In 1996, I was lucky enough to come across a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m sure, you hear that all too often: when people find jobs, a terrific deal, or maybe if they have a chance to move to their favorite destinations.
My own was something different. I probably feel as though it was as special as most others feel about their own experiences, but that’s irrelevant. This experience will be a part of me, for life. Not only because of the exotic company, but because of a special friend that I made. She was beautiful and weighed in at around 350 pounds.
When I was in my early twenties and still young enough to be blinded by the distractions of youth, I remember myself as being fairly scatter-brained. (Aren’t most men at that time of their lives? I suppose that would depend on whom you ask.)
Single, I had fantasies of the average sort. At least, I’m sure that for most twenty-somethings, they are normal: wealth, fame, popularity; I ran the gamut.
I was stationed in a little military base in the middle of the Mojave Desert. You might have heard of it: Edwards Air Force Base. Occasionally, during one of our professional assemblies, guest speakers would entertain us, inform us or solicit something from us. One organization that came by was intriguing and was only a few miles outside of base. The locals referred to it as the “Cat House”, and that was where I fell in love with Natasha.
Now, before you go jumping to conclusions about such an obviously cliché name being a pseudonym or something. Let me assure you that it had belonged to this California girl since birth.
Anyhow, it must have been at least a year since the Cat House people came calling, but during one of my rides into the desert, a recent conversation had awoken the memory of the place and gave me the gumption to stop by.
The place was closed. However, I met a lady named Karla, outside. The smooth features of youth had been hardened by years of hard work in the sun, but her eyes were sharp and knowing. She asked if she could help me. Unsure of myself, I removed my helmet and told her that I was from the base. I admitted to being curious, and spoke of what I had heard.
Karla flicked her ash, blew out a cloud of smoke, and without missing a beat, went on to tell me more of what I could expect, if I were to come back. The conversation didn’t take long, but I can tell you that before I left, I knew that I’d return soon.
And I did, too.
On the next convenient day, I rode through the dry, hot wind and the dust. The mirages of heat on desert asphalt shimmered and disappeared ahead of me. The land, baked and unforgiving, held mysteries that would go unchecked. I had one thing in my mind, and it beckoned from miles ahead. I didn’t hurry, though. The desert may have seemed barren, but flying on those roads gave me peace.
The half dozen or so traffic lights in town delayed me, but I had time. A few cars motored about, other bikers waved their fraternal greeting and weeds did in fact occasionally tumble from hither and yon. I’m sure that a train may have even crossed the road, giving me a 5 minute or longer wait. But, it was just another morning in this world.
Finally, I came to a dirt road that wondered off to my right, and I took it. Most might have continued on past, to the racetrack up ahead, but my goal was here. Though quiet and out of the way, there were others who would make this trek, and for obviously similar reasons. After all, the experience might have been a gift to me, but it wouldn’t be an exclusive one. Of that, everyone was aware.
One might think that this road went nowhere, until they forked off and found the parking area. It was fenced apart of the compound, where all I could see was the hard, dry desert sand, a small trailer, some construction, and the little house where the owners lived and conducted business.
As I dismounted my bike, a rough-looking, white bearded maintenance man who could have passed for “Miner Forty-niner” was working on something that was none of my business. He greeted me, and pointed to the trailer, with a cracked and leathery hand. I exchanged my helmet on my bike seat for the backpack that I kept strapped there.
I shouldered it, and went through the gate.
When I arrived, an strange and smiling face met me, and asked if I was looking for Karla. This was a charming, elderly gentleman. Thin and of modest height, he kept short white hair and a matching mustache. His name was Kay, and aside from being loved by everyone who knew him, he was known for having been a child (infant) star in an early silent film, where he shared the stage with a famous starlet of the time. Her name escapes me.
Anyway, he had since traded his starlet for a cougar.
He was heading in my direction, and offered to bring me to Karla and the others. Things were getting under way.
He led me through the area that I initially thought was under construction. It turns out that I was mistaken. I could now see that it simply held equipment that was used in construction elsewhere: a cement mixer; bags of sand, rakes, shovels; a pick-ax; a sawhorse; two-by-fours; chain link fencing, etc. Before I could complete my inventory, we passed a pile of bowling balls that must have been about three feet high.
Kay just laughed and said, ”You’ll see”.
We rounded a corner and came upon a picnic table, where a small group of others chatted among themselves. I'm sure that Kay introduced me, inviting me to have a seat with them as he moved on to other things. He explained that he would be right back.
Most of the others were women. We exchanged hellos.
Questions about Karla’s whereabouts were asked and answered. One friendly lady told me that she too was from the base. For the most part, most of the others lived and worked elsewhere.
Eventually, Kay and Karla joined us. Pleasantries and introductions were once again made, accompanied by smiles both tried and true. Karla divided the group into couples or trios. We considered what was ahead of us. Not knowing each other was unimportant. We were all there for the same thing. How things would go was generally all the mystery that was left, for me.
I was excited.
I was teamed up with two more experienced women. Younger, I felt somewhat odd. This wasn’t quite what I had expected. Karla led a couple one way, and Kay went off with someone else. I didn’t feel very sure, since I was mostly trying to figure out what was going to happen next.
Before us were the cages.
The ladies in my group (who I will refer to as Rose and Carol, since I do not remember their real names) lead me to a collection of some items that we would use: rakes; old pots; a coiled hose; a shovel; a wheelbarrow. It seemed that we were going to get dirty. Perhaps I was expected to dig something? In the desert? This was beginning to feel like a movie.
Rose led as Carol and I followed along with our burdens, in hand. She was explaining that what we were going to do should be simple enough, yet also said that I might have to submit to Peaches, should she single me out of the group. I was to sit still, and let her taste my fingers, one by one. When she found the one that she wanted, she would then suck on it, and I would have to sit quietly until the ladies finished.
This was definitely not how I expected things to proceed.
As it turns out, Peaches chose Rose, leaving Carol and me to tidy up her cage. She had a houseboat with a toilet around back. In fact, it was actually a toilet seat mounted onto a hole in the houseboat deck. Beneath it was a pail to collect her mess. Without question, we cleaned and raked her cage, and finished by filling her bowl and pail with fresh water. Rose coaxed her finger from the ocelot’s mouth, and soothed her.
Awed with the ocelot's gentle demeanor, we moved on to our next detail.
One by one, we progressed from the curious bobcats, the quiet Canadian lynx, the odd serval, the nervous jaguarundis, the lazy fishing cats, the scheming mountain lions, the rare and beautiful Amur, clouded and snow leopards, the hungry jaguars and eventually I met the majestic Siberian tigers.
That is where I met Natasha.
Orange and white, with dark stripes, her two siblings gracefully padded across their enclosure to lay in the shade, and/or lazily ignore us. At this time of the day, people, new and old alike, meant only one thing to them: food and water.
Natasha, on the other hand, was more curious. She seemed as though she was expecting something.
The largest of the three was Max. Befitting of his name (unless memory fails me) he weighed in at around 500 pounds. Next came Tedi Bear, at a respectable 380 pounds. Natasha was the runt of the litter. At only 350 pounds, she was considered "small". Trust me, there wasn’t much about this lady that would have been referred to as such.
Maybe it was because she was out front, but from that moment on, my heart stepped up its tempo when I found myself around her. She seemed so beautiful and regal.
Offspring to Sing Sing and Panda Bear, these three were the prince and princesses of the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound. At 750 pounds, Sing Sing held the distinction of being the world’s largest (captive) Siberian Tiger, during his reign. Now that he and his mate were gone, their offspring held court at the back of the realm.
We finished just in time to prepare for the first of the day’s visitors. With my newly acquired “Docent’s handbook” in hand, I followed each docent, one tour after another, learning the histories and backgrounds of each cat, its natural environment, hunting styles, characteristics, et cetera.
I was thrilled.
As time passed, I became more involved with the cats. Some were more tolerant of people than others. Some looked hungrier. Others appeared to have different levels of showmanship. Whatever the case, I came to recognize that the animals each possessed their own personalities.
Now, before you start jumping to conclusions, I think it is only fair that I let you know that I am not a “cat person”. In fact I avoid felines, preferring canine companionship, instead. Forget the fact that I am terribly allergic to them, or that a cat’s presence could induce hospitalization. I simply tend not to have whatever gene others possess that attracts them to these creatures. No. I can’t claim any predisposition to them. I was there for one reason only. Mystery.
The mystery of their dangerous reputations; the mystery of the beauty which they obviously possess; the mystery that could lure an attractive young woman into the arms of a single man who was in the prime of his life.
Yes, I said it. In the end, it came down to a young man’s desire to lure women into his life. Did it work? You’ll have to ask the woman who I eventually married.
At any rate, in time I would find myself armed only with a rake and a partner (or two, or three) when walking into these cages; keeping one eye on them. I would clean, water and feed the cats. I would lead tours for guests, telling histories, and facts, and stories. I would go into the small trailer across from Natasha’s cage, and cut up the evening meals. I would come out, and there she would be, awaiting my attention.
Though Natasha was the considered the family runt, she still commanded a formidable size. After all, who in their right mind would ever consider a 350-pound tiger to be anything other than a threat. In fact, Natasha earned her label as one, but not for the reasons that you might expect.
As the story goes, Natasha was very tractable (friendly). Like her father, she seemed to enjoy the company of us docents. In fact, on an occasion not too long before I arrived, back when we could still enter her cage with her in residence, Natasha approached a large man and earned her title.
Standing at more than 6’ tall, this brawny docent was said to have had a sturdy build. Natasha wasn’t intimidating. In fact, I was told that she had a fondness for him. In greeting, she stood her solid frame on her hind paws and brought her forearms onto the man’s shoulders, in happy greeting. Unable to withstand the weight of 350 lbs of solid muscle suddenly coming down around his neck, the man collapsed with the playful tiger’s weight on him. The result was a broken tailbone for him, and a sentence of confinement from us, for her.
She starved for our company.
Or maybe I really did have magnetism with the ladies. However, if that was the case, ours was a mutual attraction.
Most of us weren’t allowed to touch the large cats, especially when we were alone. Even through a chain link fence, the animals are fast enough to reach a claw or a flexible tongue through and pull a digit in, for a taste. Heck, in Natasha’s case, the poor thing just didn’t know her own strength.
But, I couldn’t resist her calling (purring, referred to as “ruffling” or “chuffing”). She was the siren, and I was the sailor.
I would often find myself alone preparing the cat’s food. It was a thankless job. Each day that it was to be done, I looked forward to it, not for the task, but for the reward; the moment that I would find myself leaving the food prep trailer. That minute or two was all that I asked for.
I would open the door, and there she would come padding her way to the corner of her cage closest to me. Ruffling, she would push against her chain link fence, bowing it out to what seems like must have been a foot and a half outward. (I admit that my memory could be exaggerating the stretch a bit, but it was certainly more than my full weight would have been able to coax from the cage.) We’ve all seen house cats rub against their owner’s leg in adoring welcome, and this differed only in that instead of my leg, all that she could cuddle against was a mesh of wire. I couldn’t allow her to suffer the indignity of unrequited affection, and so there went my fingers, scratching and stroking her neck or behind her ears.
Never did she try to maneuver her muzzle and two-inch fangs toward me. Never did one of her inch-plus long claws try to reach for the hand that scratched her. Exposed as they would become, when she would reach her claws through the links, it was only because they would become unsheathed in her desire to try to squeeze herself closer to me.
This 350 lb kitten just wanted love, and I was struck dumb enough to throw caution to the wind, if only for a minute or two every Tuesday.
It was a secret affair. I shared our encounters with no one, and she would whisper my name only when I gave tours to strangers. I would smile at her, and simply tell the guests that they were witnessing her greeting for them. In my heart burned the knowledge that she waned me to scratch behind an ear, and my smile would surely grow imperceptibly broader.
Don’t get me wrong; I sincerely doubt that Natasha longed only for my attention. She was alone in her cage, and though she neighbored her siblings, she was still separate from them. However, I prefer to romanticize that this, the only cat that I had ever loved, of a magnificent and rare (threatened) species, loved me.
Eventually, my obligations to the military and my wife took me away from the EFBC. My schedule was changed, and I was transferred to another base, in another country. One day I was caring for the cats, giving tours, preparing food and scratching my attention-loving tiger for the low, low cost of 1 - 2 hours of allergy recovery in the docents’ trailer, and the next day I was removed from the EFBC family.
It was a cruel period in my life. Other things were happening that tore my attention from the baked and desiccated haven that housed these precious cats and their dedicated caregivers. Though I would be surprised to think that they remember much of me, a piece of my heart remains with them.
In the years since, I have never forgotten the community that we shared. Their concerns and dedication to those animals has always had a place in my heart. Whenever people would tell me of a plan or interest in traveling to Los Angeles or the Mojave Desert, I would tell them of a place where they can stand within a few feet of these magnificent beasts. I would entice them with tales of a snow leopard leaping across a vast enclosure to snatch a bird from an opposing corner, and how it had induced overwhelming fear in the docent who lead the tour. I would recall how two jaguar cubs used “indestructible” bowling balls as chew toys. I would speak of the chance to spend a night surrounded by wild cats. And I would tell them of the tiger that loved me.
On July 25, the day that I published the first installment of this post, I called the EFBC to ask do some fact checking. With none of my old friends in attendance, Joe Maynard, the president and founder himself, was kind enough to take my call. Though I am sure that he didn’t remember precisely which docent I was, he helped me navigate through the fog of time. For example, he reminded me that the maintenance man who I first mentioned was named Curtis May. He also confirmed that the three Siberian tiger siblings, Max, Tedi, and my beloved Natasha had all passed on, having lived long and happy lives.
Sadly, none had ever had offspring of their own.
The Exotic Feline Breeding Compound (now the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound's Feline Conservation Center) can be found in Rosamond, California. It neighbors Edwards Air Force Base and The Willow Springs International Raceway. It is only about an hour north of Los Angeles.
The Cathouse is open to the public from 10 am - 4 pm. (It is closed on Wednesdays, Christmas day, Thanksgiving day, and the day of Feline Follies.) There is an admission charge of $7, $6 for seniors (60+) and only $5 for children (3-12). Please visit their website at http://www.cathouse-fcc.org or call them at (661) 256-3793, for more information.