ROSAMOND, Calif. — Natasha, an eight-foot long, 375-pound Siberian tiger was a hot cat on a recent sizzling summer day here in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
The 2-year-old stood straight up on her hind legs and stretched against her cage, towering over tiny, 4-foot-2 keeper Jean May.
May, 38, a volunteer at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound, cooled off Natasha by spraying her with water from a hose. Natasha obviously relished the shower, after which she nimbly jumped into a full bathtub in her cage.
This cat takes to water like a fish.
Natasha is one of 35 rare wildcats at the compound, which lies on the outskirts of this small desert town 80 miles north of Los Angeles.
Dedicated to the preservation and reproduction of endangered purebred wildcats, the compound is one of only two private wildcat-breeding facilities of its kind in the nation--the other is on the East Coast. Major zoos throughout the country ship their cats here in the hope that they'll end up getting more cats back.
Now housed at the 68-acre compound are four Temminick's golden cats from Nepal, two snow leopards from the Himalayas, six Siberian tigers, a Bengal tiger, two African leopards, four Northern Chinese leopards, four Canadian cougars, three California cougars and three Northern (American) bobcats.
Wildlife enthusiasts will find few of these animals either in captivity or still running free in the wild. All are considered endangered species.
Joe Maynard and his wife, Jeanne, started the nonprofit, tax-exempt wildcat-breeding facility in 1978, and opened it to the public as a wildlife museum two years ago.
Rarest of the rare at the compound are the four Temminick's golden cats. Only nine are now in captivity, according to the International Species Inventory System headquartered at the Minnesota State Zoo in Apple Valley, Minn.
Research and Exhibit
Zoos that now have wildcats here to be bred include Oklahoma City, San Diego, Memphis, Omaha, Dallas and Toronto. Other zoos ship rare cats to the compound from time to time. The wildcats are sent here to breed with cats from other zoos or with cats owned by the compound. The care, housing and feeding of the animals are provided by EFBC. In return, the compound splits the litter with the zoo and has the rare cats on hand for research and exhibit.
Some members of EFBC--the organization has 1,000 members who pay a minimum of $15 a year in dues--help pay for the upkeep by "adopting" an animal, contributing $40 to $100 a month.
Zoos are attracted to the compound because of the tendency of some animals not to breed in captivity. Many cats are affected by the interruptions in mating patterns caused by the urban locations of the zoos and the great numbers of people visiting them. The animals seem to breed better at the Rosamond facility because of its isolation and the relatively few visitors.
Strengthen Blood Lines
Successful breeding of the cats is no simple task. A research team from the National Zoo in Washington, which spent several days last year collecting and testing semen from all of the adult male cats at the compound, discovered that male fertility levels vary with the season of the year, just as female heat cycles vary.
To strengthen the blood lines of the endangered cats and to avoid inbreeding, as can easily happen with zoo stock, officials look at the breeding history of particular animals by consulting the ISIS inventory of the species, and then select mates from the computer at the Minnesota zoo. More than 65,000 animals from 15 countries are included in the inventory, Nate Flesness, ISIS program director, said.
Dr. Freeland Dunker, 32, an Escondido veterinarian, one of several veterinarians and medical doctors who provide medical services to the cats, said the breeding record of the compound is testimony to the success of the facility.
"EFBC is highly respected by major zoos as a research and breeding place for endangered species. Blood samples from these cats are being used by ISIS to establish norms in blood chemistry and hematology studies of the various species," Dunker said.
Lori Trahan, 26, a Lancaster dental technician, is one of eleven volunteers--all women--at the compound who serve as guides and help care for the cats. Trahan has devoted 25 hours a week here for two years "because I love being around these animals."
Veterinarian Don Gillespie regularly drives 140 miles from Santa Barbara to check the health of the cats. When Tedi Bear, a 3-year-old female Siberian tiger, came down with a bacterial infection, Gillespie transfused a gallon of blood from Caesar to Tedi Bear to save the female tiger's life. Caesar and Tedi Bear are from the same litter.
Root Canal on a Leopard
For two days volunteers held Tedi Bear's head in their laps while bottles of IV fluids dripped into her system. Tedi Bear recovered, and apparently is now in purr-fect condition.