International Exotic Feline Sanctuary (IEFS) is a private, non-profit respite center for exotic, endangered, or abandoned large cats, in Boyd,Texas, in Wise County, less than an hour's drive from Dallas/Fort Worth.
There are about 70 cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, bobcats, caracals and margays. The center is AZA-approved, and as such, is the only such feline center in the United States at this time.
What the cats have in common is that they are exotic, meaning they are not domesticated, and that they were each, for one reason or another, removed from their natural habitat. Many were illegally acquired and maintained, even by "solid citizens", as Texas law forbids possession of exotic animals without permits.
The Sanctuary was established about 1988, and has evolved over a number of years, both in size, scope, and purpose. It is supported through private funding, donations, and volunteer effort.
I was aware of the Sanctuary the year it was established. My mother was a newspaper reporter at the time, and she was called in to shoot photos of the tigers that were seized in a drug bust in Chico, Texas. The justice of the peace in the case was adamant that the tigers be restored to responsible citizens, yet, in a personal effort at both judicial responsibility and civic interest, she wanted the tigers to be cared for in Wise County.
My first visit to the sanctuary was more than 15 years after my mother toured the premises. I had mixed feelings about going; given my mother's definition of the purpose of the Sanctuary, and as is stated at the top of this page (and on the IEFS website) it sounded, to me, sort of like a last home for a bunch of broken-down, desiccated old cats who had all experienced some sort of tragic circumstance.
I am an extremely empathic person, I literally feel other people's emotions, and sense their thoughts, and I was afraid of being immersed in misery and heart-break, and that I'd be bawling my way through the Sanctuary. I was afraid to go.
What changed my mind? One weekend, my husband and I were looking for something to do, something different, new, that we hadn't done before. We decided to make it a "critter weekend," something we could do fairly locally.
I searched the Internet and narrowed my choices down to the Sanctuary, or one of the D/FW zoos I had never visited. The deciding factor, while looking at the Internet, is that the zoo website had some sort of interactive video with this tarantula that looks like it's about to attack your face. I, being the sort of person who would rather kiss a snake than look at a spider, decided we would try the Sanctuary. (It was really that arbitrary, but I trust my instincts, and have never regretted that choice.)
The first visit was astounding. IEFS asks that visitors for tours donate $20 for adults. For $20, the tours last about 2 hours or more, are led by staff, interns or volunteers, who take small groups through the Sanctuary and introduce every cat and tell at least a little something about each cat, how they came to be at the Sanctuary, and odd anecdotes about personality traits or quirks the individual cats possess or express.
"Individual" is a VERY IMPORTANT concept, because it is reflective of the underlying principles that support the Sanctuary through its Behavior-oriented philosophy.
In short, the cats come first; the cats are not here for us, we are here for them. Ultimately, the Behavior Program is designed to teach - for humans and cats - that harmony can exist, that knowledge can function, and that understanding can be reached IF humans learn to respect the cats. The cats, in turn, learn to respect certain humans.
The Behavior Program, then, applies to humans as well as to the cats. In fact, the program could not work if humans did not adhere to basic rules of respect, acknowledgement of territory issues, and standards of conduct including decency, predictability, reliability, and compassion.
What happened on that first tour changed our lives, but we probably didn't recognize that at the time. The tour was led by Monica Morrison, the Volunteer Coordinator at the Sanctuary. Monica wasn't supposed to be leading a tour that day; whoever was supposed to, I gather, cancelled at the last minute. (Remember that about predictability and reliability?)
On that tour, we met all the cats and heard the stories. What shocked me, what surprised me, was how healthy and happy all the cats looked. Some of the cats had been victims of abuse and neglect, but at the Sanctuary - where the cats come first - the cats had been restored, as much as possible, to their natural space, diet, and environmental needs.
There are cats out there who have been beaten, starved, and neglected. Some cats are circus refugees; some are smaller cats that innocent citizens thought were just "rather large domestic cats" - until the vet straightened them out. There are at least two cats that were "pets" of rather well-to-do college students, until the cats were large enough that they required a little more maintenance/management than their owners could really provide, and of course, there are drug repo cats.
What we realized, after visiting the Sanctuary several times, was a special quality that was unique about the cats. As far as we could tell - and we still feel this way - is how amazingly non-neurotic the cats are. Humans could sure learn something from them!
Sasha is a lady black leopard who lived a pretty peaceful life, from what I understand. If I remember rightly, she's one whose owner "pays rent" to keep her in the Sanctuary. (This is permissible within IEFS guidelines - if they have the space and available resource to care for a cat.) Anyway, Sasha, who is housed next to some tigers, stuck her right front arm through the bars to play with the tigers. One of the tigers bit her arm off.
Tigers - and most big cats - will eat limbs like humans eat French fries, and no malice is intended. No matter how cute a "big kitty" might be, a tiger is still a tiger. He'll remember, even if you don't, so Remember.
Sasha's shoulder was stitched up, and she now gets around extremely well on three legs. The amazing thing is, she doesn't hold a grudge. Hence what I mean when I say the cats are strikingly non-neurotic. She remembers the incident, and she learned something from it, but she doesn't go around moping, or acting like she's only "half a leopard," or rail at the Universe for being cruel and unfair.
Sasha is an absolutely beautiful cat with an incredibly beautiful face and radiant, glowing eyes. She's proud of her gleaming black coat, and she loves being popular and well-loved for having such a great personality. And she could catch a mouse or rat faster than you and I could with both hands. So what's to be neurotic about?
If only people had such common-sense, and such mental and emotional resiliency.
The point we wanted to make is simply that the big cats "get over" things, for the most part.
There are other cats who would "get over it" if they could, or if they're allowed to. One is Sheba, a lioness who suffers severely from having survived on a substandard diet for the first years of her life, to the point where her bones did not develop properly and it is painful for her to walk. Yet, she still loves the sun, and can stalk as well as any lion, and makes no complaint of her life.
Another is Simba III, a tiger, who was an attraction at a petting zoo. He is still rather discriminatory to this day, and will NOT make an appearance before kids.
If I were an animal, and I had some sense, I could imagine how I would feel being subjected to little kids who beat me on the head and said, "NICE kitty! NICE kitty!" Incidentally, the Sanctuary does not allow child visitors under the age of seven. Thank goodness.
Speaking of Simba III, as a name, one can infer from the names of the resident big cats which owners have been watching which movies, and suddenly decided it was a good idea to purchase an animal matching a movie role. This was before my time, but after the release of Walt Disney's Dumbo, did people run out to buy baby elephants?
Back to neurosis, Zanzibar, a male spotted leopard, is a prime example of a cat who was subjected to definitive abuse, yet, in the months he has been at the Sanctuary, he has been evidencing signs of recovery and trust.
The cats, in short, have demonstrated, time and again, that if they are treated with respect, concern, and compassion, they will meet you more than half-way.
They have memories; anyone with a brain does. What's special about the Sanctuary is their Behavior program seems to take that into account. Think like a human, think like an animal, and think like a Soul.
Paris and I, and our spirits, have learned to communicate in some way with most of the critters at the Sanctuary, Our rule of thumb is to respect the astral space of every creature we meet.
Paris and I have been doing some planting around individual cats. We start with the idea that we would like to plant something. Then we ask if there are any special requests. We commune in a way with the cats that we would not expect everyone to understand. We accept this, because in the third dimension, the Sanctuary rules come first.
But, we've noticed that certain behavioral problems we've heard of don't seem to apply to us. It is sort of a rule of thumb - and most interns or volunteers will tell you this - that some cats take a dislike to certain people, for no apparent reason.
We can think of two:
1) Volunteers and interns take on a great deal of responsibility in agreeing to clean and feed the cats' enclosures. It makes sense that sooner or later there will be a territory issue. This likelihood increases if someone's mind wanders, and they momentarily resent what they're doing. Cats don't read minds, but they are extremely attuned to emotion. If they feel a dark cloud, so to speak - and especially from someone who is in their defined territory - they will associate that person - and his/her emotions - as an invader.
2) There are a list of rules for anyone doing tours, including not wearing hats, flashy belts, loud voices, etc. On the surface, it sounds as if the rule is simply to be as low-key and non-descript as possible. We have asked, but detect it would not be "politic" for the tour guides to answer (and they may not know, themselves) that each rule was established after particular incidents of certain visitors upsetting certain cats. In our limited experience, we've seen a few cats respond negatively to certain individuals. Frankly, we felt the same way about these people. For instance, Bruno, a tiger, attempted to spray a fussy old man who (we think) was there humoring his grandkid. On the same tour, Katrina, the snow leopard, also snarled at the fussy old man.
Humans would be too polite to mention it, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, but we suspect that gimme caps bother certain cats, and loud or shrill voices bother some cats.
The cats who evidenced "upset" behavior would, of course, be the ones who were abused, neglected, or abandoned, especially by people whose' motivation for owning the cats was little more than status-symbol oriented, and especially for those cats who had to deal with human ego problems, domination, and all that implies.
The cats are so perceptive that they can spot pretension a mile away. The sense of superiority some humans emanate infuriates the cats, who live so close to Law of the Jungle. Most have simply never had to deal with human ego before. To the cats, What Is, Is.
The cats don't have problem with identities; they themselves have identities. They simply expect humans to respect theirs as well as their own.
When Paris and I plant at the Sanctuary, we notice it's fairly universal that different cats will come up, see what we're doing, and we explain out loud what we are doing (planting shade, color, or scent) -and we visualize what we are saying in our minds - and the cats seem to say, "Oh, okay," and wander off to let us finish our business, or they sit down to watch.
We do not consider any of these cats "tame." We are fully cognizant of the fact that any single animal out there could chew our arms off - even those that were considered "pets" at one time.
But, we respect the cats, and we follow the rules, and we pay attention to our instincts. Just like the cats do.
What do cats respond to?
It is our belief that cats respond to Smell first and foremost. A cat recognizes scent, as we've all been taught. But we take that a step further and say that scent is not just smell. For humans, "smell" tends to be on that 1 to 5 scale of satisfactory to unsatisfactory; in short, our likes and dislikes. But what if, when a cat catalogs smell, he is not simply comprising a list of opinions regarding pleasant or unpleasant; but rather is indexing information such as physical, mental, and emotional health?
What if a cat can smell that someone is healthy on the outside, but inside is a bundle of repression, hypocrisy, and hang-ups? What if the cat can sense that humans feel a sense of superiority over all living creatures? What if cats can sense the arrogance of humans who think they are dominant, and that animals - no matter how noble - are basically nothing more than heathens?
The cats, in our observation, are very here-and-now beings. Some have their sorrows, but most prefer to enjoy their current circumstances. Most (actually none, that we know of) think of themselves as specimens. They think of themselves as observers, and that WE are the specimens.
This has nothing to do with feeling superior; it's simply that the cats haven't forgotten the co-operative experiment that we're all part of on this planet. They've simply been waiting their turn. They know that they are ambassadors to the various critter deva kingdoms. They do this voluntarily.
We notice that various cats have certain patterns of Thought, that we've been able to detect. The tigers are clearly the most astral, meaning they're very emotional, and most likely to respond to emotion, of whatever flavor. Flavor is important, because we say tigers can taste emotion as if it were a fruit.
Tigers work with the energy of Time and Space. Lions work with Material Apportion, and leopards work with Empathy. All of these are so-called human ingredients, yet it is also the cats who work with these Lessons. It is fair to say they are Specialists, like a scientist sent to study a specific aspect of a case.
The jaguars are very mental; rather than emotional, they work with Logic, Placement, Order and Reason. Jaguars PLAN, and if that's not proof of sentience, I don't know what is.
The issue of Sentience is important. It must be understood that every single one of the cats at IEFS has opinions, tastes, and preferences unique unto him or herself. Accepting that they have opinions, it is logical to assume that they also have Reason, and that they have Emotion. They even have preferences, or what we might call Taste.
What they don't have is barriers to keep from experiencing Reason or Emotion as a 100% "real-thing" environment. When a cat thinks, or feels, that is his Reality, and it is total and all-encompassing.
The human who is interested in co-acting with the big cat, or any other non-domestic animal, must understand this: they LIVE so-called virtual reality. They don't (yet) have the human gift of detachment or discernment.
But this is why they agree to work with humans - they would like to learn this thing called "Thoughtworld."
The Free-Will experiment still applies to humans, and we're still working it out, but we've gotten close enough to our goals that it's time some humans started waking up and remembering that this was part of our original contract. Namely, that we'd see the experiment through, and IF it was a success, then we'd start passing on the Lessons to other devic kingdoms.
The critters were sent to this planet as Souls and agreed to be here, to help support the ecological foundation, while humans got their act together. So yes, the IEFS has it right with their Behavior studies, to allow a small window of opportunity where the cats come first, and we can learn from them. Perhaps when we do, we can start learning from each other.
There's a lot of Love between our worlds we haven't had a chance to share, yet. We're ready for it.
Let's start with respect, understanding, and compassion.
International Exotic Feline
Check out the site for tour times. Later tours available, or for groups. Evening tours are great for seeing cats when they're most alert and feisty. Donations, adoptions, and volunteer input always welcome.
Louis Dorfman, Animal
One of the key innovators guiding the principles and philosophies of the Sanctuary.