The narrow two-lane road turned from asphalt to gravel, miles off the main highway, and we wondered if we were in the right place. There were no streetlights or billboards, only thick forest, tall grasses and delicate wildflowers. Then we spotted a bright orange sign: Exotic Feline Rescue Center. We had arrived at our destination.
More than 200 big cats of 9 species reside at this sanctuary amid the cornfields of Central Indiana. Most were horribly abused, unwanted or abandoned during their past lives. They came from all over the country–from bad circuses, bad zoos, tattoo parlors, meth labs and overwhelmed owners. Here they live out their remaining lives in safe, natural outdoor habitats, not behind bars in concrete cages.
Each cat has a story, and we heard some of them and learned about their care on the hour-long tour.
First, a word of warning from our guide Shelby: “If you see a cat with its back end facing you and its tail sticking straight up in the air, that means it is going to spray. Quickly move over to the side. You cannot back up far enough to avoid that spray. Most of these cats can spray about 10 feet directly behind them.” We took heed, but our group was lucky.
More exotic-cat facts: Some cats enjoy the companionship of others, while some prefer a solitary lifestyle. Some purr, others roar. Tigers enjoy soaking in water, but lions don’t. Black leopards are actually spotted. Servals have the longest legs for the size of their bodies than any other exotic cat. They can jump 10 feet or more in the air and catch birds in flight.
Generally speaking, lions and tigers live separately, Shelby told us. But Kisa and Max were very young when they were paired, and a friendship developed. Today Max is the biggest tiger at the sanctuary, but lioness Kisa is definitely the boss of their habitat.
Upon their arrival, the felines are given medical care and placed in appropriately sized habitats. Many need dental care, and a few have undergone cataract removal. Not all are on tour, perhaps because of serious medical needs or antisocial behaviors.
The sanctuary does not breed, but a handful of cats were born to pregnant mothers. All are spayed and neutered, although male lions get vasectomies so they don’t lose their manes. Accidents, however, happen.
One majestic lion, King, was only 14 months old when he arrived, taken from an owner who could no longer afford to feed him. He also was fully declawed. Believed to be too young to father, he was placed with Jasmine, a female lion, for company. The result was a daughter, Lauren. The three lived happily together for many years, but Jasmine and Lauren have passed on. Today the grieving King lives alone.
The nonprofit center was founded by Joe Taft in 1991 with 3 cats and 15 acres. It has since expanded to more than 100 acres and is one of the largest big-cat sanctuaries in the country. Find out more at the EFRC YouTube channel here.
“They are wonderful animals, and we are lucky to be able to do this for them,” Taft says. “It’s a fabulous experience for us, and hopefully it’s an enriching experience for all of our residents and visitors.”
Travel tips: The center has been created for the comfort of its cats, not necessarily for people. Visitors are warmly welcomed, but amenities are few. Wear comfortable shoes. The paths are unpaved, but a golf cart is available for those who need assistance navigating them. The restrooms are portable. Vending machines are available for water and soda.
The exotic cats are spectacular to view any time of year, but they are more active before their late afternoon feedings. During the spring or fall, they are less hidden by dense foliage.
If a one-hour tour isn’t enough cat time for you, spend the night. The Exotic Feline Rescue Center has one guest room that sleeps two adults (no children, please). You’ll be able to watch cats from the picture window or front yard. In the morning, the keepers will take you on a private tour to some of the restricted areas. Make reservations in advance–the guest room books up quickly.
The Exotic Feline Rescue Center is in Center Point, Indiana, about an hour west of Indianapolis. Tours are given daily except major holidays. Group tours are offered by reservation.
2221 E. Ashboro Road
Center Point, IN 47840