Big-Cat Caretaker Dana Fredsti Still Finds Time for the Kittens
When your cat demands attention by plopping down on the book you’re reading or trotting across your keyboard and filling your sentence with unintelligible clusters of consonants and vowels, odds are you’ll simply push her off and finish updating your Facebook status.
But if the kitty in question happens to be a full-grown leopard sitting on your foot, you might be more likely to drop what you’re doing and commence back scratching.
Such was writer Dana Fredsti’s experience when she started volunteering at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound’s Feline Conservation Center, also called the Cat House, in Rosamond, Calif.
“You’re sitting there going, ‘I really need to move -- how do I tell this leopard to get off my foot?’” she says. “And he’s leaning on you like a dog, going, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to scratch my back now.’ And you try to shift, and he gives this little growl and settles himself a little harder on your foot. … It was wonderful.”
Fredsti lives and works in San Francisco, where she writes “mysteries, spicy genre romance, and paranormal comedy,” which frequently includes scenes with cats. She has also acted in what she calls “C movies,” including a turn as a Deadite in Sam Raimi’s 1992 classic Army of Darkness. She made the transition from actor to writer in 1998, around the same time she began searching for a new day job. Her latest book, Plague Town, was recently published by Titan Books.
“I was tired of working corporate temp jobs,” she says. “I wanted to do something that actually meant something to me. When I sat down and thought about it, animals were the first thing that popped into my head.”
A bit of online research led her to the Cat House, and she “fell completely in love” on her first visit. When she started volunteering, she found herself face-to-face with the conservatory’s 70 exotic feline residents, including leopards, lions, tigers, and servals. Many of the cats were born at the facility, which strives to keep endangered species from becoming extinct and is open to the public. She was exhilarated by the experience.
“The first time I was actually cleared to go in a cage and shovel leopard poop, I was thrilled to death,” she says. “It’s not quite the same as when you’re cleaning out your litter box. It was very, very cool.”
In addition to scratching a leopard’s back, Fredsti has been personally greeted by a tiger –- instead of purring, they chuff, a sort of breathy grumble that sounds like exhaling through a fan. She also met a tiger that was rescued from a drug dealer’s bathroom, heard a mountain lion purr, and held a hand-raised amur leopard cub, one of approximately 250 in the world.
“I cried,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t cry until I was done, because you don’t want to cry all over the baby leopard. But it was just such an amazing thing. I’ve never had anything like that in my life, and I’m really grateful I did.”
Fredsti also discovered that just like the many domestic cats she’s kept as pets, each of the big cats has a distinct personality, and there is an exception to every rule. For example, black Asian leopards typically go their separate ways after mating, but the pair Isaac and Meesha lived together at the Cat House and co-raised their cubs.
“We called them the Married, with Children couple,” she says. “Meesha was kind of, ‘Oh no, you didn’t!’ And Isaac would go off in the corner and grumble and look up at us.”
Despite her many amazing experiences as a Cat House volunteer, Fredsti is quick to point out that these are still wild animals, and in addition to being extremely territorial, they come equipped with instincts to hunt, stalk, and kill. For that reason, the volunteers observe strict safety protocols and very rarely go into enclosures with full-grown cats.
“I think the biggest misconception is that you can have one as a pet,” she says. “They come pre-equipped with these instincts, and people think, ‘Oh, if I raise it, it’s not going to be like that.’ And that’s just not the case.”
Fredsti is equally passionate about the small cats in her life, which she describes as big cats’ little cousins. She has fostered, bottle-fed, socialized, and found homes for many feral kittens, including several litters belonging to a mama cat in her old neighborhood that took her two years to catch.
“Some people hear dead people,” she says, "but I hear kittens crying.”
Her experiences led her to partner with a friend in 2003 to make the documentary Urban Rescuers, which follows an animal rescue group around Los Angeles and promotes the “trap, neuter, return” option for controlling feral cat populations. She is also an enthusiastic advocate for spaying and neutering pets.
“I would save every single animal in the world if I could, but I can’t,” she says. “I try to take satisfaction in the ones that I have helped, including the ones that ended up staying with me."