- 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.”

She said trees leaning against fences and those growing within three feet of cages had to be cut down to eliminate the possibility of a big cat climbing a tree to get over a fence. She also said the heights of enclosures, ranging from 11-feet-6-inches to 12-feet-7-inches, were not sufficient to prevent escapes.

In a Nov. 7, 2012, response appealing the citations, Washington, D.C., attorney David Durkin said they “respectfully but forcefully disagree” with the findings. “The enclosures are not out of compliance,” he wrote, claiming “22 years of no felid escapes over the top of any of the primary enclosures cited.”

Durkin explained that enclosures are inspected daily and that nearby trees are monitored and pruned regularly. The lawyer said that if Taft cuts down too many trees, he could end up in violation of a statute that requires sufficient shade to allow animals to escape sunlight. He pointed out that the same enclosures cited in December 2011 had never been listed as a problem during previous inspections over 20 years.

“The interpretation changed without the trees, cats or enclosures changing, and without any change in the written regulations provided in the Animal Welfare Act to guide the facility.”

He said his client uses 48 years of experience dealing with exotic felines to determine which enclosure they will live in and how likely it is they might try to escape given their age, condition and size.

During a May 2013 inspection, Taft remained adamant: He would cut down no more trees until the appeals process was over and the lawyers involved settled the issues. A month later, on June 14, Durkin once again sent a letter appealing the USDA findings. “The imposition of these requirements is based on conjecture,” he wrote.

Walking among the enclosures recently, Taft scoffed at the USDA concerns and questioned the need to increase fence heights or embark on a tree-removal plan. He acknowledged the 2007 escape of a 75-pound cougar, Donner, who may have scaled a tree and gone over a 12-foot-high fence. Donner, rescued in the wild as a cub when her mother was killed, had lived at the center with her brother for eight years, then disappeared into the night. Despite searches by a professional tracker and conservation officers, Donner was never found.

In the summer of 2013, after the June attack in which employee Marissa Dub was injured, Taft’s troubles turned from trees and fence height to problems with a gate that contributed to the attack. Dub, who had been working at the center about a year, forgot to secure an interior guillotine gate that segregated the tiger, 18-year-old Raja, from the rest of the pen during cleaning.

The tiger had Dub’s head clenched in his jaws as her coworkers sprayed a hose and tossed a chunk of meat into the cage to distract the animal. Dub suffered serious injuries to her face and neck, and was hospitalized for weeks, initially in intensive care. She returned to work at the center in August.

Three days after the attack, USDA Animal Care Inspector Ann Marie Houser visited the center to investigate what had happened. She documented concerns about safety, neglected repairs and working conditions. She issued a report demanding immediate changes.

While examining the enclosure where the tiger attacked Dub, Houser noted a 4- to 6-inch gap at the bottom of the guillotine door, which slides up and down. She described how Taft used a piece of rebar to pry the door open, and said it took “a tremendous amount of effort that would hinder quick action in case of an emergency.”

Employees told Houser the gate had been broken for weeks and that Taft did not make fixing it a priority. Her reports said several employees reported being “tired of the continual lack of concern or repairs of issues reported.”

She described “a strong sense of contention” among the staff about unresolved maintenance issues. She wrote that workers are afraid to report concerns because Taft is dismissive and sometimes downright angry, so they “give up and do their jobs.”

Taft attributed the complaints to two disgruntled employees who disagreed with his methods. He claims either he or maintenance staff address facility issues “as soon as we know about them.” He said there’s a new rule requiring an extra person to oversee gate closings.

The June inspection report also said the big cat reserve is understaffed and employees overworked, their concerns disregarded. Houser said workers claim Taft pushes them to lead tours because the revenue is vital, causing them to rush through their work feeding the cats, checking out their health and cleaning their cages. They disagreed about the number of employees qualified to have such close contact with the cats, and no records documenting their training could be located at the center’s office.

Taft said the time he spends tending the cats was missing from the inspection report.

Houser said Taft’s workers rarely have time to take water or lunch breaks. “The current level of staffing for the number of animals housed cannot provide for a healthy or safe environment at this facility,” she wrote. The rushed situation, the report said, leads to “unintentional disregard for safety measures in animal containment procedures.”

The USDA criticizes Taft and his facility, but the federal agency also is engaged in business with him. Taft said dozens of the exotic cats living at his Clay County facility were placed there at the request of the USDA after the agency seized the animals and needed to find them homes.

The irony is not lost on Taft. He points out the window from a building that houses the center’s office.

“The six tigers in that cage right there, the four in the cage next to it, all from San Antonio, a place called the Wild Animal Orphanage. The USDA had us get them. They call me up and say, ‘Will you go to Springfield now to get a cat?’ Once, they wanted us to go to Miami County to get eight lions and tigers and crate two more for someone else to come get.” Taft gathered a crew, and they retrieved the cats.

The center’s current stars, a tiger named Chloe and the five cubs she delivered after being rescued from a closed zoo, came to Taft’s refuge as part of a USDA case. So did Blackie, confiscated from a Cleveland man whose pet tiger killed his 2-year-old son. Raja, the tiger that attacked Dub, came to Taft via the USDA 11 years ago.

Kicking down a frozen path between enclosures, he told the story of saving two now-sleek tigers he passed by, along with a lion, a leopard and a cougar that were left starving near Solsberry. “It was probably the worst place I’ve ever been,” Taft said.

Indiana is among 20 states that allow individuals to possess exotic cats as pets. The Department of Natural Resources issues Wild Animal Possession Permits for $10. The permits require owners to provide animal health certificates, keep an escape recapture plan and have cages inspected by a conservation officer. Enclosures require concrete floors covered with natural substrate, loafing platforms and 14-foot-tall walls with a 45-degree incline if there’s no roof.

Thirteen permits are currently valid, although DNR officials know many more Indiana residents house bobcats, cougars, tigers, lions, servals and other exotic cats without the required permit.

The USDA isn’t the only regulatory agency the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is at odds with. In November, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed $69,000 in fines against the center after uncovering practices “likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”

State workplace safety inspectors swooped in for an inspection after Dub’s life-threatening encounter with the tiger last summer. They documented multiple, serious safety issues.

The reports listed concerns with fence height, gaps in the cages and the operation of sliding gates like the one Dub left unsecured. It also said employees used dangerous chemicals without proper training and did not have access to personal protection gear or water.

For instance, there were no training records or workplace protocols for exposure to “animals that are hazardous to humans, such as but not limited to lions, leopards and tigers,” one report said. The center was cited for having six cages where employees could not be segregated from the animals during feeding and cage cleaning.

The state fined the center $2,000 for not having drinking water available for employees and for charging them $1 for bottled water. Taft was fined another $2,000 for not training his staff on how to operate all-terrain vehicles they use to travel around the property.

Taft is appealing most of the citations and fines. OSHA spokesman Bob Dittmer said a public hearing on the appeals will be held.

Taft estimates the cost of caring for each animal at $3,000 a year. They eat a lot of meat, more than 3,000 pounds a day, much of it carved with a chainsaw from the carcasses of horses and cows that die on area farms.

He said increasing fence height by 4 feet is unnecessary and would cost $28,000. Rebuilding the enclosures would cost a few million, he said, and would require bulldozing trees and vegetation, stressing animals by displacing them from established habitats.

Taft can come across as gruff, and most days prefers the company of big cats to humans. He cares about them down to his core, knows their names and habits and what needs to be done to care for them.

Knowing his cat population, Taft said, qualifies him as capable to manage the facility. But he’s beginning to realize he’s got inspectors on his heels and challenges to contend with if the Exotic Feline Rescue Center is to survive.

His loyalty, always, lies with the cats.

“The work, it’s hard. It’s dirty, and it’s unending.” It’s his life.

___

Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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