Rural Oregonians create heaven for abandoned exotic felines.
A cougar surveys his domain in North Dakota’s Badlands.
Seven years ago, Cheryl and Mike Tuller answered a newspaper advertisement for an adorable bobcat kitten. The breeder assured them Bobo would make the perfect pet and sent an irresistible video. After months of the “kitten’s” clawing, pacing, spraying and even biting, the Tullers realized they’d been duped. The result was Wildcat Haven, a nonprofit 501(c) sanctuary for displaced, abused and neglected captive-born wildcats.
“We’re one of a handful of facilities nationwide dedicated to smaller, lesser known wildcats,” Leslie Birrenkott says. Birrenkott is Wildcat Haven’s development director and part of the volunteer crew who keep the sanctuary going. Located on eight wooded acres near Sherwood, Oregon, Wildcat Haven houses rows of 2,000-square-foot wooden enclosures surrounding the Tullers’ home. The 41 animals include cougar, bobcat, lynx, serval, South American Geoffroy’s cat, Asian jungle cat, Asian leopard cat and African caracal.
“Most of our rescues aren’t from Oregon,” Birrenkott says. “They’re put in a carrier and flown in from Michigan, Ohio or Iowa. There’s a sanctuary network across the United States, and if one can’t help, they ask others.”
“You can turn your back to bobcats, lynx and serval – they don’t view this as aggression,” Birrenkott says as she walks over to a curious lynx who’s looking on. All the enclosures have straw floors, comfortable beds, colorful toys and the hiding places cats love. “Cougars are just the opposite – if you turn your back, it’s a sign to attack.” Of course, like their small domestic cousins, wildcats have individual idiosyncrasies and personalities.
Take Chirpy, one of Wildcat Haven’s 11 servals. “They’re usually kind of hissy,” Birrenkott says. “I started sitting on a log and talking to him, and he started coming up and walking around me. I discovered that he liked to play – like I’d move a twig or toy across the ground. Before I knew it, Chirpy was rubbing against me, and I was scratching him under the chin.”
Forming relationships with animals is a joy to anyone who works with them. “The most rewarding thing about volunteering is interacting with the cats and seeing their environment,” Birrenkott says. “They came from living in someone’s house, and now they have large enclosures and a natural space. They get the best food and vet care possible, and you can see how content they are.”
Birrenkott’s favorite cat, at 6 pounds, could be mistaken for a house pet – at a distance. A South American Geoffroy’s cat, Pico looks like a tiny spotted leopard. He was sleeping inside his large covered bed and hisses as Birrenkott looks in. “You can’t pick him up and cuddle him,” Birrenkott smiles. “Pico is our most nocturnal cat. He wakes up around dusk and runs around. You can pet him when you bring his dinner, but he grumbles.
“Now, some bobcats are friendly and others you just don’t go near,” Birrenkott says. “It depends how they were treated before they came to the sanctuary.”
Unfortunately, many of the shelter’s animals were abused. For example, one family bought two bobcats for their children. When the youngsters went off to school, the family chained one cat to a tree and kept the other confined in a small carrier in the basement.
Another example of abuse came on Birrenkott’s first day at the shelter. Walking up the steps to Cheryl Tuller’s house, Birrenkott noticed little ears peering over the windowsill. Leo, an 8-week-old cougar, needed indoor protection. Originally from Iowa, Leo was bought and sold twice before arriving at the shelter. “He was so small and sick,” Birrenkott says. “His spotted fur was falling out and his whiskers were broken off.” Today, Leo is a magnificent animal and quite the charmer. “He loves to chirp and purr, and he gets along well with his buddy, Cody,” Birrenkott says. “And, he loves people.”
Legal and illegal breeding of wildcats is rampant across the United States, and state and county laws vary. Like those who sold Bobo to the Tullers, many people believe that a darling wildcat kitten can be domesticated if it’s hand-raised, bottle-fed and declawed. Unfortunately, as the kittens age, natural wild instincts make living with them intolerable. The expense is often unexpected, as well. “They eat massive amounts,” Birrenkott says. “These animals can’t survive on domestic cat food and need the diet they’d get in the wild.”
The sanctuary goes through 3,000 pounds of food a month. Usually purchased in bulk at cash-and-carry stores, the bill tops $35,000 year. “The cats eat raw turkey, beef and chicken regularly, and elk, deer and buffalo when we can get it,” Birrenkott says. Veterinarians are another major expense, although they typically offer the sanctuary discounts. “Our vets don’t have specialized training, but for the most part you can treat a wildcat the same as a domestic cat,” Birrenkott says, adding, “I think it adds a little something to the vet’s routine.”
The sanctuary survives on donations. Although a potential source of revenue, the center is not open to the public and does not conduct tours. “Our goal is to give the cats a safe, comfortable life,” Birrenkott says. “Although captive born, they are wild, and it isn’t normal for them to have crowds milling around. They want a quiet life where they can enjoy their habitat.”
Wildcat Haven also survives with the help of dedicated volunteers, and only Cheryl Tuller works at the shelter full-time. Performing a general light cleanup every day, Cheryl depends on volunteers for the weekly deep cleaning. “We use hay and straw to make the animals comfortable and everything is cleaned out,” Birrenkott says. “It’s an all-day job.”
Volunteers are carefully screened, receive training and don’t interact with the cats until they are ready. “We never take risks,” Birrenkott says. Although most volunteers want to work with the animals, the sanctuary needs a variety of skills. “We need media access, grant writing, and, of course, carpentry expertise to build and maintain the enclosures,” Birrenkott says. “And teaching experience is greatly appreciated to help with our education program.”
Birrenkott walks by the sanctuary’s most famous occupant. Named after the town where he was found, Kennewick made all the local newspapers. “An auto repair shop in Kennewick, Washington, couldn’t figure out why their alarm went off night after night,” Birrenkott says. “Finally, a security guard caught a cougar inside.” The Fish and Wildlife Service personnel called Wildcat Haven staffers who drove up to collect their new charge. They found an 8-year-old emaciated male covered with ticks and oozing blood from his torn tail. Now weighing 175 pounds, Kennewick sports a magnificent coat and his eyes shine. “He’s bonded with the cougars next door to him,” Birrenkott says. “And Kennewick loves to play with pumpkins and watermelon.”
Polina Olsen is a regular contributor to newspapers in Portland, Oregon. She lives in Portland with her husband and two domestic cats.
Sanctuaries are non-profit organizations that take in abused and abandoned animals. They provide lifelong, protected homes for wildcats, exotic birds, unwanted domestic pets and other animals.
For information about sanctuaries in your area, contact the American Sanctuary Association at 702-804-8562 or visit the Web site at www.ASAAnimalSanctuaries.org, or contact your state’s Department of Wildlife (1-800-344-WILD; www.FWS.gov/offices).
For more information about wildcats, contact Wildcat Haven at 503-625-0812, or visit the Web site at www.WildcatHaven.org.
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