Lots of sunshine and plenty to eat for this rescued tiger

The narrow two-lane road turned from asphalt to gravel, miles off the freeway, and we wondered if we were in the right place. There were no streetlights or billboards, only thick forest, sweeping grasses and delicate wildflowers. Then, a tiny sign: EFRC Parking. On the shoulder, please.

We had arrived at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, about an hour west of Indianapolis. It’s a sanctuary for more than 200 big cats, representing 9 species, and most had been horribly abused or abandoned. They come from all over the country, from bad circuses, bad zoos, tattoo parlors, meth labs and overwhelmed owners. Here they get a second chance to live out their days in peace.

Each cat has a story, and we hear many of them on the hour-long tour. Sinbad is an awkward-gaited black leopard whose earlier bone fractures healed improperly. Achia is a sleek, taupe-colored puma who purrs like a contented housecat. The Munchkins are a pride of 7 lions and tigers who were rescued from a dark basement where they were locked in small cages without food or water, apparently left to die. They weighed between 50 and 80 pounds, less than half of what they should have. They are thriving now, but remain small in stature.

We sped quietly past the tiger Montana. It was dinnertime, and he gets loud and aggressive when interrupted.

Upon their arrival, the felines are given medical care and placed in appropriately sized, natural enclosures. Some enjoy the company of others and some prefer to be alone. A few are too frail or traumatized to be displayed. They also are spayed or neutered, although male lions get vasectomies so they don’t lose their manes. Accidents, however, do happen. One majestic lion, King, was only 14 months old when he was taken from an owner who could no longer afford to feed him. He was also fully declawed. Believed to be too young to father, King was placed with Jasmine, a female lion. The result was a daughter, Lauren, and all three live together.

The center was founded in 1991 with 3 cats and 15 acres. It has since expanded to more than 100 acres and is one of the largest such sanctuaries in the country.

A few travel tips: The center has been created for the comfort of the cats, not necessarily for people. Visitors are warmly welcomed, but amenities are few. The paths are unpaved, and the single restroom is portable. Bring your own water bottle. Also, in the spring and fall you’ll see more because the animals are less hidden by heavy foliage. The cost of admission is $10.

Next time we’ll stay longer. The center has one guest cottage that sleeps two adults (but no children) for $150 a night. We’ll be able to see cats from the front yard, and in the morning the keepers will take us on a private tour to some of the restricted areas. Let’s get going, pussycats!

Exotic Feline Rescue Center: http://www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org