would like to introduce you to Kizmin, Savannah, King and especially Bubbles, and you can believe me when I say they are cool cats.

I recently visited the Exotic Feline Rescue Center situated on 108 acres just east of Terre Haute, a leisurely one-and-a-half-hours from Greenwood. I was greeted by Joe Taft, an upbeat man with vision, resourcefulness and single-minded dedication to the wild exotic cats living there.

Such traits were required to start this facility as Taft did in 1991. Originally housing just three animals, it has grown into a facility boasting more than 200 large cats, representing nine species. Taft must oversee the housing, feeding, cleaning and health care for these gorgeous creatures, as well as securing any necessary licensing.

It’s mind-boggling. Before I write another word, hats off and a round of applause for this man, his staff of employees (which include those with college degrees in zoology, wildlife management or equivalents), educators, volunteers and donors.

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The nonprofit organization’s mission statement is clear: “We 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.”

The rescue center does not buy, sell or breed cats, and it provides homes for life. It also stresses stable social groups in enhanced environments and provides the best veterinary care.

Twice a year, world-renowned veterinarians specializing in dentistry fly in and provide two days of dental care such as cleaning, extractions and root canals. All of this can be done in an on-site surgery suite complete with gas anesthesia, cardiac monitoring, surgical packs, and dental and general radiograph units. More severe medical/surgical conditions are sent to the University of Illinois.

Just imagine getting a number of lions, leopards and tigers from large, outside pens, sedating them, moving them to the clinic, add gas anesthesia and do whatever procedure is needed, recover them, and you’ve had quite a day. It should be noted that the rescue center has been a leader nationally in providing knowledge for veterinarians in the safety and efficacy of anesthesia and dentistry for exotic cats.

Meal time a major effort

Taft opened the whole facility to me, and as we walked the path in the behind-the-scenes area, I had an eerie feeling, like all eyes were on me. On each side were large open-air pens with 550-pound tigers and leopards, while the King of the Jungle, a lion, roared nearby. I was safe, they were all in secure enclosures, but I felt odd just the same, maybe even a little vulnerable.It was like being at the Grand Canyon and looking down; sure, you’re not going to fall, but there is still “that” feeling in your gut.Feeding these beautiful animals is no small task as they consume 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of meat per day; most coming from farm animals that are donated or from road-kill deer. Sanitary control is impeccable due to the systems they have in place, and I never saw a fly, and of course a mouse doesn’t stand a chance!

Feeding, housing and employee expenses all add up, with Taft estimating that the yearly cost to cover all expenses approaches $800,000 per year. Most of this comes from admission prices, but donations and fundraising play a significant role as well.

Where do all of these animals come from? Some are rescued by legal confiscation, others donated when the novelty wears off ownership or the ability to take care of them becomes too much.

(I might mention that no one has a moral right to own these beautiful animals because of the care, space, health, socialization issues and safety concerns involved.) The usual scenario is the animals wind up malnourished, have poor or no health care and a miserable life.

Or worse, as in what almost happened to Bubbles.

Animals stimulated

Bubbles, a leopard, was due to arrive at a clandestine location in Chicago, where she and others would be killed and the skin and meat sold. Due to a sting operation by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, a major Midwest underground operation that secured animals for profit from drug dealers, private scalawags and others was brought to an end.I saw Bubbles, and she was quite shy, not ready for the general public. She was never socialized and, like many others, might have been kept in a 4-by-8–foot cage most of her life. She was curious, like most cats but would just peek out of her hiding place to look at me. Very sad.Of all the animals, Bubbles is my favorite, hands down. There is a quite little tug on my heart, I must admit. She has a long way to go, but I’m encouraged she will make great strides due to the extensive knowledge of the rescue center, especially in the area of socialization. I am cheering for her and will visit soon to check up on her progress.

On a happy note, it’s refreshing to report that none of the animals here exhibit the pacing, infighting or boredom common to so many captive wild animals. They show affection towards each other, eat well and groom themselves. They play in their pools, bat around large rubber balls, and lounge lazily on their lofty perches, all signs of happy cats. It’s worth noting that the rescue center is also a national leader in the socialization and care of exotic cats.

Nobody likes to see caged wild animals, but for these and many like them not yet rescued, it is the only alternative. And it’s a very good alternative. They have plenty of room, interact socially, eat well and have premium veterinary care. Thanks to extremely knowledgeable and dedicated employees, these cats can live up to 20 years, much longer than in the wild.

If you go

The Exotic Feline Rescue Center

Where: Located off Interstate 70, just east of Terre Haute at 2221 East Ashboro Road, Center Point.

When: Open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Adults $10. Children 12 and under $5. Call for group rates.

Individual and group trips are available for the public area, which includes a guide to explain the background of each animal, veterinary care, feeding and the plight of these great creatures. The rescue center is also available for classroom presentations designed for any specific grade level.

On the web: www.exoticfelinerescuecenter