My Life with Animals: Feisty Felines

As bobcat kittens grow up, they practice life skills with their litter mates and of course, mom. Whisper, our bobcat, didn’t have any litter mates with whom to practice so it all fell to her surrogate moms, Adrienne and me. She would run through the house and out of nowhere, leap on my head and try to chew on my face! She seemed to have so much fun as she would purr up a storm while she was doing it. At only ten weeks of age, she had been with us for five weeks, and her skills were developing quickly. Although only a kitten, she was quite strong and amazingly athletic. She had the most amazing ability to run across the walls! As if she was straight out of the Matrix, she used every surface in the house to move about. When she wasn’t running out her energy, we would carry her everywhere.

One day, I was holding this cute, cuddly ball of fur when suddenly, she turned and with total ease and speed, reached up and grabbed my jugular! She was so quick and had such precision it was impressive, and scary! Her little predator teeth had grabbed my jugular with such acuteness that she had it separated out and I could feel it pulsing in her mouth. She didn’t bite down, she was actually rather gentle as she looked me in the face and purred louder than I had ever heard her purr. I swear, if she could talk I think she was saying, “Look mom, I got it! Did I do it right?!” I stayed very still for what seemed like five minutes (and was probably only 20 seconds) until she let go. I turned to her and said, “Okay kitten, that’s not something you will ever need, so let’s not practice that anymore.” It was at the moment that I knew no matter how little she was, she was still a wild cat with all her instincts and abilities and we could never take it for granted.

When I was in college, all I wanted to do was work with big cats. I thought I would spend my life sitting on the Serengeti studying the behavior of lions and leopards and cheetahs. My first semester in graduate school I did an ethological (animal behavior) study of the cheetahs at the Knoxville Zoo for one of my classes. I spent months going to the zoo for a few hours three or four times a week to sit and study the cheetahs. They had just opened this new large exhibit and my research was on space use. So I was looking at how the group used the space: did they have favorite spots, did they compete for spots, etc? I learned two things about doing field research with big cats that semester. First, big cats don’t move much! Second, there was no way I could spend my life doing field research!

When I was a senior undergraduate, I did an internship with big cats at the Buffalo Zoo. It was a dream come true. It was 1990 and the zoo was just beginning to modernize its big cat areas. There was a new holding building with two large yards attached on either side. One side housed the lions, the other the tigers. A long narrow corridor down the middle separated the row of holding cages on each side. There were four or five large holding areas on each side leading out to each yard. The cats could be shifted in and out so that they all had time in the yards but could be separated out if needed.

One day, a young, 6-month-old black leopard arrived at the zoo. She had been confiscated from some people who were trying to keep her as a pet. They had declawed the poor thing and were taking her in to have her canines removed when she was confiscated by the authorities. The process of removing claws and teeth of wild cats is illegal, considered cruel within the zoological industry and completely unacceptable. Here was the big challenge for the zoo, she couldn’t live with any of the other cats. With no claws she couldn’t defend herself and would be killed by the other cats. There was no feasible way to give her time in the yards because there was already a tight schedule trying to get the lions and tigers enough time outside. The lead keeper, Chris, had an idea one day, “Let’s train her,” she said. “We can take her to schools and teach people with her. Who wants to train her with me?” Chris asked all her keepers. No one said a word. In 1990, training zoo animals was not common like it is now. The only ones training animals were bird shows, elephants and circuses. The only real reputable facility at that time training cats was the Cincinnati Zoo. None of the keepers wanted to do it. There I stood, 19 years old and completely naive, “I’ll do it,” I said anxiously. “Can I do it with you?” Chris accepted my offer and I spent the next few months coming in after classes throughout the week helping to train this cat. We trained her to walk on a leash, sit, lay down, roll over to show her belly spots and jump from table to table. It was my first training experience and it was the most rewarding thing I had ever done in my life. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” I declared at age 19 and here I am today!

After twenty-five years, I finally have the privilege of training a wild cat again. It has been two and a half years now and every day I get to spend with Whisper is a gift. Just like that little black leopard, Whisper gets to inspire school children and adults alike as she shows off her natural behaviors. She still greets me with purrs and a bit of chewing on my arms, but she has never practiced on my jugular again!

Sharon Clay, Curator of Animal Programs

“One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kind”