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Looking Into a Big Cat's Eye

August 22, 1996|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN

The 350-pound Siberian tiger watches the small band of humans gathered outside her cage. Natasha's moist eyes and pointy teeth are an ominous sight as she glares at the visitors, until she rolls over and rubs her head against the cage, looking (almost) as lovable as a house cat. But make no mistake, says Pamela Gray, a volunteer tour guide at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound, these animals are dangerous. And endangered--and that's why they're here. Natasha is among the 60 or so big cats from six continents in the breeding program at the Antelope Valley facility, because the species is being killed by poachers or dying off because its habitats are being destroyed.

The conservation center opened in 1983 and, unlike at a zoo, visitors are but a few feet from the adult and baby cats. General Manager Sandy Masek stresses that "we're a breeding facility, we're not trying to domesticate them." If anything, the cats are more dangerous than those in the wild, Masek says, because these cats have no fear of people.

The center is opening its doors Saturday to give the public a rare opportunity to see the cats at their most active time of the day--at night. The twilight tours are from 5:30-9 p.m. for those 18 and older. The cost is $15 and includes camera and video privileges.

Follow California 14 (Antelope Valley Freeway) to Rosamond / Edwards Air Force Base exit. Rosamond Boulevard and Mojave-Tropico Road, Rosamond. Call for reservations and directions: (805) 256-3793.

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