I'm sure you all know the phenomenon; you pull off the road on a whim, lured by a billboard advertising something unusual that you'd never otherwise see. Maybe you drove by it and debated making the U-turn (first stage of commitment). Then maybe you sort of decide to at least drive back and scrutinize the sign in a stalling kind of way. You pull off the road and onto a strange driveway, the second stage of commitment. You sit in the parking lot of this place and give your significant other a look that smiles and says "What the hell? Why not?". You feel so darned adventurous. And it turns out to be great. I hope you know what that's like.
In the foothills east of Fresno and about midway up the endless grade to Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks is a big cat sanctuary that is open to the public. I'd seen the signs a dozen times going and coming from the parks and this time by we did the U-turn thing and that's how we found Cat Haven.
|Awwww. Too cute for too short a time. This 3 month old leopard cub was all over his dad, the owner,, director, and CEO of Cat Haven.|
Neither Ruth nor I had any preconceived notions when walking through the doors of the main building. We've been to a raptor re-hab place a few times, but seeing big cats would be a new one. We bought a $9 tour ticket from a nice guy that we found out later was the creator and god of this place. We spent a few minutes on the patio while our guide wrapped up what she was doing. We were joined by another couple and before we wandered off to see the cats she gave us some back story on Cat Haven and its partnerships with various cat conservation organizations and agencies. These claims were corroborated by photos of the Cat Haven CEO in all corners of the world, working with biologists in big cat environments. Cat Haven itself is a non-profit organization that currently has around 30 cats of 10 species. These animals have about 5-20 times the space that most zoo cats are afforded, and they seemed relaxed and well cared for. The enclosures are spread out over a rippling hillside forested with old oak trees. These cats had plenty of shade, trees to climb and claw, natural surroundings versus concrete, and I admired how they'd used the hillside to hide the different cat pens from each other. The various species of cats can't see each other, which I'm sure is good for morale.
Our tour started with the CEO fooling around with a pair of 3 month old leopards that had come to the center shortly after birth. Most of the cats arrived here as kittens and this is all they know. A few of the cats are educational ambassadors and in that role they have found their way into movies, advertising, late-night, and even a super-bowl. Almost all the cats are female and cats are not bred here. The only SoCal natives in the lot were a pair of bobcats whose mother had been shot by poachers. The kittens were found in a dumped washing machine and are named Whirlpool and Maytag.
I loved this place. I really did. I'm man enough to admit that I'm a cat person (Leo). These cats, so many of them of so many species all in one place blew my mind. And that you could be so close. The railing for these enclosures was only three feet from the fence. The cats were mostly lazing in the mid-morning heat and were undisturbed by our presence. The only shy cats, the ones that remained hidden, were the bobcats and most of the cats, as you wil see, were perfectly happy to just hang out in their home. These were not neurotic anti-social zoo cats. It was a great experience and I highly recommend dropping by for the tour. You'll learn a lot. Check out their site and if you're ever driving the 180 toward Kings be sure to see these cats.
|This cheetah just stared and stared at me.|
|Ivan the Siberian Lynx (and below).|
|A very large male leopard.|
|This beautiful female leopard came up to the fence for some attention (and following 2 shots).|
|South American jaguar.|
|The jaguarundi looks like every rodents worst nightmare.|
|Female african lion.|
|These are the paws of the female African lion.|
|Cous Cous the Barbary Lion. This cat is descended from a highly endangered line of northeast african cats that prowl the deserts and coasts of Morocco, Mauritania and the western sahara. Note the large mane which continues well past the shoulders.|