Big cats get a new medical clinic at Exotic Feline Rescue |  News

FOCUSPOINT — Staff and benefactors broke ground Friday on a new big cat medical clinic at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Clay County.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Rebecca Stevenson, lead caretaker at the rescue center.

“The (medical) recovery alone will be much better with much more space and it will make recovery much quicker and less stressful” in big cats, including tigers, lions, leopards and pumas.

The new 7,000-square-foot medical clinic will be built of concrete block with wood beams, said Michael Shaw, executive vice president of Earl C. Rodgers & Associates, the company building the new facility.

“It is very insulated, so it will be energy efficient. We make a lot of decisions on finishes for durability so it will be low cost of ownership,” Shaw said.

Construction will take six months.

The new clinic will include a medical ward, with an observation room for visiting veterinary students, and a suite for a medical provider to stay overnight for 24-hour care. It will also include recovery rooms, space for new medical equipment, a conference room and a scale to weigh big cats to ensure veterinarians administering anesthesia have accurate data.

Currently, medical procedures and dental care are performed in the basement of Exotic Feline Rescue founder Joe Taft, Taft said.

Tigers enjoy turkey for lunch at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Clay County on Friday. A new medical clinic will improve care for these big cats.

Taft said he came to Clay County in 1991 with two tigers and a leopard. Today, the center houses 120 animals. It has been home to 500 animals for the past 32 years.

“We have had a long and somewhat difficult history of providing medical care for these animals,” Taft said. “Shortly after I got here, they asked us to take a lioness that was blind.”

Taft contacted the University of Illinois, which had staff with experience in cataract surgery on big cats, such as tigers and lions.

“The chief of staff was the former president of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians,” Taft said. “That is where we received almost all of our veterinary care for several years.”

However, the university in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., is 100 miles away, Taft said, making the trip impractical once the center has 100 animals.

Taft’s basement was later converted into a medical clinic, “but there are a lot of drawbacks… it’s all very cramped. It’s not really a hospital.

“So this clinic will be a big step forward in the care of these animals,” Taft said. “We are very grateful to the Huck family and to all of our supporters who have helped us purchase this land” for the new clinic.

Three years ago, the rescue center purchased 140 acres that will now house the new clinic. Overall, the rescue center is 260 acres.

The new clinic is being paid for by the Huck family of Indianapolis and upstate New York. Mike Huck and Miriam Huck represented the family at the opening.

“I learned about the Exotic Rescue Center when I was in high school and then I started volunteering here,” said Miriam Huck.

“When my aunt and uncle (David and Gwen Huck) came to visit from (New York) … we brought them here and they fell in love and started donating,” he said.

“Then my uncle asked what their needs were…he was impressed with how much they do here on such a small budget and that they weren’t wasting their money on frivolous things. He was spent on the cats,” Huck said.

David Huck, who is a donor to Liebchen’s Gift Foundation, “decided that the foundation and the family would build the building and bear all the costs. We are one big animal welfare family,” said Miriam Huck.

Taft said that “once an animal gets here, it’s here for the rest of its life. These animals can live up to 20 years…” with many older cats needing serious medical attention, as well as new arrival cats needing to be spayed/neutered.

“This will give them a much better life,” Taft said. The cats come from zoos, government impounds and state governments, as well as cats voluntarily given up by owners who determined they couldn’t breed large animals, Taft said.


Joe Taft, founder of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, Mike Huck, Michael Shaw of Earl C. Rodgers & Associates and Miriam Huck show design plans for a new 7,000-square-foot medical clinic for the rescue center. The Huck family of Indianapolis and New York State donated the funds for the new clinic.

The new clinic “is a huge step forward in the quality of medical care that we can provide for cats,” Taft said.

Personally, Taft said the new clinic will bring relief.

“I sleep directly above the (current basement clinic), so if we have a tiger in there for a week, it’s a little uncomfortable in my part of the house,” Taft said.