Many thanks to Mindy Stinner of Conservators' Center, Inc. for allowing the use of this article on AfricanServal.com.
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The first time I remember seeing a caracal was at the Carnivore Preservation Trust in 1993. I had only recently found out that places like an exotic animal sanctuary or breeding facility even existed, and I was so excited to be able to visit. On the day I was first scheduled to volunteer it was pouring rain. I went out anyway. I ended up getting a solo tour in the rain, but that was fine with me. One of CPT’s founders, Kay Reames, showed me around the facility and introduced me to some of the many animals on site. We slogged through ankle deep mud while I met tigers, leopards, jaguars, ocelots, servals, binturongs, kinkajou, sunbear, and caracals.
Quite honestly, the caracals didn’t stand out on the tour. My head was too full of tigers and those weird binturongs (Asian bearcats). Many of the flashier small cats and been more eye-catching.
Then we went into the house and I met the other founder, Michael Bleyman. He was a bit gruff in the tired way people get when there’s too much going on all the time. He was sitting alone in the kitchen with his hands full of bottles and kittens. Kittens with spots. And more with florets. And others with tiny ear tufts. He had me wash up, sat me on the floor with a bottle, and stuffed a kitten into my hands. “Here, hold it this way, and feed it this way. Good.”
I was in heaven. The five day-old baby serval was happy to eat and burp and eat and fall asleep. I had a hard time relinquishing him, but they traded him for another, a caracal. Her little pointy ears were still folded down. I sat on the floor in one spot until both legs went to sleep, but I really didn’t mind at all. I was hooked.
I began volunteering doing construction, watering, feeding, cage cleaning—anything they would let me learn. I brought my best friend Gina out and she got hooked, too.
The facility was very successful in breeding its animals. Eventually kittens and cubs overran the house and they began to foster them out to experienced volunteers. Gina came home with two caracal kittens. Michael liked to name them, but he was running low on names after such a busy season. He looked in the newspaper and saw it was Studs Terkel’s birthday, so the two became Studs and Terkel. I swore to myself while I babysat these angels on occasion that if I ever got babies to foster I would come armed with name suggestions.
Shortly, I did get to foster my own animals. When a nasty virus began to affect the animals on site, the highest priority was to protect the infants. I got three 5 day-old caracal kittens and a quick lesson on subcutaneous shots in the same day, then was told not to bring them back until the virus was gone from the site. Since I was a teacher then, I had the summer free to spend with the cats. They had their own room in the house and I probably spent 6 hours a day with them. It was very hard to take them back when it was time. Michael didn’t name them, but my fiance did—Nenya, Scylla and Anatoly. They taught me many things: that caracals more then 5 weeks old can poop by themselves, that they will eat kitty litter if given the option, that catnip does not mix well with caracals helping you cook, and that the bonds infants forge with their caregivers set the tone for their relationships with people for the rest of their lives.
More animals came and went in my foster care: binturongs, servals, ocelots, and caracals. I think I was happiest when I had two binturongs and two caracals at home at the same time. What an amazing and wild time that was!! With more than 25 servals, 20 ocelots, 2 pairs of snow leopards, 55 binturongs, 25 kinkajous and 40 caracals breeding away at the facility, it was a busy time.
I learned so much from these babies. Because I had such strong guidance from Michael and Kay and later from Sharon Ziegler, the then-curator, no babies got very ill or died in my care in the first year. I learned how to adjust the formulas slightly for desired health results, how to unstop plugged up babies, how to give shots and fluids and how to check for sharp bones in slurry. I learned how caracals speak by flicking their ears, what an ocelot grumble means by the pitch of it, how fast a serval can strike when it’s really excited. I thought I was doing OK on the learning curve.
The second year I lost a premature serval with underdeveloped lungs, who had never really stood a chance. That didn’t stop us from trying, but it was a sad thing when we lost him after only one a day. I had named him Quark because of his size.
I knew Quark’s death wasn’t my fault, but I still was a bit sensitive when I got my next caracal kittens. Asha and Gabriel were the gentlest of souls caught up in manic little caracal bodies. They were wonderful and eager to live and I had no idea the ordeals I would go through with them.
First, they tried to eat EVERYTHING. I had gradually baby-proofed my house so the animals I was fostering could have full run instead of being limited to a single room. Apparently my baby-proofing was not adequate. I found Gabriel under the sink trying to eat cleaners. Asha had the toilet brush. Then Gabriel had a box of mint cookies he somehow got out of the upper kitchen cabinets. Then Asha was crunching moths at the windowsill at night. Then Gabriel wanted coffee and any old beer bottles he could find in the garbage can.
Then one day when Asha was only about four weeks old, we had returned to the facility to day camp with other cats and get checked by the curator. She noticed a small tear in Asha’s neck. I was devastated I hadn’t seen it—how could I have overlooked it? We started antibiotics, and I agreed to watch it closely and keep the babies separated, since it was possible he had caused the damage or would make it worse. Gabe played in the house while poor Asha watched, dismayed, from a playpen with a lid. The winter holiday break was just starting for me, so I had some extra time to spend with them and planned to alternate their times out and about.
The next morning, the tear was almost an inch long. I was horrified. I flew to the vet’s office and she jokingly offered me a sedative while she looked at Asha. There was no sign of infection. The skin had separated from the muscles, ligaments and esophagus, with no apparent damage to the tissue beneath the skin. The vet scratched her head and observed the spot for a while. Baby skin tears so easily, I was afraid it would just continue to separate. The vet said it looked to her to be a deep hole, but she couldn’t see why it would continue to expand. She gave me my first lesson on flushing wounds, and sent me home with a pile of fluids, drugs, huge syringes and other gear.
For three days I flushed the wound several times a day. Asha was actually rather pleasant about it, which just fed my fears that she was dreadfully ill. I was so focused on her that I had to do a double-take at Gabriel one morning when he showed up entirely gray.
Not dirty-gray, but actually gray. He had lost his gold overcoat overnight. All that was left was a lovely thick gray undercoat. He had no other odd symptoms, but I called Sharon anyway to ask what I should do. She was bewildered. She asked about his nutrition, what he had gotten into lately, what toys he was playing with. The only change we had made, which I finally thought of after several minutes of relentless questioning, was bringing the banana tree into the house that week to protect it from the cold. Sharon sighed, and explained to me that these trees are toxic to cats. When I checked the tree, I saw that Gabe had been climbing up and down the trunk, and then apparently cleaning his feet. I felt like an idiot, and sheepishly moved the tree.
That night as I flushed the quarter-sized hole in poor Asha’s neck, a strange small chunk of what looked like tendon or gristle came up out of the skin along her neck. It was the size of an eraser on a pencil. I collected it and took it to Sharon, who stared at for a while before shrugging and tossing it out. “Maybe that was it,” she said. She was right. After that, the hole closed itself in a matter of days.
Gabriel and Asha were happily reunited and continued to crash through the house together. I returned them to CPT to join the rest of the mob of kittens on site getting ready to day camp. I went back to work, and resumed normal life for more than a week.
Then I got a phone call that I should come to CPT immediately. Asha had been a bit depressed that morning and over the day had gotten progressively less responsive. Sharon had filled her with antibiotics and fluids, but she was warm and limp when I arrived. I was devastated. She picked her head up a little to look at me from the carrier where she had been placed so she’d be separate from the others. Her ears flicked a bit in greeting and she made a soft chirp. She couldn’t even stand. IN an hour she was limp and unresponsive. I cried and held her, knowing she was going to die. Finally, my friends there made me leave her and go get dinner with them. We all knew she’d be dead when we returned, though no one said it out loud.
I jogged back into the house after being gone for a little over a half-hour. I expected to lift the towel over the crate doorway and see her little body. I lifted the towel and Asha sat up and trilled at me. Then she promptly began biting the door in an attempt to get out. When we let her out, she greeted me casually and them marched to the refrigerator. She leaped up at the handle, knowing there was caracal food inside. We fed her. She ate. She lived.
It’s been more than eight years since that day, but I am still overwhelmed by how I felt then. I picked her up to hug her and she struggled with that “Put me down, Mom, I wanna play” attitude all healthy babies have. She put up with a few kisses before insisting she get down.
Asha and Gabriel grew and thrived. Asha got in trouble a few times as a teenager for beating up her roommate, but she was only telling us she wanted a cute boyfriend. Gabriel grew into a handsome blonde male with huge ear tufts. They grew so long and thick they actually caused his ears to flip and hang down at the tips. All the local girl caracals called out to him. I knew he was going to have a good life.
Eventually I got too comfortable. I think some part of me believed life could continue forever this way. Such amazing babies coming and going in my life, and such a luxury to be able to watch them grow up and become adults and have their own babies.
Life changes. Michael Bleyman, CPT’s founder died of cancer, and not long after, his beloved Kay left the facility. The political changes that accompany the loss of a charismatic leader can have a devastating effect on the people who are tied to such a place. Many of us had gone there because we didn’t deal with people as well as we did animals, and we weren’t able to cope well with all the change. Oh, many of us stuck it out for a while because we loved the animals. I even went to work there for a year or so. But, eventually there was an almost complete change of the staff and volunteers. I fought with the director until I was fired.
I spent a couple of months in shock at the sudden separation for the animals I had dedicated my life to. It felt like all 270 of my children had died at once. In the end, I decided that if I really felt this committed to these species and to conservation work, I should continue to work with these animals in different circumstances. I found others who wanted to start a place with me. So we did. It is called the Conservators’ Center, Inc (CCI).
I was working on the side at a small area zoo, and I agreed to foster two caracal kittens. I fell in love. I knew better than to do that. I was willing to part with them to a good home, but the first person who seriously inquired about buying one of them wanted to raise one with his baby mandrill. Doug Evans, my partner and co-founder of CCI, took out a personal loan to buy them from the zoo. It just felt too much like losing the almost 30 animals I had fostered before and had to leave behind, and it was in my power this time to stop it.
Charlie and Aretha were ours. Within a few weeks, Charlie had developed horrible seizure symptoms. He soon died of a heritable type of cardiomyopathy. We knew then that we could never breed Aretha, as she would possibly pass on this trait. We incorporated CCI as a non-profit and Aretha became our first cat of many. She didn’t qualify as a breeder, and she certainly wasn’t a rescue. We call her a resident.
And she was. She lived in our house at night for almost a year, day-camping outside in the good weather and even some snow, which she disdained. She had never been a dependent cat, but beginning shortly after Charlie’s death she climbed in the bed at night and demanded a finger to suck on. I let her, happy she wasn’t peeing in the bed instead (which she also occasionally did).
Today Aretha lives pretty happily with a neutered male caracal we took in as a placement when his owner had to move to Georgia, where exotic cat pets are illegal. She trills to me when I walk by, or when she thinks its dinnertime. She and Taz hunt our dogs and the nearby songbirds, coordinating their creeping and bursts of speed with ear flicking. When I go in to visit and sit with her, she greets me by tasting each finger and making her little special noises to me. Sometimes when all is quiet in the compound she will sit with me on the swing and suck my thumb, still.
Just a couple of weeks ago I went back to my roots at CPT, an invited guest. I marveled at the kindness of the volunteers and the maintenance staff, the cleanliness of the facility grounds, the abundance of cats I remembered. My Asha’s name had been changed to Sandy by adoptive parents while I had still been there. She was not on the tour route, and I am unsure if she is still at the site. I did see Gabriel, though. He is happy and healthy and has a girlfriend named Marchella, one of my favorite other caracals from when I had worked there. He still has the biggest ear tufts I have ever seen. When I called hello he ran to the fence to greet me, even after almost seven years. He rubbed the fence and trilled to me, sounding a lot like Aretha.
We can’t go home again, but we can take the best parts with us wherever we go.
Many thanks to Mindy Stinner of Conservators' Center, Inc. for allowing the use of this article on AfricanServal.com. This article is copyrighted 2004 by Mindy Stinner. All rights are reserved.