"Good morning, Jambo," Tasha Van Vleet said to one of the cats in her care as she made her morning rounds. Jambo responded with a yawn.
"He always gives his signature yawn," she said. "That means he's thinking about getting up."
About 10 seconds after the yawn, Jambo slowly stood up and walked to Van Vleet. He emitted a chuffling purr, gave the back of her hand a few light kisses with his tongue and then leaned in to have his back scratched.
Sounds like a familiar routine to anyone who has a cat, but Jambo's no pet tabby. He is an 8-year-old Barbary lion that weighs close to 600 pounds.
Jambo is just 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. "I still will stop to watch a moose from the side of the road, even though I have seen them a thousand times."
Van Vleet said she's been a animal lover since she was a little girl. She grew up with numerous cats and dogs as family pets, but it was an article in the Peninsula Clarion that first piqued her interest in working with big cats.
"I was in sixth grade and had read about tigers in the Mini Page," she said. "That's when I got the idea to work with tigers when I grew up."
She never forgot that childhood dream. As she got older she tried to learn everything she could about big cats and tigers in particular. In school she wrote poems, stories and reports about her interest to fulfill many class assignments.
Van Vleet remembers one teacher's assignment that stands out from the rest. It came from Terri Zopf-Schoessler, her Skyview High School English teacher.
Despite its large size and 300-pound weight, this 18-month-old tiger is still a cub that requires bottle feeding. Interacting witht he large cat was a highlight for Van Vleet during her time at Cat Tales Zoological Center.
Photo by Debbie Wyche
"We had to make a list of goals we wanted to accomplish in the next five years," Van Vleet said. "On the top of my list was working with tigers."
The assignment was two-fold, though. The students also had to write a research paper on their desired career, which included an interview with someone in their specified field.
"I chose animal caretaking and sought to find a tiger keeper to interview," she said.
The task was easier said than done in Alaska. Van Vleet contacted the Anchorage Zoo for a possible interview, but they declined. Since that was the only zoo in Alaska, she and her mother took the search to the Internet. That's when they found Cat Tales.
"I e-mailed Mike Wyche, the curator, about a dozen questions. He answered them all and gave me insight on the dedication it takes, the bond that's made when caring for animals 24-7 and all the hard work involved," Van Vleet said.
She remembered getting a B+ on the paper, and after researching the animal caretaking field and learning all its ups and downs, she concluded it was something she still wanted to pursue.
"That's the ultimate goal," said Zopf-Schoessler, her former teacher. "It's always fantastic when you can do something a student will use in life."
Van Vleet applied for the zoo keeper program in late 2001. She heard from the school six weeks later when they called to schedule an interview. Van Vleet was nervous because only 20 students are accepted to the program each quarter. Would she be one of them?
Two weeks after her interview she got her letter of acceptance. She was ecstatic. In an attempt to turn her dreams into reality, she went off to Washington.
The students in her class were of different ages and in stages of their lives, and some came from as far away as Europe.
"They ranged from 18 to mid-40s," she said. "Some were just out of high school, some already had a bachelor's degree, and others were retired or looking for a career change that would be something new."
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.
With its cream-colored coat and numerous black spots, T'pau the Asian leopard is one of the rarer cats that Van Vleet worked with while at Cat Tales Zoological Center.
Photo by Ryan Wyche
The facility had a total of 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. "This 'probation period' not only allowed me to learn to identify all the cats, but allowed the cats to get to know me."
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 excelled in her course work which, for her, was a labor of love. She said it was really 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. Shere Kahn now lives in California with professional trainer Randy Miller.
That wasn't Shere Kahn's only performance on the big screen. The big cat also stared in "Double Team" with Jean Claude Van Dam and Dennis Rodman. Van Vleet joked that, "Kahn was probably the best actor in that movie."
Van Vleet always enjoys spending "cat time" with large feline like this 10-year old puma named Tum Tum, which loves to have his belly scratched.
Photo by Bridgette Wall
She said the actual training isn't as easy as Hollywood makes it look, though.
"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.
According to Van Vleet, they all know the routine, but some cats will play games if it's 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," remembered Van Vleet. "Every day was an experience, never were two the same."
Zoo keeping isn't for everyone and Van Vleet recounted one aspect of her training that would make or break a lot of people. Each animal had to have a health evaluation every morning. This included checking that each cat was bright, alert and responsive, and categorizing their scat.
"We categorized them by four different colors: light, medium, dark and Neapolitan -- which has all three color variations like the ice cream. There are also three textures: firm, medium and soft like pud-ding," she said.
Van Vleet said that some people in the course admitted they may never look at ice cream the same.
Despite a few unusual courses, and the inherent danger of working around large carnivores, Van Vleet made it through the program unscathed. She graduated with honors as a result of her grade point average that never fell below 3.8 -- a testament to her dedication to her studies and the animals under her care.
"I'm really proud of her," said her father Tom Van Vleet. "She enjoyed the experience and got quite a bit out of it."
Van Vleet has returned to her home in Soldotna, where she would like to continue working with and researching wildlife. She developed a fondness for wildlife rehabilitation during her time at Cat Tales, and hopes to possibly find work as a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Now that Van Vleet has graduated from the zoo keeper program, she hopes to find employment in Alaska that will allow her to work with and rehabilitate native wildlife, like this 5-week-old, 3 1/2-pound black bear cub.
Photo by Alexis Adams
"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. I think the hardest part will be trying to find an open door to get into where I can prove myself."
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