At the Texas Exotic Feline Foundation (TEFF) outside of Boyd in North Texas, one of the first things our guide told us was: "We exist here for the cats." The sanctuary is a retirement home for large cats that have been abandoned, neglected, or abused. Many of the animals are on the wildlife endangered or threatened list, and all of them are gorgeous creatures. There is a story in the eyes of every one of the 69 cats housed at the 28-acre facility less than an hour north of Fort Worth.
"The cats come from every situation in the world, mostly bad," says Richard Gilbreth, director of the feline rescue facility that is considered the best of its kind in the U.S. "There are more tigers in Texas than people know what to do with," he says. "It's becoming an epidemic." In the wild the cats live about 10 years; in captivity the cats grow to several hundred pounds and live for about 20 years. Gilbreth says they have to turn away 100 to 150 cats a year.
Most of the cats at TEFF were born and raised in the U.S. Ten years ago a lion or tiger cub sold for $8,000 to $15,000. "That eliminated a lot of people from the market," he says. Tempted by the prospects of selling two to four cubs a year, breeders jumped into the business. Soon prices dropped to $300 to $500 and the cats became an impulse purchase.
Caesar, a young and an active tiger tipping the scales at well over 200 pounds, is the perfect example of many of TEFF's residents. He was purchased as a cub, but when his owner lost his job he gave the growing and rambunctious cub to his in-laws. The sociable cat was rescued from a Dallas/Fort Worth humane society pound.
Another resident, Ninja, a 12-year-old snow leopard with glaucoma, was going to be killed for his pelt. In a pen across from Ninja is a tiger that was so malnourished as a cub that it is now deformed and undersized. Up the hill from the two is a cougar that was the mascot of a fraternity house. Next to the cougar are three tigers that were kept by a drug dealer not only for their beauty, but so that they could delay the police long enough for the criminals to escape out the back door. (The plan didn't work.)
"Thank everyone in Austin for all the help they gave with the Spanish tigers," Gilbreth said near the end of our interview. "Their money is going to give these cats a chance at a quality life." He was talking about four tigers belonging to a bankrupt Spanish circus that were found in a ship off the Texas coast. Before TEFF would accept the animals, the foundation had to raise funds to pay for the animals' care.
No animals are accepted at TEFF's facility until they can be sure they can support the additional costs without diminishing the care of the animals already in their care. More than $135,000 poured in from 35 states for the Spanish circus tigers. Gilbreth said, "It was unreal."
TEFF was founded in 1988 by a Boyd couple as a nonprofit corporation to provide a permanent sanctuary for exotic felines. The foundation is run by a five-person board of directors, most of whom have a background in animal care. The menagerie includes jaguars, leopards, lions, bobcats, and tigers.
Although most of the animals were raised around humans and seem to enjoy seeing and interacting with the visitors, they are still very wild. There is a veterinarian on site and several volunteers to provide care for the animals. Gilbreth says it costs between $650 and $1,000 a month to care for each animal.
As our guide took us around the compound in a three-seat golf cart, most of the cats exhibited an aloof disinterest or rubbed the fence as if begging for a scratch behind the ear. As he told us the sad stories of how the cats came to TEFF, it was both a heart-wrenching and heartwarming experience.
TEFF is open for guided tours at 11am and 2pm on Saturday and Sunday or by special appointment. The 11am tours are the best because the animals eat around 9am every morning and are most active then. During the cooler months, TEFF offers special night tours on Saturdays with a full moon. There is also an "adopt-a-cat" program where you can contribute directly to an individual cat's upkeep. For information on TEFF, call 940/433-5091. Donations can be sent to TEFF, PO Box 637, Boyd, TX 76023.
Gilbreth worries that the situation with abandoned exotic felines is going to get worse before it gets better. The lack of state and federal laws regulating non-endangered or threatened species allows anyone to have a big cat. He supports legislation due to be introduced in the 1999 session of the Texas Legislature that would require anyone owning an exotic feline to meet certain standards of training, post a bond to insure that the animal will be cared for for the rest of its life, purchase insurance, and provide an enclosure that meets federal guidelines.
Coming up this weekend...
Wildflower Day in the Fall at LBJ State Park in Stonewall advises what to plant now for spring flowers, Sept. 19. 830/644-2252.
"Rashmon," a Japanese mystery, will be on stage at the Bastrop Opera House Sept. 18-Oct. 24 at 7:30pm with a matinee on Oct. 4. at 2:30pm. 512/321-6283.
Lower Guadalupe River Cleanup, sponsored by the Friends for Rivers, will polish the river from 8:30am to 5pm, Sept. 19. 830/888-44RIVER.
Republic of Texas Chilympiad attracts more than 600 chili cooks to San Marcos south of town off I-35, Sept. 18-19. 512/396-5400.
State Fair of Texas features Big Tex, as well as the world's tallest ferris wheel and a fairground full of special events in Dallas, Sept. 25-Oct. 18. 214/565-9931 or http://www.texfair.com.
Bayfest in Corpus Christi brings music, food, and races to the bay front, Sept. 25-27. 512/887-0868.
Kolache Fest in Hallettsville includes a carnival, arts & crafts, and lots of the little pastries, Sept. 26. 512/798-2662.
Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is now available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.