As Bonnie Russell nuzzles a huge tiger named Toby, she turns to her visitor.
“That’s a happy sound, it’s called chuffing,” she says nonchalantly as the tiger, a male orange bengal, makes a low sound. “We don’t go in, if we don’t hear chuffing.”
For Russell, this is a daily occurrence — getting up close and personal with one of four tigers and two lions. Russell and her husband Hugh raise these animals, along with mountain lions and bobcats, at their home just outside of Midland.
Bonnie and Hugh have 12 large cats: Charcon, a Siberian tiger; Sheena, Simba, Tabulu, Chico, a male mountain lion; Tia Maria, a female mountian lion; Mary Ann, Willie, Toby; Fifi, a female bobcat.
The couple took in Simba, a male black mane lion, because the movie studio he was working for felt he was getting too large. The couple helped out Mary Ann, a mountain lion, when the owner was dying of cancer and could no longer care for her. Most of their other animals were taken in because someone else could no longer care for them.
In addition, two bobcats live in a cage in the house. Houdini and Cleopatra are 3 months old. The couple also have horses and dogs.
The Russells are not afraid to go up close to the animals and speak to them affectionately every day. Russell said jokingly the only animal she has who bites is a talking African Grey parrot named Zuzu that lives inside the house.
The Russells got their first exotic animal in 1996 — a 6-week-old Siberian tiger — after their son, Steve, saw a newspaper ad. Charcon now weighs about 750 pounds.
Since then their love of exotic animals has grown, as evidenced by the lion and tiger pictures and other paraphanelia she has received from friends and that fill her home.
If you walk in their backyard, you will see a large black sign that says “The Russells” attached to one of their fences. Above “The Russells” is a tiger.
And since the Russells have been taking care of animals for so long, word has gotten around about them. “I have people call every week to see if we want more,” she said. Usually she turns them down.
The Russells use about 10 bags of zoo food every two weeks. Because caring for the animals is so expensive, the Russells held a chili cook-off fundraiser Sept. 30 at their home. Hugh Russell said most of the people who came were from Midland, Greenwood and Odessa. They raised about $600, Russell said. “Mostly they came to see the cats.”
The Russells have five grown children who live in Colorado, Texas and Australia, and 10 grandchildren, all who have been around the animals.
The Russells say they rarely take vacations together because of the “pets,” who are cared for by Bobby Boyd of Tall City Veterinary Clinic, 4606 West Wall.
Bonnie Russell said she likes for people to come and see the animals because she said it keeps them friendly.
“We love these animals and feel honored to be able to have these to care for. They have the best personalities and we like for people to see the difference in our cats and other cats that have no interaction with people,” she said.
The Russells said anyone who reads this story and would like to see the animals is welcome to do so. Call them first at (432) 687-6878.