The pride of Center Point

By Glenda Winders // Photography by Phil Allen and Stephen McCloud
Exotic Feline Rescue Center gives big cats better lives

Don’t come here if you’re expecting SeaWorld or a safari park. It’s not that kind of place. No characters in furry costumes will pose with you for a souvenir photo, there won’t be any shows and you won’t be able to buy lunch. In fact, the only amenities are a vending machine, a portable toilet and a tiny gift shop that sells just a few items. A sign at the entrance warns that if you interact with any of the animals, you will be asked to leave.

What you will find at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, however, are big cat rescues living peacefully in a forested setting and being looked after by caring keepers. Lions and tigers and pumas and ocelots and servals and panthers and bobcats — oh, my!

The center, whose slogan is “Giving big cats a second chance,” was established in 1991 by Joe Taft, a cat lover who, as a student at Indiana State University, kept a pet ocelot in his apartment. After graduation, he was living in New Mexico with his pet leopard when he attended an event where two tigers were being mistreated. He reported the situation, but the authorities said they had nowhere to house the animals if they took them away. Taft figured out a way to solve the problem.

“The cats that started the rescue were my first encounter with what they call ‘photo-boothers,’ where people bring kittens around for you to hold and bottle-feed for a fee,” he says. “But when they get too big, they become throwaways. There’s no place for them to go.”

Taft took responsibility for the cats, arranging surgery to correct the animals’ problems and boarding them at locations in Texas and Ohio while he looked for a permanent home.
“I went to a realtor in Terre Haute with two tigers in the back of my truck and a leopard in the cab,” Taft says. “I said, ‘I’m looking for a place with no neighbors.’”

Changing their stripes  
What started with three cats and 24 acres has since grown to 150 cats and 108 acres. Today the center employees 15 full-time staff members and hires college students to help in the summer. The six keepers all have degrees in zoology, biology or animal behavior, and the center is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A veterinarian comes every Wednesday or in emergencies, and in between he stays in contact with keepers to handle minor problems. Twice a year veterinary dentists who are part of the Peter Emily Veterinary Dental Foundation come to the on-site clinic to take care of extractions, root canals, biopsies or whatever else a cat might need at no cost. The University of Illinois sends anesthesiologists to work with them and charges only for the supplies they use.

Other helpers are two dozen or so volunteers, one of whom is Jason Heimbaugh, who is also a member of the board of directors. He first became aware of EFRC when he saw some children selling hot dogs and hamburgers to raise money for the center at his local grocery store. He made his first visit the following Saturday, nine years ago, and now he’s there most weekends.

“I fell in love with the cats and the place and realized I needed to start volunteering,” said Heimbaugh, who works for the University of Illinois Police Department and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the pagoda command center. “The university job pays my bills and the speedway is a dream, but my calling is our cats. There’s nothing like the appreciation, respect and sometimes friendship you get from them.”

The animal enclosures are close to the paths, so visitors must be accompanied by a guide, even though the cats have become accustomed to people.

“Friendly doesn’t mean safe,” says Jean Herrberg, EFRC’s assistant director. “It’s good that some of the cats are people-friendly because they don’t become aggressive or get scared, but they’re big and strong and they can kill you when they’re just trying to be friendly.”

Herrberg discovered the sanctuary when she came to visit her parents in Bowling Green. At first she stayed away because she was opposed to the idea of people having exotic pets, but when she finally visited and saw how dedicated Taft and his staff were, she started volunteering. Eventually she moved here and joined the staff.

“We get the cats nobody else wants, and most of them are mutts that have been bred by individuals or roadside zoos,” she says. “But once a cat comes here or is born from a rescue, this is its home for life. We don’t buy, sell, breed or trade.”

A story to tell
The cats don’t speak English, but, Herrberg says, each cat has a story to tell; these origin stories aren’t pleasant. There’s the circus guy who kept 10 lions and tigers in cages in a barn; the woman who was threatened by child protective services to get rid of her lion or lose her children; the tattoo artist who kept a tiger in his shop; the apartment dweller who figured out nine months after he adopted a cat that he didn’t have room for it. The list goes on.

But the sad narratives have happy endings at EFRC. Now the big animals get whatever care they need, whether it’s food, medicine or love. Staff members never go inside the fence with the animals, but they are able to provide fresh straw and water each morning by using two-part enclosures that protect their safety. Herrberg says the cats who want affection know that if they lean against the fence a staff member will come and nuzzle them.

The cats receive care in accordance with their needs; for example, Jenny the tiger has a noticeably smaller enclosure with a lower climbing tower and tub. She is recovering from an embolism that paralyzed her hind quarters and has trouble walking and climbing.

The cats’ temperaments are also taken into consideration. If they are aggressive, frightened or have other issues, they are housed away from the animals on display. If they come alone and aren’t used to other animals, they stay alone. If they come in a group, they stay together. Males and females are spayed or neutered at the clinic and can be in an enclosure together unless hostilities develop.

“The first thing you learn when you come to work here is that the animals are cats first and foremost,” Herrberg said. “That means they do what they want when they want if they want.”

The animals, obligate carnivores all, go through 3,500 to 4,000 pounds of meat per day. Nearby farmers donate horses and cows that die, and law enforcement patrolling the nearby roads and highways alerts them when roadkill of deer, squirrels and rabbits is available to be picked up. The center supplements with some 30,000 pounds of frozen chicken every six weeks.

Feline fine
In the beginning Taft footed the bill, but now that the center is larger, the resources needed to run it come from a variety of sources.

“The biggest part of our money comes from visitors walking through the gate,” Herrberg said. But funds also come from foundations, tax-deductible gifts (race car driver Tony Stewart made a new leopard enclosure possible), bequests and a membership program with categories that range from “Lynx” at $150 per year to “Pride” at $10,000. Special events also help out. Evening Roar is an adults-only wine and hors d’oeuvre party; Fall Fest hosts kids for a wiener roast and circus-cage rides. At the Pumpkin Party keepers fill pumpkins with meat, and visitors get to watch the cats enjoy them.

Another money-maker is the room where adults (no children or pets) can spend the night. It is outfitted much like a hotel room, but what guests won’t find at a hotel are cat enclosures right outside the door so they can enjoy the animals close up throughout their stay. Taft’s home, attached to the clinic, is nearby.

When a cat’s life comes to its inevitable end, its cremated remains are reverently stored in a room with other like containers. Then its enclosure is completely redone with new climbing towers and a shiny new water tub for the next occupant. Until that happens, though, these cats are definitely in a good place. “We try and create a situation here where the animals have lives that they can feel are meaningful,” Taft says.

EFRC is open every day of the year from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. Special rates can be negotiated for groups. Cost to spend the night is $225. Visit for more information.