at twilight.

What struck me most today is that these cats are cuddly and lovable as cubs, but they are transformed by adolescence and the onset of their sexual drive, so that they become dangerous to humans. Even the smaller cats. When we enter their cages to clean, we don’t turn our backs on the cats, we mutter sweet-nothings mixed with stern warnings to behave. An occasional adult cat will exude affection, like Angora the Siberian lynx, utterly charming in her rapture at being stroked and scratched. But the zookeepers are even wary of the tiny adult sandcats, yet they romp and cuddle with the enormous 6 month old Chinese leopards, holding these cats on their laps, ruffling and rumpling them like kittens, though the occasional ‘leap, lunge and swat’ warns of things to come. In a couple of months, humans won’t be able to enter the cage to clean unless the leopards are locked in their boxes.

How will they get these ornery adults into their boxes? Clicker training. One of the zookeepers, Marie, uses clicker training with the leopards, lions, tigers, cougars and even the brutish jaguars.

In spite of drinking copious quantities of water, the heat and mild dehydration conspire into a pounding headache. This volunteer work is very physical. Perhaps too physical for me. Raking, scooping poop, disposing of chunks of uneaten, stinking meat covered with ants. Hardly glamorous, the reward of being close to these cats draws the volunteers.

I feel conflicted about this place, “The Feline Conservation Center”. A not-for-profit breeding facility, that the founder refers to it as a “Noah’s Ark” for small cats. The pens are truly not as nice as the outdoor enclosure I am planning for my pampered housecats. In the wild, these cats have a natural territorial range of 3.5 miles or much, much more. At the center, they pace in cages not much larger than my bedroom. Bored. Over 80 cats.

The exhibit pens are better with moving water features, but most of the pens seem more like prisons. The ‘conservation’ breeding program supplies zoos around the world, including Estonia and the Czech Republic. One large leopard whose loud “sawing’ could be heard throughout the compound, was in quarantine preparing to return to Estonia. I asked the zookeeper, “What is the zoo in Estonia like?” The clipped response was, “How would I know?”

The memory that claimed my imagination was of the caged lion I encountered at the Budapest Zoo in 1989. Oozing eyes staining his face, no room to turn around in his little capsule of concrete and bars.

On the other hand, the Feline Conservation Center is purportedly keeping many of these species of cats from extinction. Jaguarondis—the weasel looking cats from South America—have 38 chromosomes, 2 more than the usual 36. They bring to mind Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s assertion in her book “The Tribe of the Tiger”, she calls the ‘Mongoose Tribe’ the evolutionary precursor of the cat, the hyena and the mongoose (as opposed to the fox tribe that evolved into the raccoon, dog and bear.) These Jaguarondis, known as the ‘prehistoric cat’, are intensely shy and delicate. Very sweet. It is a rare and wonderful experience to stroke thier tiny faces.

Then there is the Pallas Cat that looks so much like my cat Helen with her ears back. It is speculated that the Pallas Cat may have been cross-bred with the domestic cat to create the Persian cat centuries ago. Hunted for its beautiful coat, this Mongolian cat is on the verge of extinction. Its protective impulse is to freeze and assume an imagined ‘cloak of invisibility’ which makes it easy pickings for human predators. The Feline Conservation Center is the only group that has successfully bred these small cats in captivity.

Earlier in the day, I bought 30 feeder fish at PetSmart for $7. Such a large sacrifice of small lives in exchange for a few minutes of pleasure for the bored cats. The Fishing Cats wade in their pools, chattering with anticipation. They swipe at the orange fish, scooping them with their claws, into their mouths where the fish pop audibly. Even the Margays enjoy this sport. Sleek, beautiful small wild cats that remind me of Bengals—though they aren’t as keen to get wet as the Fishing Cats.

Blue shadows cool the surrounding desert as the cats stretch and pace. Mealtime is predictable if you've ever fed a house cat. The cats gather by their food dishes, vocal in thier anticipation of their evening meal. Its no wonder that the big cat noise is refered to as 'sawing'--it sounds exactly like a metal saw hacking at wood. Food is provided, the horse meat mixed with vitamins and a few thawed chicken necks. All raw. Heads bow over metal bowls. When the meal is done, careful grooming ensues and then relaxation while digesting. Their mannerisms are so familiar. It is easy to see the temptation to approach them like housecats, in so many ways they are identical: the gentle velvet of their noses, the cocking of their ears to investigate sounds, even the rough sandpaper tongues (I had read once that a tiger's tongue is so rough that if it licked you, it would peel the skin of your body. I know now that is patently false, so many of my comrades having enjoyed the sensation, intact.)

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