Julia Wagner gave up a career in criminal justice to work with lions, tigers and other animals at the Conservators’ Center, where she met her husband, fellow volunteer John David Wagner. Behind them is Thomas, a rescued lion.
MEBANE — At age 10, Julia Matson Wagner met her life’s purpose in the shape of a tiger cub sucking on her finger – a striped, whiskered destiny that bounded into her life with its tail swinging.
The bond between fourth-grader and junior carnivore sealed so tightly that she spent every weekend volunteering at the big cat sanctuary, sticking to babies and small-fry servals and caracals. She endured whole summers shoveling tiger dung. She grew up around fur-covered, meat-eating friends that her teachers thought were imaginary.
Then, when she turned 21, master’s degree in hand, job offer waiting, finally ready to bid tigers a big-girl goodbye, she turned and ran back to them – for good. If you’ve scratched the ears of a 500-pound cat, you’ll never survive behind a desk.
“This is Spike,” she says, greeting the beast with a chuffing sound. “Spike came from a very bad breeding facility in Ohio, you know, just pumping out cubs for photo booths at carnivals.
“Incidentally, if a tiger lifts its tail and turns its butt to you, it’s going to spray. Tigers can spray 12 to 15 feet, and Spike is notorious.”
Then she adds, as if I needed a reminder, “If they get your fingers through that cage, your arm is going, too.”
At the Conservators’ Center in rural Caswell County, Wagner plays as needed the roles of tour guide, publicist, fundraiser, nurse, waiter – and two-leg pal to roughly 20 lions, 10 tigers, four wolves and assorted servals, caracals, binturongs, lemurs, kinkajous and a plain-old dog.
Each comes with a hard-luck story.
Tigra the tiger was a retired Hollywood cat whose trainer would hit her with a shovel. Tres the ocelot lost her home to Hurricane Katrina. Reno the bobcat got hit by a car crossing the road in Wendell.
Now 25, Wagner walks among them, noticing that Sadie the lioness is scratching her ears, observing that Kira the lion is ferociously in heat and frustrated because Arthur, her white tiger cage-mate, is neutered.
It’s a nonprofit job that offers typical nonprofit pay and nonprofit hours. Wagner’s big cat habit required a second job at GlaxoSmithKline, and it cost her at least one boyfriend.
Then one day, she got a call from an N.C. State University student conducting bobcat research. All he needed were footprint samples, but after he hung up, John David Wagner told a friend, “Man, I’ve never seen this girl, but she has a hot voice.”
So he stuck around the big cats, eye on a kitten.
She was extroverted, leading groups of fourth-graders, while he was quiet and rugged. They started carpooling from Cary.
She helped out his dodge ball team, an intimacy that sent a boyfriend packing. But soon, they moved in together, realizing that they’d found mates who wouldn’t be jealous of a 500-pound rival.
Then in June, he led her to the cage of Buffy – her favorite tiger – and told her that their lives had intertwined in this haven for giant animals with housing issues. He wanted them to stay on this path together, and as he proposed marriage, she started blubbering in front of Buffy.
Today, when they want a perfect date, they pull up chairs alongside the animals and relax, their wild hearts beating together.
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