Soldotna native's interest in wildlife turns into up-close-and-personal encounters with big cats

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2003

SOLDOTNA - Tasha Van Vleet greets one of the cats in her care with a "good morning" as she makes her morning rounds.

The cat, Jambo, responds with a yawn. He then emits a purr, gives the back of her hand a few light kisses with his tongue and leans in to have his back scratched.

Jambo is no common tabby. He is an 8-year-old, nearly 600-pound Barbary lion - one of the many species of exotic animals that Van Vleet worked with while attaining her certificate of professional studies in zoo keeping from Cat Tales Zoological Training Center in Mead, Wash.

"Wildlife intrigues me. I always want to know where it sleeps, if it has a family and just how it lives," she said.

Van Vleet was born and raised in Soldotna and attributes her love of animals to the place she grew up.

"I think being raised in Alaska and exposed to a lot of wildlife as a child has a lot to do with it," she said.

Van Vleet said she grew up with numerous cats and dogs as family pets, but it was an article in the (Kenai) Peninsula Clarion that first piqued her interest in working with big cats.

Van Vleet applied for the zoo keeper program at Cat Tales in late 2001.

Her program involved training, study and hands-on work. Some of her course work included basic zoo management, animal husbandry, zoo animal handling and training, veterinary care, leadership and professional skills building, population management and record keeping.

The facility had 46 cats, including lions, tigers, pumas, leopards, African servals, jaguar, caracals, lynx and bobcats. One of her first assignments required her to learn and identify each individual cat.

"We had to study each cat and write down or draw specific facial marking and the shape and length of the whiskers," she said.

The exercise allowed the cats to get to know her. As it is with any animal, establishing a rapport with the big cats is important. The cats get to know and trust their caretakers by sight, sound and smell. The zoo keeper in turn learns which cats can be friendly and which cats would just as soon eat you for lunch.

Van Vleet said it was exciting to work with cats that were famous, since many of them had been in commercials and documentaries for the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Some of the big cats had even done movies.

"If you've seen 'Gladiator' with Russell Crowe, the tiger that jumps on his back in the arena was Shere Kahn, and was born at Cat Tales," she said.

She said the training isn't as easy as Hollywood makes it look.

"Cats are funny animals. They have excellent selective hearing and you can't make a 600-pound animal move if they don't want to," she said.

Van Vleet said all the cats knew the routine, but some would play games if it was wet or snowy outside. Simba, a female lion, was one of the finicky felines who would give Van Vleet trouble switching from her den out into the exhibit yard.

"Simba had to have fresh straw leading from her den because she didn't like to get her paws wet," said Van Vleet.

Van Vleet made it through the program unscathed and graduated with honors. She now has returned to her home in Soldotna, where she would like to continue working with and researching wildlife.

"I understand the field of working with wildlife is small and hard to get into," she said. "But I love what I do and want to dedicate all I can to animals."

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