The Real Cats Behind the Ridge

Today we celebrate the publication of Michael Koryta’s THE RIDGE, now available in paperback in bookstores everywhere, with the below essay from Koryta included as bonus content in the new edition.

Don’t miss the novel that James Patterson calls “one of the scariest and most touching horror tales in years!”

One of the truly wonderful things about the business of writing is getting the chance to step into a different world and see it through the eyes of those who inhabit it. The Ridge was already written and nearing publication when I went along as an observer on a big-cat rescue, largely out of curiosity. It was an experience that left me wanting to step out of the observation role and lend some sort of help, because the animals are amazing to be near and the people affiliated with the center are compelling to work with. Over the course of a year I had the chance to participate in several rescues, offering the kind of involvement for which I am qualified: grunt labor, frequent mistakes, and a plethora of dumb questions.

Along the way, over several thousand miles and through several states, I gained hands-on experience with one of the most impressive animal-rescue operations in the country. I have just come back from helping with the rescue of a pair of lions from a refuge in the Kentucky mountains. Talk about full circle. I haven’t heard reports of any blue torches nearby. But I kept my eye out, I assure you.

The big-cat rescue depicted in The Ridge is a fictional recreation  of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana. The center is currently home to cats of nine species, ranging from six-hundred-pound tigers to a six-pound Asian leopard cat. “Home” is the key word, because that is the main purpose for the center’s existence. Founder and director Joe Taft, who opened the center in 1991, wanted to provide a permanent home for big cats who had been abandoned or abused or were otherwise in need. At the time, he thought his mission would be a success if he could provide homes for 100 cats. He estimated there might be that many needy cats in the country.

He was wrong.

The current number of cats at the center is 227. In 2011, the rescue center took in 25 cats from six states. Reviewing my notes from the year, I estimated that for each cat that was taken in, at least five more requests could not be met due to limits of budget, time, and space. Taft guessed it was closer to ten, and I’m sure he’s right. It’s his phone that rings, and it rings often.

The center only takes in cats who are in need of a home. These situations are varied. Some cats have been confiscated by law enforcement; others come from refuges that have exceeded their capacity or their ability to deliver care; and some are personal pets, their owners overwhelmed by the reality of caring for a huge, hungry, potentially dangerous animal.

Rescues are usually handled by Taft, head keeper Rebecca Rizzo, perhaps one or two additional keepers, and a team of assorted volunteers. The volunteer help is critical, because while Taft and his staff are out of town, there are almost 230 cats at the center still requiring care.

We certainly couldn’t bring cats in at the rate we do without volunteers,” Taft says. “Both on the rescues and back at home, we have been helped by great volunteers.”

Three of the rescues in 2011 took place at what was once an amusement park in Angola, Indiana. While the rides were dismantled and sold for scrap, the tigers, leopards, and lions that were once part of the attractions remained. Unlike many animals in rescue situations, these cats were lucky to be in good health, with dedicated keepers.

On the first trip to Angola, we brought back three tigers: Buddy and his sons Cash and Tango. The three had always lived in sight of each other but in separate cages, never having the opportunity to mingle. At the rescue center, they shared an enclosure that dwarfed their previous quarters. That went well for a short time, until things got Shakespearean, with brother turning on brother and both sons plotting against their father. The family bond was apparently not all that strong.

 

For other cats, that bond is extremely important. One female lion, Wedge, is still struggling emotionally months after her brother, Rake, had to be put down.

“For several days she walked around the enclosure as if she was looking for him,” Taft said. “She’s still not the same. She mopes, she whines. She still misses him.”

Transport of the cats is always affected by their individual personalities. Buddy and Tango left their transport cages without incident. Cash decided he preferred the transport cage, ignoring coaxing, prodding, and the spray of a hose, all designed to encourage him to sample the new facilities. He was given a night to consider the situation, and then, having either surrendered or claimed moral victory (I’m guessing it was the latter, based on Cash’s personality), he exited the transport cage the following morning.

None of those three tigers had to be immobilized, but on most of the rescues I participated in, some animals were anesthetized to get them into the transport cages. Pole syringes are used if the cats are willing to approach, and if not, dart rifles are employed.

When the latter situation is likely, Taft often relies upon the help of Dave Hodge, a head keeper at the Louisville Zoo. I’ve worked multiple rescues with Hodge, and asked him why he’s willing to give up so many of his days off to the center.

Sometimes when you are working in a zoo, while you know that what you’re doing is helping the animals, it’s not as direct as helping to get an animal out of terrible circumstances,” he says. “There is some stunning satisfaction to doing that.”

Once the cats are immobilized, the transport team will enter with a canvas body bag (ironically, they are ideal for rescues due to the sewn-in handles), roll the cat onto that, and carry the animal to the waiting cage. In some cases, this is not as easy as it sounds. On one rescue we had to deal with a tiger named Caesar who weighed about six hundred pounds. A true cooperator, Caesar decided to let the drugs take effect inside of his shelter and not in the open perimeter area. To transport the massive tiger, we had to carry him through a door that was perhaps three feet high, giving us the opportunity to perfect a lift-and-crab-walk technique that no doubt would have impressed chiropractors.

Some cats fight the drugs with astonishing success. Magic, a black leopard rescued last August, required multiple darts. Even Hodge, who has worked with animals ranging from jaguars to polar bears and sea lions, marveled at the muscular cat’s resiliency.

“What was going through my mind was that we have a cat who is totally jazzed up—and I have a great suspicion that the cat had been messed with, because he was not thrilled with any strange person coming by—and I don’t want to overdose him, but he won’t go down,” Hodge recalls. “I’ve never overdosed a cat, but you have to be concerned with the possibility.”

Just when we were certain Magic was down and out, we entered his cage and prepared to move him onto the body bag—and he lifted his head. That provides a certain thrill, I can assure you. Given a little more time, the drugs finally took hold. Magic was among the most aggressive cats I’ve been involved with rescuing, but the last time I saw him in Center Point he was stretched out on his back in the sun and couldn’t be troubled for so much as a yawn, let alone any feats of acrobatic anger.

In rescue situations like these, when the cats are secure and in good medical condition, Taft can plan the trip with flexibility. Other rescues demand faster responses. In July 2011, he received word of more than 20 cats claimed by another rescue in Texas after being found in absolutely deplorable conditions. Videos captured cougars so dehydrated that they could not walk. The refuge that claimed the cats, In-Sync Exotics of Wylie, Texas, was desperately trying to place them all. It was in the middle of a national heat wave—temperatures topped 100 degrees at the Indiana center and 110 in Texas on the day of the rescue—and the situation couldn’t wait.

Two volunteers drove a refrigerated semi to Texas, the only way to transport the animals safely in that heat, while I drove Taft and Rizzo in my car, which offered me a prime opportunity to ask my dumb questions. I clocked the total mileage of the trip at just over 2,100 on the odometer, but Rizzo insists it felt much longer. Among the valuable lessons I learned was a new excuse to get out of a speeding ticket. After I informed the state trooper that I was in pursuit of a “reefer truck” (perhaps not the best choice of terminology in border country), Taft interjected to say we were following four lions and ten cougars. My license and registration were returned to me swiftly at that point. I was particularly grateful that Taft managed to keep his tranquilizer pistol covered with his feet during the stop.

The Texas rescue included a beautiful male lion named d’Artagnan, with whom I feel a special bond because he hears about the same number of varied pronunciations of his name as I get with “Koryta.” He was twenty-two years old when rescued, making him one of the center’s oldest lions. Not long after we brought him back, d’Artagnan weakened and stopped eating. He was moved from his enclosure to the center’s on-site veterinary clinic and did not improve as the weeks passed. Taft feared the lion’s age and the stress of the trip might have been too much for him. Rizzo worked diligently to get him to take medications, developing an encouragement-by-harassment technique that involved tugging on his mane until he was annoyed enough to eat. He got her back once by stealing the barbeque fork she was using, though. Even in a weakened state, d’Artagnan wasn’t letting her off easy.

Blood chemistry tests had shown no indication of a treatable condition for the lion, and with d’Artagnan’s age and prolonged lack of appetite, there was every indication he might not have long left.

“There’s something about him… I know he’s old, but I just don’t feel like it’s his time yet,” Rizzo told me as we stood outside d’Artagnan’s cage, the lethargic lion a pale imitation of the cat we’d met in the Texas heat.

She was right. A few days after the worst-case scenario was discussed, Rizzo noticed swelling along d’Artagnan’s jaw while she was attempting to coax him to eat. She showed Taft and, a day later, drove the lion to the University of Illinois and sat with him for hours while the veterinary team there located a badly infected canine and extracted it. Rizzo wears a plaster cast of the nearly six-inch-long tooth as an eye-catching necklace, and a reminder of a cat saved.

“The reason we do what we do is to better the lives of individual cats, and I wouldn’t accept that he would only last a few weeks,” she says. “It just didn’t seem fair. Losing cats is a very bittersweet thing. We never want to see them go but we have some sense of satisfaction that their lives were that much better while they were with us.”

Though trips to the veterinary team at the University of Illinois are extremely expensive for a cash-strapped rescue center, Taft says they are made without hesitation if there’s any chance of success.

“When we have a symptom, there is no decision to it,” Taft says. “If it’s treatable, we always say ‘let’s go for it’ despite the difficulties. The worst that’s going to happen is we lose him in surgery. But if we don’t do anything, we lose him anyhow.”

Back at the center, d’Artagnan began to eat again. Slowly at first. Then he began to move around his enclosure, something he hadn’t done for weeks. I saw him a few hours prior to this writing, and he was pacing and roaring, his muscle filled back in. He’s nearly as old as some of his keepers.

Dental problems are among the most common ailments of the rescued cats. During the first Angola trip, Taft got a look at Cash’s teeth and said he thought they would require work. He was right—in March 2012, veterinary dental experts from Colorado, part of the Peter Emily Foundation, performed four root canals on the tiger. Five more will be done in October.

My participation in the center’s efforts has been largely as a volunteer on the rescues. This can be hard work—we’ve moved heavy tigers on rainy, cold days, crawled into excrement-filled barns to retrieve animals, and sawed limbs off trees on a 114-degree Texas afternoon to make room for a semi. It is also easy work compared to the everyday tasks that the center’s keepers undertake. The daily care is physically demanding, and the cats don’t take a break from requiring food in pouring rain or scorching heat, which means the keepers can’t take a break, either. Most of the keepers at the rescue center are women, and, day in and day out, they outwork any construction crew I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to properly state just how taxing the job is, but consider this: lions and tigers do not eat small meals, and somebody has to carry in all of the roughly four thousand pounds of freshly butchered meat and bones the cats consume daily… and carry the results back out.

Hodge, who is used to working with a zoo’s resources and staffing, calls the care in Center Point “an absolutely incredible job. That is a huge amount of carnivores, and the daily care is enormous.”</para>

There’s an upside to all of this work, though—the chance to be around the cats, and to get to know them as the individuals that they are.

“Every cat at the center has their own personality,” says keeper Jennifer Hall. “Most will pick out certain people they like or certain people they don’t like. Some of the cats can be mean and nasty and I still like them. Sometimes I forgive them for not being nice because I know that humans have not treated them right. Other times I like the more aggressive ones because they are being exactly as they are meant to be. One thing is certain: when a big cat chooses you, you can’t help falling in love.”

Taft lives on the grounds. Each morning, he rises and completes a walk-through of the property around dawn, assessing the work that needs to be done. Usually Rizzo accompanies him, but sometimes he’ll walk it alone, just him and the nearly 230 cats.

Those walks are his favorite part of his role as the center’s director.

“When I first started with these cats, it was more like pet ownership,” he says. “It was about the relationships between me and the cats. Now it can’t quite be like that, but those walks are when it feels closer to it again.”

The center’s greatest challenge is, and likely always will be, funding. The expense of providing care for the cats is enormous. From cage construction to veterinary bills, there’s a nonstop financial bleed, and sometimes—when multiple sick cats require trips to the University of Illinois, for example—it reaches an unexpected artery. Through donations and money raised from tours and merchandise sales, the center manages to survive, but it’s a constant battle. When I created my fictional counterpart in The Ridge, I provided the character Audrey Clark with an endowment. I didn’t realize at the time that I’d written the real center’s unrealized dream. My reasoning was simple: readers wouldn’t care to hear about the minutiae of the fundraising efforts Audrey would have required to provide care for the cats without an endowment. Unfortunately, that mimics the reality a little too well.

It’s an embarrassingly low amount that we can pay our employees,” Taft says. “And payroll is one of our major expenses. The only thing that lets us make progress, and gives us any chance of long-term stability, is the group who are here every day working for these cats.”

The center’s assistant director, Jean Herrberg, is its longest-tenured employee. She left a teaching career in 2000 for the cats.

“I still loved my job,” she says, “but I left it for the cats. When you cut a teaching salary in half, that’s a lifestyle adjustment.”

Jennifer Hall, like Herrberg, sacrificed salary, benefits, and vacation time to work at the center. She says that while there were moments of regret as she made sacrifices in her personal life for the center, the cats would never allow them to linger.

“Every time I had regrets, one of the cougars would cry for my attention, a lion would wait for me to run with them along the fence, or a tiger would chuff and put their nose to the fence, allowing me to get a quick, albeit snotty kiss, and I would remember why I do what I do and why I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else,” she says.

When discussing the reward found in working with the animals, Herrberg used the word acceptance.

“The fact that they accept me is such a privilege. It’s such an awesome feeling to have them come up and say hi, to be glad to see you.”

One of the center’s most dedicated volunteer-turned-part-time-employees, Jan Schneider Pratt, credits the cats with rescuing her in their own way.

“I was in a period of depression when I started volunteering, and helping them made me feel better about my own life, because I knew that they came from very bad situations themselves,” she says. “And they were all able to make it through. They really just stole my heart.”

Not everyone understands the decision made by the center’s staff members to take on low-paying, incredibly demanding jobs. For David Bouckley, who has worked for the center for three years on a visa from England, the puzzled response from friends and family reflected a distinct difference in the presence of exotic pets in the two countries.

“The overwhelming question I get from people is: Why?” he says. “Why isn’t it illegal to keep these cats, and even if it isn’t illegal, why do people want to have them in their house or yard or shed, these places where we’ve rescued them? It’s a really odd concept for people at home to try and grasp. When I came here and saw there were, at the time, 186 cats, it simply blew my mind. I did not expect there were that many who needed to have a home.”

Bouckley says his mother tells people he “feeds stray cats” for a living. While not altogether wrong, it’s a bit misleading. The enormity of the need in America is particularly striking when Bouckley considers the possibility of returning to work with animals in England.

“We might have more tigers in Center Point than there are in all the zoos in England,” he says. “It has to be competitive, at least. We’ve got nearly 150 tigers, and most zoos in England have less than five.”

Leaving the environment in Center Point is a transition he is certain will not be easy.

“There is no doubt in my mind that I’ll never have another job like the rescue center, and I certainly will miss the cats as particular individuals,” he says. “One of the best things about having 227 different cats is 227 different personalities. There is always a cat doing something amusing or ridiculous. It can be like watching kittens playing, and in the same way I couldn’t have imagined what it would be like before I came here, I can’t imagine what it would be like not to work here.”

That’s the unanimous response from those who work at the center: it’s the individual cats that keep them coming back. For Jenna Maurer, who relocated from Ohio to take a job as a keeper, it’s one of the smaller cats who stands out, a bobcat named Desi.

“I was minding my own business scooping poop,” her story begins with typical flair. “I looked up and he was a few feet away, simply watching. I tried to take a few steps toward him just to see what would happen, and sure enough he bolted to the safety of higher ground. After that I decided it was my mission to try and get Desi to trust us a little more.”

The mission was a success: “I got him from timidly watching from the rafters to sitting in your lap wanting to be brushed and craving kisses and hugs. Desi passed away right before Christmas in 2011, and I will never forget him. I wanted him to understand that he didn’t need to be scared of us. We were there to help, and he was safe. Some cats never change their feelings toward people, but I’d like to think that we finally made the last few months of Desi’s life safe, happy, and comfortable.”

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the center since The Ridge was published, and among the most common is what would happen to all of the cats if Taft were no longer able to care for them. It’s not a scenario that escaped Taft’s thoughts as the years passed and the size of the rescue mission grew. He has worked hard to create a facility that is not entirely dependent upon him. A board of directors has been in place for years, the staff handles the daily care, and Taft and Herrberg, both in their sixties, view Rizzo, who is just thirty, as the future of the center.

“Rebecca is heaven-sent,” Herrberg says. “We’ve watched her mature over the years and she has certainly stepped up to the plate, taken on more and more responsibility. She has the maturity and the mind and, most important, she is totally devoted to the cats.”

Assuming the reins of leadership in the future is not something Rizzo cares to discuss, but she admits she’ll never leave, because she couldn’t walk away from the cats.

“This is my passion,” she says, “and I have a relationship with each and every cat out there, whether it be good or bad. Leaving them would be letting them down. It’s not every day that someone gets to do what they feel they were truly meant to do for a living.”

Taft is certain the center will outlive him, and, he says, that was the goal from the beginning: to build something that lasted. His parcel in the woods of rural Indiana has already provided a home for more than 325 rescued cats, and he hopes that will continue long after he’s gone. One thing is certain: the need will outlive Taft, and me, and everyone who currently works at the center. Even as visitors leave with smiles after having a chance to see the incredible animals up close, someone else is acquiring a tiger or lion they have no business owning and no ability to care for. When recognition of that hits, phones will ring in Center Point.

If you can’t visit the center in person, then you can find out more about it at www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org .