By Jordan Kartholl, The (Muncie) Star Press
Center Point, IN (AP) – A tiger paces a worn footpath.
Its white fur contrasts brilliantly with the surrounding green foliage.
A growl rumbles in the animal’s throat as four colossal paws kick up puffs of dirt in the dry summer heat.
This is a 500-pound apex predator named Charlie Brown, adapted to stalk the rainforests of Southeast Asia. This is an animal so rare it’s feared they will disappear completely in the next decade.
This tiger doesn’t belong here.
Charlie Brown is in a cage in Indiana.
The white tiger is an abandoned prop from a magic show. It’s just one of more than 200 rescued tigers, lions, panthers, leopards and other abused or surrendered cats housed at the 108-acre Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point.
Joe Taft, director of the EFRC, said the facility is one of the largest of its kind and receives big cats from all across the U.S.
And recently, Taft’s center received an unusually tiny addition – a 10-ounce addition to be exact – in the form of a Bengal kitten found in a Gaston garage last April. Two kittens were found in the garage, and one died shortly after arriving at the center, but center officials are optimistic that the remaining one will survive.
With thousands of abused, privately owned exotic animals, the need for the sprawling refuge hasn’t diminished in its 25 years of operation.
“A lot of people see having these animals as some kind of fantasy,’’ Taft said. “They don’t relate to the realities of the situation whatsoever until it’s far too late.’’
Taft said he and his crew are sometimes traveling for weeks picking up new animals but visitors are often shocked to discover how many of Taft’s big cats come from the center’s home state.
Indiana is where the EFRC rescued 21 tigers raised alongside a meth lab operation. It’s where the center took tigers and lions kept for a decade in mud- and feces-caked travel cages. They’ve saved leopards, cougars and other in-state big cats that were desperately malnourished, near death from dehydration and trapped in dog-sized kennels without basic veterinary care. The newborn Bengal kitten is just one of the latest arrivals who came from in-state.
“Whatever their original intentions were, most people who decide to own a big cat get put in a completely untenable condition,’’ Taft said. “They can’t afford to keep the animals, can’t sell them, can’t give them away . and for whatever reason some people just don’t care about providing these animals with a good quality of life.’’
Assistant director Jean Herrberg has been feeding the kitten from Delaware County with a syringe every few hours. The outlook for the surviving exotic kitten is optimistic. The center plans to keep the as-of-yet undetermined-gender Bengal as an office pet.
Around 40 percent of the animals placed at the EFRC come from Indiana. Taft said the steeper percentage is partially due to the high number of breeders who once operated within the state.
The fact that most of the cats placed at the EFRC were legally owned is a regular source of frustration for Taft.
“Under the USDA’s breeder license, a lion or tiger can be kept in a cage no bigger than a sheet of plywood,’’ Taft said. “There’s no economic incentive for licensees to take good care of their animals.’’
Compared to federal regulation, the state has more stringent restrictions on exotic pet ownership but remains one of the least regulated in the Midwest. The only neighboring state with fewer restrictions was Ohio, which changed its policies after a man released 56 exotic animals from his property in an apparent suicide bid in 2011.
As of the passing of Senate Bill 109 this year, Indiana no longer requires Class III exotic pet owners to notify neighbors of their intent to keep higher-risk exotic animals on their property.
According to Linneah Petercheff, operations staff specialist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the process of legally owning a Class III exotic pet begins with a one-time payment of $10 and a two-page form that includes the owner’s recapture strategy if the animal escapes.
Costs for a large enclosure, vet care, and the massive amounts of food needed to maintain the health of these animals required by the DNR are prohibitive enough for most would-be private owners seeking a state permit. If a person wants to breed exotic animals like tigers, lions or other big cats, however, federal law is much more accommodating.
The aforementioned tigers raised adjacent to a meth lab were licensed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Petercheff said big-cat owners are required to provide a receipt that proves their animal was purchased from a licensed USDA breeder, but the DNR has no jurisdiction over those breeders.
That means a breeder that sells a tiger cub to an Indiana resident, for instance, is under no obligation to notify the DNR the sale was made.
Petercheff said relying on buyers to self-report newly acquired exotic animals creates problems for DNR staff trying to track who owns higher-risk pets like big cats.
DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, said limited regulation on ownership and especially the breeding of exotic animals like tigers and lions not only creates a public safety concern but also further endangers the existence of these animals in the wild.
“When you make them available for sale you create a demand for them,’’ Schubert said. “People see the little lion kittens and they are awfully cute and it’s that cuteness factor makes people think they can adequately care for them.’’
Schubert said breeding in the states, licensed or not, is not a viable means of conserving endangered cats as some private owners claim.
“Breeding captive tigers only creates more captive tigers,’’ Schubert said. “No program currently exists that can reintroduce captive big cats into the wild.’’
Breeding exotic cats in the states also has the potential to contribute to animals being captured and removed from their natural habitats, Schubert said.
At the EFRC, tigers make up the majority of the cat population. Tigers are the clearest example of the impact of breeding and private ownership with an estimated 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild and anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 captive tigers in the U.S.
“We have a significant problem on our hands because we didn’t have the foresight decades ago to restrict the possession and breeding of these animals,’’ Schubert said. “It’s not the animals’ fault they are in these horrible situations, so it’s our responsibility to fix it.’’
Schubert said existing restrictions fail to prioritize quality of life for captive big cats.
“The psychological health of these animals is often lost on people. They tend to understand this need when it comes to their dogs,’’ Schubert said. “Private owners don’t have the resources to ensure these animals are psychologically enriched and their physical needs are met.’’
Schubert said in addition to a national registry, the best solution to the problem would be allowing responsible, licensed private owners to keep their big cats while enacting a federal ban on all future breeding and private ownership of the animals.
“I think legislatures are crazy if they are not enacting extraordinarily restrictive laws for captive breeding of these large cats,’’ Schubert said. “Loose restrictions only create a culture of cruelty and a culture of suffering for these animals.’’
Taft doesn’t think an outright ban is necessary, but he hopes changes will be made to state and federal laws, especially as they pertain to the
“These are animals that probably suffer more than the domestic cats or domestic dogs that have been bred into an abusive environment,’’ Taft said. “They are genetically equipped to live in a much more challenging environment.’’
An enclosure is acceptable under USDA restrictions if it allows the animal to “make normal postural adjustments’’ with being able to raise its head and turn around cited as examples.
Taft can still remember his first rescue, the one that led to the creation of the EFRC.
“I had never seen anything quite like that: two lions, 6 months old, and had lived their whole lives in a Volkswagen van,’’ Taft said. “The male was blind and crippled. The female was malnourished. I took them in and then I needed a place to keep them, so I came here.’’
Taft said he hopes the work he and the EFRC do will help change perspectives on big-cat ownership, especially as the survival of these species becomes increasingly dire.
The EFRC’s 200-plus cats eat around 3,000 pounds of meat per day, have regular vet visits, large enclosures and 18 employees with 20 to 30 volunteers looking after them. The center operates on an annual budget of $700,000, and the EFRC staff is constantly looking for creative funding solutions to keep the center up and running.
The center just hosted a 5K run/walk. Taft said participants got the surreal exercise motivator that is resident tiger Iona stalking them from her enclosure as they completed the route.
On June 11, the center is hosted an adults-only formal event, The Evening Roar.
Taft described his future plans for the center as “pretty mundane.’’ He’s content as long as the work of providing care and a permanent home for abused exotic animals continues.
“My feeling is if one is going to keep a wild animal in captivity, they certainly have a moral obligation to see that that animal has a good quality of life and good care,’’ Taft said.
Photos: Newly rescued tiger arriving at EFRC; Brooke & Annie at EFRC; Jenny, lucky to be at EFRC; belongs in the wild