Working with wolves and drinking pee

by Eric Ginsburg

As our guide provided details about how the center acquired the cats, a lion approached a puddle of fresh tiger piss and tasted it, following with the kind of facial expression that I’d make even thinking about sampling someone else’s urine. Then, as if clearing his palate like a wine connoisseur, he headed for a water bucket. I didn’t want to seem juvenile, but I really wanted to ask, “Is this a regular occurrence? Is this lion an outlier or is this socially acceptable and widely practiced behavior?” I used to be obsessed with big cats, but my fixation faded with age. I escaped the wormhole fate of animal-obsessed friends who are content to endlessly YouTube cute pets, but this week I realized that my undergirding love of big cats persists.

All it took was an afternoon tour of the Conservators’ Center, a relatively small USDA-licensed nonprofit focused on “preserving threatened species,” particularly large cats. I had perused the array of animals — mostly cats, several binturongs, a fox, lemurs and wolves — on the center’s website before showing up, but I was still overwhelmed by the experience.

Have you ever seen a serval? Their coat is akin to a cheetah’s, they’re the most successful hunter in the wild and they are the kind of beautiful that makes you want to skip the rest of the guided tour and just sit in front of their cage and watch them nap.

Ever heard a lion roar in person? How about 20 of them? The staff at the center calls it “oofing” — a less intense greeting that more closely resembles crooning than a threat — and the guides elicit the chorus for each tour.

Several of the animals are more active at dusk (the center offers a nighttime tour, too) and even though many were as busy doing nothing as the average house cat, they were still mesmerizing. I just stared at the sheen of the jaguar’s tail and pretended that a napping tiger was nursing a hangover. As we ogled from a few feet away, one female lion rolled onto her back, pausing with her front paws curled like an otter’s. Really, you had to be there.

I didn’t know what a binturong was, but watched eagerly as one of the “bear cats” pranced like a horse before scaling the roof of its cage. Even though they’re carnivorous, the adjacent binturong lives with three cats that a stray left in its cage soon after giving birth. Who knew that two male lions living alone is called a “coalition,” or that jungle cats — which actually hail from swamps — are stout, sand-colored creatures?

The center isn’t a zoo, they do more conservation and rescue, for one, and these aren’t exactly pets — servals are the most common exotic house pets. A few of the animals here used to belong to private owners, people selfish enough to acquire wild cats without considering that they might be smart enough to piss in the A/C unit, scenting every room in one swift move. Or that lemurs aren’t cartoons like in the movie Madagascar and may not be suited for a guest room.

There were plenty of takeaways from our excursion, the strongest being a serious jealousy of four trained volunteers working with the wolves. Standing on a platform, the alpha male licked one woman’s face and another “scent rolled” on top of a seated volunteer’s head, nestling her hair under its chin and trying to absorb her smell. Interacting with wolves requires training — these folks went to Indiana — and if I ever make a career change that may be where you find me.

But first, who’s taking me back to the center?


Conservators’ Center; 676 E. Hughes Mill Road, Burlington; 336.421.0065;