The roar of an African lion is not what you expect to hear in the Illinois Valley. That the lion is standing only 3 feet away adds to the impact. It is a visceral sound felt in the gut as well as the ears. But it is a sound Emily Fraser-Thompson has grown used to during her four years of living and working at Great Cats World Park south of Cave Junction.
People who drive past the 10-acre park on Highway 199 have no idea they are missing out on a truly unique opportunity to get up close with 17 species of great cats from all over the world, including a pair of lions, Bengal tigers, white tigers, Siberian tigers, ocelots, servals, jaguars, leopards, cougars, lynxes and others.
The cats each are kept in their own spacious, fenced enclosures, with appropriately designed interiors to keep them stimulated.
"This park is different because you see natural behaviors," explains Fraser-Thompson. "They don't sit around and sleep all day."
She and other guides give detailed histories of the cats, their habitats, status in the wild and typical behaviors as they lead visitors on walking tours.
Fraser-Thompson, a thin, 26-year-old dressed casually in jeans, her hair tucked into a baseball cap, doesn't look like someone who risks her life every day getting into cages with big cats. She emphasizes these cats are predators, not pets, and it requires being aware of the animals' moods at all times.
"We have to do things their way and learn how they think," she says.
Fraser-Thompson was living in California's Humboldt County when she heard about the park. She had worked with animals all her life — mostly dogs, horses and reptiles. She visited the park and was so enthralled she convinced her husband to pack up and move with her. He now commutes to his job managing a grocery store while she walks to work every morning.
Fraser-Thompson says living with animals is the best way to truly understand them. Despite the fact her job as head keeper/park manager is hard and hazardous, she loves it.
"You get very used to all the vocalizations and the smells. It becomes a part of you," she says. "We live so close we can hear them walking. You feel so much closer to them than driving every day to work. We live, eat and breathe with them."
Craig Wagner moved the cats to Cave Junction five years ago from Wildlife Safari in Winston, where he had presented them in summer shows since 1998. He had been working with and training big cats for more than 20 years. Many of his cats have appeared in magazines, calendars, films and commercials. The park is the culmination of Wagner's dream to have a breeding and education center where others can learn about the magnificence of these creatures.
Most of the cats are endangered in the wild, as humans encroach on their habitat and hunt them for their coats. Amur leopards are the most endangered, with only an estimated 23 wild animals left in their native Asia and another 170 in captivity. They have the misfortune to have particularly beautiful and plush coats. One of the park's four Amur leopards is about to give birth, a truly rare occurrence in the world of endangered species.
Fraser-Thompson loves her life and particularly appreciates that she has had the opportunity to learn from someone as experienced with cats as Wagner.
"I could die today and be happy and have no regrets," she says.
Her main interest is convincing people of the importance of saving these cats from extinction.
"It has to be a collaborative, universal movement to save these cats," says Fraser-Thompson. "We want people to be more cognizant of our human effect on these animals in their (native) lands. The more people know these animals, the more they will want to protect them."
Great Cats World Park is located at 27919 Redwood Highway, just south of the Oregon Caves turnoff after Cave Junction. The park is open year-round; hours vary by season. Call 541-592-2957 for information or see www.greatcatsworldpark.com.