Quad-side to Fireside: Roar!
Stacey Anderson Markin, '99, contributes a regular column to "Thinking Albion" with stories of interest to alumni, parents, and friends. Readers may be familiar with Markin as the person who coordinates the reunions and other events for Homecoming each year. She has been the Associate Director of Alumni and Parent Relations for five years.
I would like to wish happy holidays to all our alumni, parents, and friends! I hope that your December is filled with family, friends, and many happy moments. Thinking Albion will be on hiatus until the first week of January. I hope that you enjoy reading about Audra Masternak's experiences and will join us in January for more stories and updates from the Office of Alumni Relations.
From Quad-side to Fireside and our Albion family to yours, best wishes for a wonderful holiday season.
Hear Me Roar: "Tails" from a Big Cat Keeper
When people think of a liberal arts student, they often think of someone who can think critically, apply problem-solving skills, and use knowledge in a multitude of ways. Yet can you imagine one job that would require you to butcher meat, address neurological damage, clean and care for habitats, have a thorough knowledge of non-human anatomy and physiology, put up holiday decorations, and be an expert golf cart driver?
Young alumna and former Student Alumni Association co-president Audra Masternak, '08, has tackled all of the above in just the past three-and-a-half weeks as part of her internship with the Exotic Feline Rescue Center (EFRC) in Center Point, Ind.
Home to nearly 200 "big cats"---including lions, tigers, leopards, ocelots, servals, and cougars---the EFRC's mission is to provide "permanent homes for big cats that have been abused, abandoned, or for some reason have nowhere to live out their lives, while educating the public about these beautiful cats." Founded in 1991, the EFRC is the second largest rescue facility for exotic cats in the nation, and is nationally recognized for its exemplary standards in terms of both facilities and care.
Audra spends most of her time outdoors at the rescue center amid all the elements. Her day might last up to 10 hours, depending on volunteer staffing. Her typical activities include cleaning enclosures, feeding the cats, assisting with cats that need medication, and helping with everything from educational outreach to the EFRC's annual holiday event.
I recently asked Audra whether she had any apprehension about beginning her work with big cats. "Although many people would think this is a scary job to do, I really love it," she told me. "I have never been scared of chasing a dream." And Audra got the chance to live one of her dreams with a Cougar named Cody.
"He loved to be petted and rubbed!" she says. "It is awesome being able to pet a big cat---something I've dreamed of my whole life! Simply amazing." Audra says she employed a technique called "protective contact," to safely "pet" Cody, one of the few big cats that did not stay at the EFRC permanently. While the Albion native says she loves the adrenaline rush of being near animals who could knock you down with a mere nuzzle, she warns that it is important that keepers and guests do not fall into the trap of thinking that these cats are harmless.
"They are wild animals and will never become domesticated despite many people who try," she says. The EFRC's system of slide gates, strong fencing, and segmented cages allows keepers to interact with the cats without putting them in harm's way. "We never enter an enclosure with a cat," Audra states.
Feeding is a huge part of each day at the center. The Rescue Center "feeds out" approximately 3,000 pounds of meat per day, relying on relationships with local farmers who supply livestock.
"We make sure that all 191 cats are fed," Audra says. "We do the butchering, but I don't do much of that because I don't have all the skills. I watch and learn." By watching and learning, Audra says she has been able to learn some of the anatomy of the food-to-be: cows, horses, deer, chickens, turkeys.
"You should see when the cats swing a piece of meat around and toss it up a climbing tower when it took two people to carry it in to them," Audra muses. "They are so powerful."
Audra's dreams have always been supported by her parents, Don Masternak, Albion's Managing Director of Facilities Operations and Albion Community Liaison, and Jacolyn Warson Masternak, '77.
"Working with big cats has been one of Audra's life passions," Masternak says. "Audra has great common sense, and we have faith in her judgment to follow the safety systems at the rescue center."
How does a small-town girl who has lived her entire life in Albion, Mich., get introduced to the world of exotic felines? As her father recalls, Audra's interest in the natural world began when she was just a small child. He said his daughter has always been a "down-to-earth kid with a lot of common sense." When she was younger, Masternak recalls, he wanted to teach her to respect the natural world but not fear it.
"When she was five years old she found a garter snake with a cut," Masternak says. "She rinsed the snake off and dug a hole for it because she knew they liked cool, damp places. I thought, How many five-year-olds would see an injured snake and try to help it?"
"My parents are very supportive and really big advocates of following your dream," she states.
Audra's interest in the natural world is something she never outgrew. Her classes in Albion's biology department further confirmed her love of zoology. These days, her Albion sweatshirt bears the "evidence"---mud, sweat, and yes, spray from the tigers---of her daily work with the cats.
"I think that the most interesting part is learning all the different personalities of the cats. Each one is different and unique. I really love it when the lions start to roar and the whole rescue center is filled with noise. It is just amazing how big these animals really are," Audra reports.
Each day is a new adventure that leaves Audra brimming with stories for her family and friends. There is always a bit of laughter, too, from cats sliding on slush in their enclosures to tigers spraying visitors on occasion to people showing up in high heels to tour the grounds. And let's not forget her "treats" of small roadkill that she picks up for her favorite cats on her way to work each day.
Take a peek into Audra's world by visiting her blog (http://www.thebigcatsmeow.blogspot.com/) , where you can follow the rest of her internship. View footage of her opening the cage for nine tigers at feeding time and watch their ensuing game of serious "leap frog," and see just how dirty an Albion sweatshirt can get while keeping big cats.
Visit the Exotic Feline Rescue Center site (http://www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org/) for information on programs, tours, and biographies of "Audra's cats."
The Exotic Feline Center is housed on 108 acres in Center Point, Ind., off I-70 about 30 minutes east of Terre Haute, Ind., and about three-and-a-half hours from Albion. Staff members travel from "the house" to "the field" to "the far west" and other sites within the rescue by golf cart and gator. I mentioned that Audra is an "expert golf cart driver" in the opening paragraph. She honed her golf cart skills at Albion, working events for the Office of Alumni/Parent Relations as a part of Student Alumni Association throughout her four years at Albion.
From driving on the Quad to driving to see lions, and tigers, and leopards... oh my!