by JoAnna Haugen, Special to Donne Tempo Magazine
Rosamond, CA … Tao and Ran lay side-by-side, watching me watch them. Doc paces back and forth, back and forth, while his brother Cisco looks at him lazily, his eyes starting to close in the warm morning sun.
Xeno sticks his head out, curious at what we’re talking about when we walk by his home.
It’s another morning at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound’s Feline Conservation Center (EFBC/FCC) as volunteers make their rounds, coaxing the cats into secure areas with food treats so they can slip in to clean their homes.
But the cats seem to know the routine and, for the most part, aren’t interested in listening to the volunteers. No one ever said it was easy to herd cats.
And quite the lot of cats this is.
Located in the small town of Rosamond, California, the EFBC/FCC is home to more than 75 wild cats, 17 species of which can currently be viewed by the public. They range in size from the small margay with its large eyes to the jaguar, which can weigh up to 250 pounds.
The gracefulness of these cats is apparent as they stretch and move. But don’t be mistaken: These are wild cats with wild tendencies. This isn’t a petting zoo.
“Our primary purpose is breeding and helping to maintain a viable population,” says Sandra Masek, director of the EFBC/FCC.
Right now the facility is actively involved in breeding programs for the Amur leopard, jaguar, fishing cat and Pallas’ cat. A lot of discussion and debate goes into deciding which species will be bred. Clean bloodlines, spacing issues and future thinking about where a cat will spend its life are all considered when deciding which species to breed.
The facility also conducts research about endangered cats and their future in the face of human overpopulation and mass extinction of animal species. This is not a rescue facility, and the cats are treated like the wild animals they are, which creates the ideal research situation. There is no hands-on interaction between humans and the cats.
“Even when I have to hand raise them, I encourage natural behaviors like pouncing and jumping,” Masek says.
Additionally, the conditions at the facility allow for the cats to make their own choices. They come and go in and out of their den areas within their enclosures to the viewing areas as they please. This isn’t so much about pleasing visitors as it is about providing a comfortable environment for the cats.
“In a zoo, they have a routine where they lock cats out during the day,” Masek says. “We don’t manipulate their environment. They are more relaxed and breed better.”
These conditions also make it easier to study and watch the animals, which is difficult to do in the wild.
Luckily for visitors who come to check out these large cats for some up-close-and-personal time, the EFBC/FCC also focuses on education.
“We think it’s important to educate the public on all aspects of the breeding process,” Masek says. “We are the only facility in the world with this many species open to the public for educational purposes.”
There are few other places where a person can watch a fishing cat float in his personal pool and admire a family of North Chinese leopards. It’s easy to do it here, where an open exhibit area invites visitors to watch, marvel and learn about an array of cat species.
Volunteers walk the grounds, sharing stories about the cats and answering questions about habits and lifestyles.
While a full morning or afternoon is ample time to wander the grounds and enjoy the company of the big cats, there is another option for people looking to truly immerse themselves in the experience. The EFBC/FCC is always looking for volunteers, though interested parties need to be aware that this doesn’t involve petting or playing with the cats.
“It’s hard work,” Masek says. “It’s heavy lifting. It’s cleaning. It’s dirty. It’s preparing food.”
But knowing that the time and effort goes toward saving some of the mightiest, most spectacular animals on earth is truly the cat’s meow.
3718 60th Street West
Rosamond, Califorina 93560
Open Thursday-Tuesday 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Author’s bio: JoAnna Haugen writes from Las Vegas, where she can often be found planning her next great adventure. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, her travels have taken her from the waters of the Nile River to the rainforests of Australia and the Inca Trail in Peru. Follow her journeys at Kaleidoscopic Wandering.
Photo 1/Doc, a jaguar, now eleven years old, was born at the EFBC/FCC along with his sister Annie and brother Cisco. Photo courtesy of EFBC/FCC.
Photo2/ Director Sandra Masek has overseen the breeding, research and education programs at the EFBC/FCC since 1994. Saturday, June 27, 2009, photo by Cory Haugen.
Photo 3/ Aztec is a female jaguarundi, a feline found in Central America and southern Arizona and Texas. Photo courtesy of EFBC/FCC.
Photo 4/Angara, on loan from the San Diego Zoo, is one of two Eurasian lynx at the EFBC/FCC. Photo courtesy of EFBC/FCC.
Photo 5/The Persian leopard is the largest of all the sub-species of leopards in the world. This Persian leopard, Shapur, is on loan to the EFBC/FCC from the San Diego Zoo. Photo courtesy of EFBC/FCC.