Tigers, Cougars, and More in the Back Yard

Miami's feline fringe is a vanishing breed

"In wintertime they might go out and walk around for five minutes," she says. "But if I close the door, they'll all three press their heads against the glass, looking at me like I'm the worst person in the world."

Rigerman sits down at the bar to await the arrival of the cats. He booms about Ann's feline expertise.

Ann fusses. "They won't come out because of his loud voice," she says. "I told you to cut out the cologne and hair spray."

"Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?" Rigerman asks sadly. "It makes me feel terrible."

(Rigerman promises to quiet down and spends the next hour on the phone trying to renew his subscription to an exotic animal catalogue.)

Ann rushes to the kitchen for a piece of turkey breast. She steps into her hallway, meat in hand, and implores her kitties to at least come say hello.

"You don't want to at least say hello?"

Hiss.

"Oh, don't hit me! You don't want to come? You want to be nasty?"

Ann wears house slippers and a bright caftan. Her hair forms a perfect silver dome; bangs fall like a sheet of ice over her forehead. She smiles warmly and gestures in large sweeps of her head and arms. She walks with a slight limp — a symptom, she says, of never wanting to come into this world in the first place. The doctors had to yank her in with forceps, resulting in a small loss of motor control on her right side.

Ann had always wanted an exotic cat. She just never knew it was possible to own one. She grew up in Los Angeles and studied theoretical math at a small Christian college in Washington. Dancing was prohibited on campus. She left just before graduating and decamped to Manhattan, where her father lived.

She moved into an eighth-floor apartment and lived with a roommate and three German shepherds. One day, while walking the dogs, she came upon a Long Island man walking what looked like a small leopard. Before long, she found herself taking the cat, an ocelot, on the weekends while its owner partied at his house in the Hamptons.

"The ocelot just sat out on our terrace with no cage or anything," she recalls. "He used to play with the dogs and have a wonderful time."

One rainy summer, while visiting friends in Miami, she got bored and went for a job interview. She lied and said she planned to move here. Soon enough, she did. She found herself working 60 hours a week designing computer software for a variety of airlines. She remembers enjoying it. For a thrill she began sitting a Coconut Grove couple's margay. "I really wanted that cat to like me," she recalls. But every time Ann walked into the house, the cat would march to the middle of their white carpet and relieve itself in protest of her arrival.

One day, while the system was down at work, she noticed in the Miami Herald an advertisement for baby cougars and other exotics. She dialed the number.

To her surprise, she discovered she would need a license for a big cat. To obtain a license, she would need 1000 hours of "husbandry" training in a 12-month period.

So she spent weekends volunteering at a veterinary clinic in Fort Lauderdale. "The only thing I learned was how to clean large litter boxes and open cans of [zoo-grade] cat food," she says.

Finally, as she entered her late forties, Ann acquired an African serval named Pandora. She would take the cat for a six-month trial, she decided.

Pandora refused to be touched — a quirk she communicated by biting.

"She slept on top of me," Ann recalls, exasperated. "But if I woke up, I couldn't touch her." In order to put the cat in its cage, Ann had to devise all manner of clever trapping and baiting techniques, involving everything from stuffed animals to canvas harnesses. The 30-pound feline would wake up in the middle of the night and drink its entire bottle of water just to pee on her.

Ann was hooked.

She equipped her spare room with high shelves, huge litter boxes, and a serval-size ladder. From then on she continued to take care of cats: raising exotic kittens, finding owners for unwanted cats, and, of course, tending to her own flock (four, at its peak).

Ann installed a Murphy bed in the cats' room so she could sleep surrounded by the animals (a practice that ended about two years ago, when a serval named Tango taught the others how to leap onto her in the middle of the night).

Ann's cats have all been servals or caracals (or combinations of the two). The animals look something like a cross between a cheetah and a housecat. In the wild their long legs help them search for prey by leaping over the high savanna grass. They have been known to jump more than 10 feet into the air to catch birds midflight. In Ann's house, they have developed a taste for ground turkey, air conditioning, and television.

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