This month, we published Real Stories of Big Cat Rescues, photographer Stephen D. McCloud's spirited follow-up to Saving the Big Cats: The Exotic Feline Rescue Center. In this book, more than 100 color photographs of the resident big cats, old and new, are showcased with loving detail. McCloud has spent countless hours getting to know the cats—their likes, dislikes, quirks, and backgrounds.
I recently interviewed McCloud and learned more about the work that went into his book, his involvement with the EFRC, and why he claims to be "the only person who has ever won a tug of war with a lion."
Tell us a little about the origins of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center and its mission.
Taken from the EFRC website: “The EFRC was founded in 1991 by Joe Taft in Center Point, Indiana, on a rural stretch of 15 acres. The mission of EFRC is simple: EFRC provides permanent homes for exotic felines that have been abused, abandoned, or for some reason have nowhere to live out their lives, while educating the public about these beautiful cats.”
In 1991 Joe Taft was living in New Mexico with a leopard and two tigers he had rescued. Owning these animals is illegal in New Mexico so Joe moved back to Indiana and bought 15 acres of reclaimed strip mine land as far away from people as possible. EFRC is now a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and 108 acres. Joe is the permanent director.
How did you first learn about the EFRC? What impressed you the most after your first visit there?
I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was tired of my current volunteer work and I was looking for something new. She told me about EFRC. There were about 70 felids at EFRC when I first arrived. It was hard to not be impressed by a large group of tigers and lions out in the middle of nowhere in Indiana. Unlike a zoo, EFRC is designed for the animals and not people. Imagine a primitive state park with tigers. Unlike a lot of nonprofit organizations, it was immediately obvious that almost all the money was going to animals and not salaries or anything else.
This book is a follow-up to Saving the Big Cats. Why did you decide to do another book on the EFRC?
Melanie Bowlin decided I would do another book. She repeatedly asked when I was going to do another book and after telling her “never” many times I finally gave in, but only if she would put the stories together. Many people asked about a new book but Melanie is the only one who kept asking.
You’re a regular volunteer at the EFRC. What kind of duties do you perform?
Photography takes up a very small amount of my time at EFRC. “Watching the front” seems to take up most of my time. Computers, electrical, signs, etc. take up the rest. Anything that needs to be done except feeding. The feeding crew does an amazing job.
Your photographs really capture the personalities of the cats. What kind of planning went into getting these photos? Did you spend several hours just waiting to get the right shot?
All the images are taken for use as sponsor photos, calendar photos, or for some other practical use. On overcast days I walk around until I see a photo. I never “wait”. Felids can spend hours in one spot and not budge. About 1,000 hours went into the images in the book, most of it spent walking.
Is there any cat at the EFRC that you have a special bond with? Why do you feel connected to that particular one?
I try to avoid having a favorite. These are wild animals, not pets. A male lion named King seems to have bonded with me several years ago because of a tug of war we had over a coat belonging to a careless worker. He was probably impressed that I won the battle. I claim to be the only person who has ever won a tug of war with a lion.
I feel a special connection to Max, the cover model for our Fall 2010 catalog. Why was he sent to live at the EFRC? What kind of personality does he have?
Max was at a very substandard facility near Indianapolis [before he came to the EFRC]. He is one of the largest and laziest tigers at EFRC. I have no idea why he has become so popular. He even has his own Facebook page. He has a real bond with Kisa, the female lion he lives with. Their relationship is unique, at least at EFRC. They remind me of an old married couple with Kisa being dominant even though she weighs several hundred pounds less than Max. The image of Max on the cover of the catalog and book took three years. Max has small dark eyes that are difficult to capture.
Many of the cats were abused before they came to the EFRC. What does the staff do to help them adjust to life at the Center? Do they have problems gaining the cats’ trust?
I find it amazing that some of the most abused animals adjust so rapidly. Animals that were almost starved to death can end up of being some of the friendliest and most playful.
What is the EFRC doing to raise awareness about animal abuse and the problems of exotic feline ownership?
Assistant director Jean Herrberg does educational sessions. I recently went with her to one at Wonderlab in Bloomington. I see almost no hope for ending the exotic animal problem in the United States. Politicians have refused to pass new laws or even enforce existing laws.
Borrowing a question from the last section of your book, how can the general public help exotic felines?
My own answer is probably quite a bit different than the answer in the book. Donate to honest animal causes like EFRC (zoos and circuses are not animal causes). Many people have tried to get laws changed with almost no success. I see no point in individuals contacting politicians about this problem. There are groups working to get laws changed, join and donate to one of those groups. Determining whether or not an animal cause is honest can be difficult. Web sites can be misleading and full of lies. After more than nine years at EFRC, I have no doubts about the honesty of EFRC.