Cat Scratch Fever

The Feline Conservation Federation is the premier organization representing wild-cat owners. According to its website, members include hundreds of people all over the world who are “interested in the propagation and preservation of all the wild feline species.” The organization teaches husbandry courses, lobbies legislators, works to preserve natural habitat, and generally advocates for responsible captive breeding. FCF members point out that captive wild animals tend to live longer than those in the wild.

The FCF’s most recent convention was held last July at an aging Holiday Inn in the Cincinnati suburbs. Presumably, the hotel was chosen because members were allowed to bring their animals. The three-day event took place primarily in a hall on the hotel’s main floor, just beyond a glass-enclosed swimming pool in the front lobby. Vendors displayed cat foods, nets, gloves, animal enclosure and insurance-policy brochures, and a variety of toys and tools attached to long poles. Programming included educational presentations, lectures, and even a field trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, where members were afforded a behind-the-scenes look at the small-cat exhibit. The zoo, notable for having housed the very last captive passenger pigeon, is the only facility in America doing research on all five endangered small-cat species: ocelots, fishing cats, Pallas’s cats, sand cats, and black-footed cats. Overall, the convention had the earnest, nerdy air of a gathering of amateur ornithologists or rock collectors.

At the opening-night cocktail party, a large buffet filled the center of the hall and a wide variety of feline-related auction prizes were on display. The crowd of more than one hundred members featured a good number of women in animal-print outfits and men sporting safari jackets, some with official-looking patches and embroidered names. Sitting at the back of the large room was board member (now FCF president) Lynn Culver, who, despite all the other attractions, had drawn a large gathering of admirers. Culver is an astonishingly prolific speaker, writer, researcher, volunteer, organizer, and wild cat owner. Unlike, say, Georgette or Tim, she is extraordinarily articulate and carries a mind-boggling amount of data in her head. She possesses a Judy Collins sort of natural beauty, and a thick mane of graying hair falls across her face in the easy manner of a woman unconcerned with her looks, making her all the more beautiful.

Dogs and cats are man-made, said Culver, playing with the bobcat kitten in her lap, but looking into a wild-cat’s eyes is akin to “looking into the face of God.” Back home, she and husband Bart have six cougars, thirteen bobcats, two Canadian lynx, three caracals, six servals, and thirteen Geoffrey’s cats. The Culvers started out with six bottle-raised cougars, each of which died of old age. Since then, they’ve mostly stuck to raising and selling smaller breeds. Nor do they have full contact with the adult cougars they adopt, as they did with those they raised by hand. The Culvers’ home videos show Bart and the original six cougars in their expansive rural habitat in the South. Bart rolls up a big snowball and a cat pounces, looking about as menacing as a kitten preying on a vicious ball of yarn. The cats leap and twist in the air as he jerks a piece of rubber hose with a deep-sea fishing rod. The images are transfixing, especially when the cats repeatedly race over to slap their paws on Lynn or her husband’s shoulders and stand, head to head, in long embraces.

Why not rescue America’s millions of homeless domesticated pets? Why not champion the cause of much-maligned breeds like the Rhodesian Ridgeback and Presa Canario? Because, explained Culver, the challenge isn’t to protect an individual creature but rather to save an entire species. As with adopting abandoned Chinese girls, it seems the fight to save a population dwindling on foreign soil is best waged here at home. The Culvers chose not to have children, in part because humans are not in danger of going extinct.

A number of women, in fact, have chosen rare, endangered, or potentially dangerous cats over parenthood. One, who lives in a Mountain Time state, owns two of only twenty Sokokes in the country. Sokokes are the size of regular housecats, but they are purely wild and hail from a small forest in Kenya. Africans do keep Sokokes as pets, but they also hunt them. That makes them prime candidates for importation and strict breeding by private conservationists. “Ms. Sokoke” worked many years for a municipal animal-control department, where she designed and facilitated an education program for repeat offenders. “I think people are really removed from nature,” she said. “Kids are learning this cyber-punk, bleak, end-of-the-world outlook. I read one study that showed that most kids think the future will be lonely and unclean and there will be no animals or plants left.”

She said the rare visitor to her suburban home (wild cats tend to keep the timid at bay) is always surprised that her animals are so manageable. “If an acquaintance meets my animals, they say, ‘Wow, you have really exceptional pets. They have personality and feelings.’ But mine are not exceptional. They’re like my kids. They interact, run around, and do their thing, and my house is animal-proofed like houses that are child-proofed.” While acknowledging the existence of “bad” circuses and roadside zoos, she said the majority of wildcat owners are responsible and passionate, regularly sacrificing for their beliefs. As an FCF board member said, “I don’t buy lunch at work. I eat leftovers because I think, There’s $4.50 that could go for wild cats.”

 

After much reading and searching and cajoling, I found a woman named “Lisa” who offered to show her Canadian lynx in its home setting. Driving through northern Minnesota toward her house, the twilight pushed into night. Finally, there appeared a long driveway that led to a large, newer two-car garage and a neatly cut expanse of lawn surrounding a tidy vegetable and flower garden. A sign that read, Caution! Regulated Animal on Premises, spurred the kind of thrill a person just doesn’t get pushing through the turnstile at the zoo.

Two thigh-high, mixed-breed dogs bounded out toward the driveway. Lisa was close behind. She apologized that she couldn’t shake hands. She’d taken her lynx to the vet for a check-up the day before and though it had been given Valium for the trip, the cat had managed a clumsy swipe that cut her hand, leaving it too tender to squeeze.

In the living room of her contemporary A-frame house, Lisa pointed toward the vast space above, where a couple of carpeted shelves were built into window ledges near the ceiling. She is a tall, substantial woman in her thirties who wouldn’t normally disappear into a room, except that this one is two stories tall. “It’s a lot of work,” she said of her lynx, sounding like a first-time mother. “He eats everything: wood carvings, shoes, leather … ” The home, which she shares with her husband “Bob,” a health-care practitioner at a local hospital, is comfortable and simply appointed. In fact, there is little evidence that the cat, “Lance,” spends his days inside with Lisa as she telecommutes from her office upstairs. One small concession is the toilet paper. Lance is mad for the stuff. They keep it in a large sealed storage bin next to the toilet.
The only real damage the twenty-five-pound cat ever caused was to himself. The incident happened during one of his usual tears through the house. The chase, which thrills but ultimately frustrates the dogs, starts on the ground floor at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Lance zips up the stairs, perches on the short balcony that overlooks the first floor, and then leaps through the air to land on one of the carpeted ledges. From there he creeps along a three- to four-inch sill to the next window, where he rests or rebounds back onto the stairs to start all over again. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, Lance leapt at the vertical molding along one window, expecting to grip it like a tree, and fell. He landed on the cast iron woodstove below, was paralyzed for a few hours, and didn’t walk normally for a week. He was ten months old at the time.

Outside, in the dark, Lisa led the way toward a small grove of pine trees a couple dozen yards from the house. A shape leapt up and landed on the wooden spool table near the locked door of a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cage. Lance looked to be about the same size as the dogs, which happily chased each other across the grass. Lance had been registered with the necessary agencies, Lisa noted, though her compliance was reluctant. “I’m not trying to live secretly, but I don’t agree with it.”

With tufted ears alert, Lance circled the pen, his eyes fixed on Lisa and the Styrofoam tray of raw chicken parts in her hand. She nonchalantly entered the pen and set the meat on the table. In one fast, fluid movement, Lance leapt onto the table, snapped up the chicken, whirled around and dropped silently to the ground on all fours, before moving to a far corner to eat. When he’d finished, Lisa let the dogs into the kennel and exited. The three animals wrestled and played and scrambled around the enclosure, over and under tree limbs, the table, and Lance’s doghouse. At one point, the dogs paused and stood with their tongues hanging out, looking stupefied and tired. Lance made his move and in a split second sprang across the cage, landing square on a dog’s back and then leaping away to a safe place behind a branch. Thrilled, the dog whirled around to tag Lance back.

Being in the presence of a wild cat wasn’t like being around any other animal. Not only was there its sheer physical power and stunning and unrefined nature, which could play out in tragic encounters like Cynthia Gamble’s, but there was also the absolutely revolting smell of piss, which was almost visibly radiant. The odor encircled the pen by roughly twenty feet, even in the crisp, northern Minnesota night air. “It’s pretty strong,” laughed Lisa.

The smell literally makes Bob vomit. But that’s not the only reason he steers clear of Lance. Competition often exists between husbands and male pets, but when you’re talking about a lynx, well, that’s a different matter entirely. The standoff between the two began the day Bob and Lisa attempted to subdue Lance for a trip to the vet. Lance growled at Bob and they have never reconciled. That’s why the cat spends each night outside in the pen. If things ever became so contentious that she had to choose, Lisa acknowledged that she’d get rid of the lynx. As if on cue, her husband appeared at the back sliding door after finishing his work shift. Lisa shrugged, “Why would you own a lynx if you couldn’t snuggle?”

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