CENTER POINT, Ind. — The tiger jumps, assuming harm is coming his way. The first poke with a syringe attached to a pole doesn’t do the trick. It takes three more tries to put him down.
As Bro sleeps, the team opens his enclosure and lugs him onto the bed of a small truck. They throw a blanket over his body and a sling around his head so it doesn’t hit anything. The truck hurries across the complex up to a garage basement turned medical clinic. Ten veterinary dentists rush to the back to unload the tiger onto a gurney, then onto a surgery table.
It’s dentistry weekend at Exotic Feline Rescue Center. Bro is one of four cats — three tigers and a lion — being operated on this rainy Sunday. Four others were operated on the day before.
They pry Bro’s jaw open and stuff a breathing tube down his throat. Four dentists perform four root canals at once on the teeth that could kill them all if Bro were awake. Needles swoosh back and forth inside Bro’s gums. His long tail, the tip touching the floor, hangs off the edge of the gurney.
As one of the dentists fights to pull a tooth from Bro’s mouth, “Let it Go” from “Frozen” plays on a nearby radio. The dentist belts it out without losing concentration and encourages others to join. He pulls and pulls, and the tooth won’t come out. He compares it to pulling rebar from cement.
“Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, come out, little bugger,” the dentist says. “Don’t you break on me.”
As the tooth comes out, blood spews from Bro’s gums. The room cheers and claps. Bro slumbers on. With each of his monumental breaths, the blanket draped across his chest rises nearly a foot and descends back down.
In the corner stands Joe Taft, the man in charge. Taft smiles behind his scraggly white beard. He casually eats a bowl of his homemade chili as the dentists operate on 300-pound cats in his home.
“It’s another day in the office,” says the center’s director, “but it’s a pretty amazing office.”
When Bro wakes up, he won’t know what happened in his sleep. He might not be aware of the improvements to his health or the years added to his life. Regardless, he will be better off than he was the day before.
Big cats were not born to be poked and prodded by humans while sprawled across a table in a garage in Indiana, but in a world with their habitats disappearing, the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is often the best place for them.
More big cats live in captivity in the United States than in the world’s wild. They’re stuffed in tiny cages and left in circuses, barns and basements. They’re often malnourished and abused. They’re poorly socialized and neurologically impaired.
The World Wildlife Foundation estimates there are about 5,000 tigers in captivity in the U.S. Compare that to only 3,890 tigers in the wild as of April. Less than 400 of those captive tigers are in accredited zoos. That leaves more than 90 percent of them privately owned.
Boxer Mike Tyson kept tigers on a leash inside his home. In another case, a 500-pound tiger was found in a Harlem, New York, apartment in 2003.
Private ownership of these animals is dangerous for both sides. There was Dennis Hill from Flatrock, Indiana, who faced legal action for having big cats in dog-run style cages with a foot or more of piled up feces. There was Lorenza Pearson, whose 2-year-old son was mauled to death by a 300-pound Bengal tiger Pearson kept in his home, in northern Ohio. The worst might have been Terry Thompson, who released all of the animals, including tigers and lions, in his sanctuary and killed himself, in Zanesville, Ohio. Forty-nine animals — tigers, lions, bears, monkeys — were killed by law enforcement.
Humans have been attracted to the idea of owning wild animals as far back as Ramses II in Egypt. Some want a lion because it makes them feel powerful. Some buy a tiger out of a romantic ideal. Some — well, some just purchase tigers or lions to make money off them.
Federal agencies do their best to ensure these exotic animals are out of these awful situations. However, they have to go somewhere, so Bro and roughly 200 others live in Taft’s care at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center some 65 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
“The world has changed,” Taft said. “And they, as a species, are not facing a very bright future.”
Since 1991, Taft has been rescuing and providing a home for these animals at the rescue center. He takes them from abusive homes, and he and his team attempt to give them the best quality of life possible.
“No matter what you think of whether these animals should be kept in captivity or not, the fact is that the individuals who are here have been born into a captive environment and will spend the rest of their life in a captive environment,” Taft said.
The center is off in the woods and is far from residential homes. It takes a few turns away from civilization and a drive down some rocky roads for people to find the place. It’s in a remote-enough area that the 108 acre property allows big cats to live in large enclosures with some room to roam. Public tours are available for $10.
Some animals live in the home with Taft, who bottle-feeds them when they’re young. He still enters the cage and interacts with at least one tiger, Suma, and used to go in with as many as 20.
Taft is a gruff man. It can be tough to tell when the 71-year-old is joking, and he’s sometimes rude. He’s 5-foot-5 but commands the attention of humans and tigers. One keeper who’s worked with him for years said she wouldn’t call him a friend; they just work together. Others will admit he can be hilarious.
The rescue center has had its share of issues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which licenses the facility, has fined the center for violations such as not securing enclosures and leaving visitors unsupervised. A cougar escaped in 2007, and a worker was attacked by a tiger in 2013.
Taft said he believes the USDA often looks for issues that aren’t there. In the past four inspections, the lone violations have been things such as trees too close to fences and pieces of torn-up enrichment barrels lying around that would be harmful if eaten.
In Taft’s eyes, the agencies can nitpick issues all they want, but the animals still have to go somewhere.
“They don’t know what to do with them,” he said. “When people have these animals in violation of the law. In order for law enforcement to go in and enforce those laws, they have to have something to do with the animals.”
They still talk at the center about the day 17 years ago when two keepers traveled to Pennsylvania to rescue two or three lions from a man shut down by the USDA. The cats were supposed to be a year and a half old.
A woman took them down to the basement, and the sight they saw was the type the rescue center sees far too often. Eight cats had been left in the basement in 5-foot square area cages. Three lions were crammed in one of the tiny cages. Three tigers were in another. Another two tigers were alone in two other cages.
A healthy year-and-a-half-old tiger should weigh between 200 and 250 pounds. These were all between 50 and 89 pounds.
Assuming none of these were the cats they were supposed to take, Exotic Feline Rescue Center assistant director Jean Herrberg asked the woman, “What’s going to happen to these cats?”
“These are the ones,” the woman said. “You’re supposed to pick two.”
Herrberg was floored. They were so malnourished, so poorly cared for. She called Taft.
“I’m bringing them all or none. I can’t pick two,” Herrberg told Taft.
Taft agreed. The center always goes in prepared to take more cats than intended.
What sticks with Herrberg, what makes her eyes drift off as she retells it, was what happened when she and Rebecca tried to bring in one of the tigers, Raja, who was alone in a cage.
Raja was older than the others. He had been in the basement for at least a year. He hadn’t seen the sun in all that time. He was scared and skeptical. They put his cage next to the transport cage so he could go into the truck.
He wouldn’t move. They called to him and baited him with food. He still wouldn’t move.
He looked at Rebecca. Then he looked at Jean. Then Rebecca. Then Jean. After making eye contact with both and truly seeing them, he walked right into the transport cage.
Herrberg was a fifth grade teacher in Columbus, Indiana, before beginning to volunteer at the rescue center in 1993. This moment with Raja took her back to the classroom.
“It was like when you teach school and that light comes on and you know a kid gets it,” Herrberg said. “It was like, ‘I get it. You’re taking me out of this hellhole.’”
Four of the five tigers turned out to be blind in both eyes. Raja went on to become a member of the public tour. He developed a reputation for spraying guests with urine, and the staff tends to smile whenever discussing him.
Raja’s is the kind of success story at the rescue center that Taft, Herrberg and the other keepers live for — a big cat that was lost and eventually discovered home and love.
Sometimes a cat can be too far gone. They are so damaged that they never develop a relationship with the staff and don’t communicate the care they need. They live, but that quality of life may not be that great.
It’s the cats that are too far gone that make the successes so powerful.
Christina McCrea is a young keeper who’s been at the Rescue Center for three years. It isn’t just the cool factor that makes this job great to her. It’s the personalities.
The tigers are the class clowns. The lions play around a bit, too. The leopards are stingy with who they like. The staff has to earn their approval. The servals are hyper, ferocious eaters that sound like little demons.
The keepers don’t get paid very much. They work tough hours. McCrea says it can take time for the cats to warm up to the keepers, if at all, so those moments of affection serve as a payment.
“That’s the reason we do this,” she said. “They’re scared. They don’t know if it’s going to be different than their last place. So to see them open up and be comfortable, that’s what makes it all worth it.”
In June 2013, a 23-year-old employee named Marissa Dub was cleaning Raja’s cage. The 18-year-old tiger was drawn into his shift cage. It was routine.
Taft said in 2013 that Raja was not one of the more aggressive tigers at the rescue center. He was part of the public tour of the facility.
Dub apparently forgot to secure the interior gate that separated the two cages.
Raja attacked her. Workers heard her scream from a distance. Raja didn’t kill Dub, but she suffered a shattered jaw, severe gashes and a punctured airway. Reports say by the time Taft and others made it to her, Raja was resting, holding Dub’s head in his mouth.
When Raja was sprayed with a hose, he released his grip and workers used meat to distract him.
Taft doesn’t comment on the incident anymore.
A report from the USDA said there was a 4- to 6-inch gap on the gate Dub reportedly didn’t close. Workers said the gap had been there for weeks. Taft didn’t fix it. In the report, there was frustration from employees of a consistent lack of regard from Taft about repairs to facilities.
Taft denied this at the time, saying he and his staff address issues as soon as they are aware of them. When keepers were cleaning cages this October, there was always a shift supervisor checking to ensure each cage was safe before a keeper entered.
Regardless of what led to the attack of Dub, the love for animals remained.
Dub told reporters after the incident that Raja was just doing what tigers are supposed to do. Her biggest fear afterward was whether Raja would be killed because of this.
The USDA investigation decided, because of Dub’s apparent error, that Raja could live. He is still on the public tour. Even now, when asked which animal’s story means the most to her, Herrberg brings up Raja right away.
Two months after the attack, Dub returned to work.
“I love the cats. I love my job. It’s my dream job, so even this wouldn’t set me back doing what I do,” Dub told reporters in August 2013. “If I wasn’t here, the cats would suffer.”
There are bad people but he doesn’t believe in bad tigers, Taft says.
In his untidy trailer office complex with domestic cats resting in plastic bins of paperwork on the floor, Taft talks about the differences between humans and animals. He doesn’t make the judgments of animals that he does of people.
“Well, I think that’s because I’m a lot more accepting of animals than I am of people,” he jokes.
When it comes to the owners he has to rescue these animals from, Taft becomes angry at the different types of culprits.
There are those who enter with some romantic ideal about owning an exotic animal. Taft began as one of those people.
He bought his first ocelot, Ozzie, as a philosophy student at Indiana State University because he thought it would be cool to drive a sports car with an ocelot riding shotgun.
Taft’s path led to a career in caring for these animals. What happens most of the time is these animals they bought as cute pets grow into dangerous, full-sized threats, and people panic.
Taft said there are those with no sympathy or compassion or love for the animals.
“They have them to exploit them, and they want to exploit them as efficiently as possible,” he said.
Taft isn’t one of the exploiters. The rescue center makes just enough to get by, he said. He brags about his clean track record that he claims includes only two major incidents.
Dr. Barron Hall, the dentist singing as he operated on Bro, talked about how the rescue center is one of the best places he visits in the country. Most of Taft’s violations are minor, and the fines are often reduced to $0.
Regardless of any legal fights, the rescue center focuses on the cats every day.
McCrea is cleaning cages of feces and old bones from food. Rebecca Rizzo is making sure each cage is secure before a keeper enters it. Taft is attending to a sick tiger.
Another keeper, Brialle Nickel, is playfully joking with the tigers. She smacks two chickens together and says, “See where I put them?” Because sometimes they only see the one chicken and fight over it.
The tigers jump on their stomachs with the chickens in their paws and their legs pressed forward, as if still ready to pounce. Their teeth rip apart the chicken violently, occasionally scaring themselves because they think their tail is another cat trying to steal food. The cats go through about 4,000 pounds a day of animal meat donated by local farms.
This is every day at the Exotic Feline Rescue center. It isn’t the wild. It isn’t where they should be. But it might just be the best possible situation.
Taft plans on doing this until he dies. He’s 71 years old and has no idea what else he would do. The Exotic Feline Rescue Center started as him alone with three tigers. Now he has a staff that can keep the place going once he’s gone.
Ozzie the ocelot was Taft’s first love, maybe his truest love, but the lessons learned from her are what have him here, dedicating his life to big cats.
Taft lost Ozzie when he let some friends watch her, and she was hit by a car when they let her out. Taft’s eyes water whenever he discusses her death. He quickly bought a leopard, and his large collection began shortly after.
“A lot of this is making up for all the mistakes I made with cats before,” Taft says.
He learned to keep building better environments. He learned when he should euthanize a cat sooner. He learned when he did it too soon. When he thinks of these mistakes, his eyes drift off as if thinking of each tiger, each mistake, each opportunity for love given and love given back.
“You feel regret, you feel guilt, you feel sorrow,” he said. “You feel resolve to not let anything like that happen again.”
However, Taft’s mistakes aren’t lost causes.
“They taught me how to do this.”
Inside one of the center’s buildings on a cabinet is the skeleton of a heron.
It came from one day when the bird flew into the cage of several tigers. The tigers mauled it and ripped it apart and cleaned off all the meat.
When the keepers went in later to clean up the enclosure, they discovered the bones of the heron still completely together. No damage had been done to the skeleton.
So they decided to hang it in the facility. A reminder that sometimes, despite the awful happenings of the world and life picking them apart, things can stay intact.