This actually happened. I promise all the details are accurate to the best of my recollection.
Set the Wayback Machine, Sherman, to late Winter 2001. I was making plans for a trip that I'd been thinking about for some time. I would fly into Florida, visit with my Mom and my sister's family for a few days, then rent a car and drive up the East Coast, sightseeing and visiting friends along the way, ending in Connecticut to spend a couple of days with my Dad, then flying home from there.
And I happened to notice, in the latest issue of Discover Magazine, an article about the Carnivore Preservation Trust, a large cat refuge in, of all places, eastern North Carolina. A rescue preserve, they specialized in middle-sized cats, although they did have a few tigers. It was almost on my way, as I was planning on visiting my friend Kevin and my cousin Larry, both of whom live in the Raleigh area. The article made the place seem very interesting so I took a look at their website, and decided to send them an email asking about visitors. They replied that they didn't do visitors, per se, but I could be a volunteer for a day, and then later I could visit a bit and take some pictures.
I started the journey just at the end of March. Had a nice few days with Mom, and back at my hotel the evening before I started the road trip, I watched a little TV. Clicking through the channels the hotel offered, I passed E!, a channel I rarely watch; but someone was claiming that Joan Rivers was once a stripper in Scarsdale, showing a picture of a pole-dancing Joan with wildly exaggerated hooters. The show turned out to be E! True Hollywood Story: Joan Rivers. It took me a couple more moments to realize: it was April 1. I found it hilarious. One moment that stood out was when Lorna Luft (daughter of Judy Garland, sister of Liza Minnelli) declared, "I used to think my family was screwed up; then I met Joan and Melissa Rivers".
I hit the road the next day.
Avoiding the Interstate when possible, the drive through Georgia was uneventful and reasonably pleasant. In South Carolina, I was taken by the apparent fact that — on this highway, anyway — there seemed to be a church every couple of hundred yards. And everything had those sort of standalone marquees, every single one missing at least one letter.
Arriving at CPT Wednesday morning, I entered the main building and introduced myself. I filled out some forms, signed a release, and one of the regular volunteers took me to the cages and showed me around. This wasn't a very sophisticated setup, not a zoo in any sense, not really meant for public view. It was basically a large slightly-wooded meadow, with 10- or 12-foot chain-link fences enclosing small areas for each cat. We thought we'd start me with the smaller cats, changing the water in their bowls. The bowls were set at the bottom of the fence inside a corner. A small metal door allowed me to remove the bowl and toss out the water, then replace the bowl and close the door. I'd then refill the bowl from the outside using a large garden watering can.
And so I happily walked up one row of cages and down another, grooving on the binturongs and servals and ocelots (I've loved ocelots ever since seeing Honey West's pet Bruce) and freshening water. A couple of cougars barely took note of me as I changed their water, as did a nearby rescue panther (here's a factette: panthers are not black; they are very dark brown with black leopard spots), but mostly I was considered part of the scenery.
Then I went to the cage of this beautiful male caracal named Merrimac. Caracals look a bit like lynxes in that they have tufted ears, but they're somewhat bigger. And this guy wasn't having a good day. He was pacing in his cage, and he was clearly not thrilled to see me; he didn't know me, I was male, and I was messing with his water bowl. I, of course, had not a clue. I emptied and replaced his bowl, and started to refill it. Watching the bowl so as to not pour water all over the cage, I took my eye off of ol' Merrimac.
You know that sort of muffled clanging you get when you shake a chain-link fence? That's what I heard. At the same moment, I felt some very sharp jabs right at the crest of my head. I stumbled back, dropped the can, and grabbed my head. Blood was streaming down my face, onto my glasses and dripping onto my shirt. Merrimac had taken a leap at me; the fence had limited contact to the tips of his claws.
Nobody panicked, which kept me from panicking (indeed, I was complimented for my calmness). Apparently this sort of thing happened every so often, and being clawed was seen as something of a rite of passage. That's what they told me, anyway. A compress stopped the bleeding, and one of the paid staff, a lovely woman named Jennifer, drove me to the office of a local doctor (a member of their board) who stitched me up.
When we got back, I cleaned up a bit, spent some time cutting up fruit for the cats, and then Jennifer took me on a little tour. I met Jellybean, who was at the time (maybe still) the largest white tiger in North America. He was actually quite friendly. At 800 lbs., he really had nothing to fear from my sorry carcass, and being well-fed, was predisposed to amiability, and pressed his nose up against the fence for me to scratch. It made my day.
As I went around to say my goodbyes and offer my thanks for the opportunity, I did notice a couple of the office people were a little stand-offish; I think they were afraid I might sue. I had no intention to do so, of course. I felt no acrimony at all; I still don't. I saw no reason to blame anyone; I was there on my own initiative, I knew what I was doing, accidents happen, and they took care of me when one did. And indeed, I do take it as a point of, well, maybe not pride, exactly… This has become one of my favorite stories. So while I understand the concern, that was perhaps the one sour note of my visit.
Carnivore Preservation Trust is now known as Carolina Tiger Rescue. Jellybean is still there, although I don't see a page for Merrimac. These days, they offer tours and accept visitors.