The crazy cat man: Joe Taft devotes life to saving big cats at Exotic Feline Rescue Center

·8 min read

The tiger crouches, lowering its gaze before lunging at the man. A passing tour group watches in awe — and maybe confusion — as the man approaches the fence and reaches for the cat, brushing his knuckles against its whiskery face.

Very few people are allowed that close to the fence. But the man knows Max, one of the biggest cats at the center, better than anyone else.

Since he opened the Exotic Feline Rescue Center over 30 years ago, Joe Taft’s life has revolved around big cats. What started as a “school boy fantasy,” as he calls it, transformed into his life’s mission — giving the best life possible to these animals that can never truly return home.

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More wild cats live in captivity in the U.S. than in the wild around the world. The vast majority are privately owned, which often means being crammed into cages, trucks and basements. They’re often abused, neglected and are so poorly socialized by the time they’re rescued that they could never safely return to the wild.

A lot has changed in the 30-plus years Taft’s been doing this. Back when he started, people didn’t even need permits to own a lion or tiger. Most states didn’t have bans on private ownership of wild cats — Indiana is now one of a few that still don’t. There was less red tape, fewer controversies, no “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

Joe Taft spends a moment with Drago the tiger at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.
Joe Taft spends a moment with Drago the tiger at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.

Not everyone approves of the center or understands Taft’s mission. One thing is fairly indisputable, though — without Taft, many of these wild cats would die.

Saving cats from dire situations

Taft didn’t grow up studying or wanting to save cats. His initial goal was a lot simpler.

“When I was in school at Indiana State (University), I had this fantasy of having a Lotus I could drive very fast and having a cheetah that would sit perfectly well behaved next to me,” he said.

A lion takes a nap at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.
A lion takes a nap at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.

He soon discovered he couldn’t afford a Lotus or a cheetah on his student budget, so he settled for an MG and an ocelot.

“The MG didn’t last, of course,” he said, “but the ocelot had me.”

From there, he was hooked. He then bought a leopard that lived in his house for 19 years until it died. Shortly after, he rescued his first cats — two tigers and a leopard — and founded the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, located about an hour northwest of Bloomington.

The center now spans over 250 acres and houses about 150 cats, from lions and tigers to cougars, bobcats and African lynxes. The cats spend their days roaming their giant enclosures, chuffing at tour groups, playing with balls, eating hunks of meat and napping.

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Most of the cats are taken from private owners — commercial breeders, circus performers or just someone who wanted a pet tiger. They come to Taft from across the country and several are from Indiana. Some owners sought to exploit the animals, while others were simply uneducated and underprepared.

Not only does Taft remember their names and personalities, but he remembers each cat’s backstory. A tiger rescued after spending her first four years in a 5-by-7-foot cage. A leopard from Greene County, where Taft was shown taxidermy receipts from the owner’s husband. A few tigers from a tattoo parlor in Gary, Indiana, and a white tiger from a Virginia preacher.

Zoey the cougar came from an Ohio police officer who had rescued the cat from a dire situation. To this day, the officer and his wife are the only former owners who come and visit their cat.

This young tiger lives at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. Pictured on Friday, July 15, 2022.
This young tiger lives at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. Pictured on Friday, July 15, 2022.

Several have come from people who just wanted an exotic pet before the cat turned against them.

“One of the things that makes them so incredibly dangerous is they’ll kill you because they like you,” Taft said. “That’s one of the honey traps with these guys. They are so friendly and so sweet right until the last minute.”

Whenever a cat arrives, the center promises to provide a home for the rest of its life.

Rescue center faces continual hurdles

A trip to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center shows visitors how well the cats are treated and how safe the enclosures are. But this hasn’t kept Taft and his center out of the controversial limelight.

A group tour at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.
A group tour at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.

In the summer of 2013, an employee was attacked by a tiger after forgetting to close a gate while cleaning the pens. News outlets from across the country reported on it, asking Taft if his center was fit for visitors.

From the archive:Tiger injures Exotic Feline Rescue Center worker

Before that, the center made headlines for an escaped leopard that ran back and forth along a perimeter fence for 45 minutes until a rescue center volunteer shot him with a tranquilizer dart, and an escaped cougar that was never found.

Throughout the years, the center has gotten dinged with citations for anything from fence height to tree issues, citing potentially dangerous conditions. Most of the trouble came after the employee was attacked, which was the only instance of its kind at the center.

Additionally, a new Indiana law that went into effect this month prohibiting people from touching exotic felines also is costing the center around $40,000, Taft said. Visitors have never been allowed to touch the cats at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, but the new law means it has to build more barriers between tour groups and the cats.

Some locals have been against the rescue center ever since it opened, Taft said. Years ago, several of his neighbors approached the Clay County commissioners opposing the center.

A commissioner eventually visited, Taft said, and his demeanor immediately changed.

“He walked in, and he was here about five minutes and said, ‘This is not what I had been led to believe. What can we and the county do to help?’” Taft said.

Despite the opposition from some, the center is largely viewed in a positive light, as far as Taft can tell. Visitors cycle through for tours every few hours of every day. They meet the keepers, who are all professionally trained and have degrees in relevant subjects such as biology or zoology.

No visitors have ever been injured at the center, which is licensed and regularly inspected by the USDA.

Even as the center has grown in popularity throughout the decades, Taft doesn’t do it for the money or fame. He makes enough money to get by and relies mostly on word of mouth to attract visitors — and the occasional newspaper article or TV segment, even if it paints the center in a negative light.

“As P.T. Barnum said,” Taft said, “All publicity is good publicity.”

Joe Taft at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.
Joe Taft at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.

The crazy cat man

Taft considers himself the male equivalent of a crazy cat lady, just his cats are “a little bit different,” he said.

When he first bought his home, an old house down the road from the center with no neighbors, he told himself he wasn’t going to let any cats live with him.

That didn’t last long. He’s had dozens of cats in his home over the years, whenever he’s taken in babies that need to be bottle-fed. At one point, he had nine tigers, four leopards and two lions in his home at one time.

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The woodwork is clawed, and his walls are peppered with holes. He doesn’t mind, though, since he lives alone.

“I don’t have to worry about breaking things in there anymore,” he said. “It’s well lived in.”

At 77, he’s given up more responsibility to the keepers — especially head keeper Rebecca Rizzo, who will take over for him when he retires or dies — most likely the latter, considering the way he is. But he still spends most hours of every day at the center. His big outing last week was traveling to Brazil, Indiana, for 45 minutes.

He knows the cats’ quirks, such as how cougars are the only big cats that purr, or that the lions and tigers get mouthy when they hear the roar of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

He’s gruff and sarcastic, and he makes it clear he likes cats more than people. Still, despite seeing humanity at its worst, he isn’t bitter. Besides the truly abusive owners, he gets where most people are coming from.

“A lot of people who do this kind of thing really want to condemn anybody that’s ever had an animal, and there’s certainly people that have these animals that I want to condemn,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people that got these animals with the best intentions, and they’re just over their head and not well-informed. … Sometimes it’s hard to know where you draw the line of what’s going to help them and who’s made a mistake and who’s malicious.”

At the end of the day, Taft is happy to do what he can to help the cats. As far as he’s concerned, nothing is going to stop him from doing that.

Reach Christine Stephenson at cstephenson@heraldt.com.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Exotic Feline Rescue Center devotes over 30 years to saving wild cats