Exotic Feline Rescue Center devotes over 30 years to saving wild cats

The tiger crouches, lowering its gaze before lunging at the man. A passing tour group watches in awe — and maybe confusion — as the man approaches the fence and reaches for the cat, brushing his knuckles against its whiskery face.

Very few people are allowed that close to the fence. But the man knows Max, one of the biggest cats at the center, better than anyone else.

Since he opened the Exotic Feline Rescue Center over 30 years ago, Joe Taft’s life has revolved around big cats. What started as a “school boy fantasy,” as he calls it, transformed into his life’s mission — giving the best possible life to these animals that can never truly return home.

Joe Taft spends a moment with Drago the tiger at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center on Friday, July 15, 2022.

More wild cats live in captivity in the US than in the wild around the world. The vast majority are privately owned, which often means being crammed into cages, trucks and basements. They’re often abused, neglected and are so poorly socialized by the time they’re rescued that they could never safely return to the wild.

A lot has changed in the 30-plus years Taft’s been doing this. Back when he started, people didn’t even need permits to own a lion or tiger. Most states didn’t have bans on private ownership of wild cats — Indiana is now one of a few that still don’t. There was less red tape, fewer controversies, no “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

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