- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

CENTER POINT, Ind. (AP) - On one of the coldest days of winter, majestic felines saunter from their sheltered den boxes only occasionally, to stretch toward the sun, chew on a fresh calf leg or chuff and rub their faces against the bristled jaw of their benefactor, Joe Taft.

The 68-year-old man won’t dispute a suggestion that he likes cats more than he does people. He settled 23 years ago on 108 remote acres in Clay County, west of Bowling Green near Center Point. He built tall, fenced enclosures and took in three big cats.

Taft’s venture has since evolved into a not-for-profit organization with a $700,000 annual budget that barely covers costs. He offers refuge, food, respect and affection to 225 exotic cats that were exploited, confiscated, abandoned or abused.

He faces challenges and criticisms as well. A black leopard on the loose one afternoon. An escaped cougar gone seven years now. A malfunctioning gate. An animal keeper mauled by a tiger. Fences, not tall enough? Disregard for safety. Misplaced priorities.

Taft oversees one of the biggest feline sanctuaries in the country. Every year, thousands of visitors, from busloads of elementary school kids to senior citizens, pay for tours that, in turn, pay the bills.

But critical reports issued over the past two years by state and federal agencies that oversee workplace conditions and animal containment facilities raise questions about the Exotic Feline Rescue Center and leave its future uncertain.

Taft said the criticism and demands sting. His big cat refuge faces significant state fines, and appeals of U.S. Department of Agriculture citations from recent inspections have been denied.

“Can we survive all this?” Taft asked The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1d54WXo ). “We have no choice, because there’s no place else for these cats to go. There really isn’t. What’s the government going to do to hurt these cats more?”

On July 8, 2012, an unpaid student intern was cleaning a black leopard’s enclosure, and the animal was secured in what is called a den box area. When she was finished and the cat had been released from the smaller contained space, the intern forgot to secure the gate behind her. The cat jumped against the gate. It opened.

The 140-pound cat, Blackie, escaped, and for the next 45 minutes ran back and forth along a perimeter fence until a rescue center volunteer shot him with tranquilizer darts. The leopard collapsed and was dragged back into his cage. “During this time, there were members of the public present in the facility, although they were behind a secondary fence and gate system,” an inspection report from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said.

Animal Care Inspector Elizabeth Taylor said the intern did not have adequate training to be working closely with the dangerous cats alone and unsupervised. The report also said a guide leading a tour of the compound that day left her group to find out why they had been detained, not realizing a leopard was on the loose. Tour members were left alone in an area surrounded by big cats in enclosures, with no one present to keep them from approaching the cages. “The animals were becoming agitated, which frightened members of the tour group,” the USDA inspection report said, criticizing the management for allowing a dangerous situation to brew. Members of the group reported the intern petted the large cats through the fence wire and that they were close enough to have done the same.

Taylor’s report noted “there is no documentation available at the facility showing that this tour guide had been trained or had met the qualifications of an animal handler,” and called for immediate action to document training.

Taft said he now keeps training records. “We write it down. Everything we do,” he said.

One week before a 21-year-old feline rescue center employee was attacked by a tiger last June, the facility’s lawyer penned a letter to federal inspectors appealing citations for potentially unsafe conditions.

The rescue center had been ordered in December 2011 to make “corrective measures” to enclosures regarding fence height and the cutting of trees. During a follow-up inspection, Taylor said eight cages housing four tigers, three lions and three cougars still needed attention “to ensure continued adequate containment of felids.”

Story Continues →