By Natalie Garcia
CORRECTION:This story has been changed from its original version.
How often do you get to stare a Bengal tiger in the face from three feet away?
Not very often, probably. But this extraordinary opportunity is less than an hour and a half away at the Project Survival Cat Haven on the fringe of Kings Canyon National Park.
The 95-acre cat sanctuary in the Dunlap foothills boasts an array of exotic cats, including tigers, cheetahs, leopards and jaguars. All are housed in a natural setting that offers visitors up-close-and-personal interaction with felines from all over the world.
A quarter-mile walking trail takes visitors to the enclosures of cats with personalities ranging from wildly affectionate to flat-out nasty. If you don’t get a warm reception, that just goes to show how human these cats can be.
“Do you like everyone that you meet?” asks Cat Haven founder and director Dale Anderson.
The cats, all born and raised in captivity, are familiar with humans. Most embrace contact with trusted keepers, slinking up to lick their hands and rub against their legs.
Visitors don’t touch the cats, but they’re almost close enough to do so.
“It gives people an up-close-and-personal look that they can’t get any other place — safely,” Anderson said. “I think it gives people a good understanding of the cats and what diversity there is.”
While there’s entertainment value in a visit to the Cat Haven, its larger mission involves sustaining wild cat populations around the world, Anderson said.
“If all it is just cats in a cage, it’s not interesting to me,” he said. “[But if people couldn’t] see the cats, they wouldn’t be inspired to take it the next step further to do something to save the cats.”
To what extent cats need to be saved is open to interpretation, Anderson said.
Some cats, such as the Amur leopards from eastern Russia, are highly endangered. The wild Amur leopard population numbers around 40.
But leopards as a species are doing fine, with about 400,000 in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
The cheetah population also is dwindling. Between 10,000 and 12,000 are left in the wild, Anderson said.
He hopes to change that.
On Wednesday, after almost a year of paperwork and government hoop-jumping, Anderson and the Cat Haven crew happily welcomed two adolescent cheetahs into their refuge. They’ll be available for public view and community outreach work.
“They are very sweet boys,” said Liesl Smith, the trainer who raised the cheetahs from birth in South Africa. “We try to build a trusting relationship where you can use these animals as a conservation tool.”
The haven is not a zoo, Anderson said.
“Zoos have the public bamboozled,” Anderson said. “They have turned it into entertainment.”
Since it was founded in 1997, Project Survival, the philanthropic branch of the operation, has donated more than $60,000 to conservation project across the globe. Two of its largest endowments were dedicated to jaguar research in Brazil and snow-leopard-conservation efforts in the Himalayas.
“Ever since I started working in the industry, I found out no one was really doing anything productive to help cats,” Anderson said. “There are lots of zoos around, but they don’t really do anything to save animals.”
Don’t think you can help endangered animals? Anderson, a former airline pilot, says that isn’t the case.
“I think you can help animals by what your passion is,” Anderson said. “It used to be, ‘I can only help animals if I become a veterinarian.’ I don’t think that is true.”
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