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Passion for big cats runs deep in Kansas cow country

Raja, a male Bengal tiger, nuzzled Steve Klein, senior curator at the Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center, before a feeding at the non-profit sanctuary, four miles east of Louisburg, Kan.
Raja, a male Bengal tiger, nuzzled Steve Klein, senior curator at the Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center, before a feeding at the non-profit sanctuary, four miles east of Louisburg, Kan. The Kansas City Star

The big cats probably no longer look for Billy Dean Pottorff.

Three years have passed since they last saw him. Some used to recognize the sound of his footsteps coming across the shaded brown dirt.

“Voodoo would raise his head and make that noise of his when he knew it was Billy,” said Rebecca Shaffer, Pottorff’s sister.

Voodoo is a male African spotted leopard, one of 25 big cats who live at Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center about four miles east of this small town.

Pottorff, who died of a heart attack April 18, 2012, started the place. He was a local boy who went off to war at 17, nearly died and brought home scars, medals and something else: Witness to the decimation of jungle tigers by war and poaching.

Cedar Cove, his idea to show people how to save the world’s big cats from extinction, drew only a handful of visitors at first. Last year, nearly 60,000 showed up, many on school buses, to see lions and tigers in Kansas cow country.

Pottorff’s legacy has lived on in the lives of close friends like BJ, Sarge and Too Tall — everyone got a nickname in his outfit — who kept the place going and growing. Same for the volunteers, including high school students introduced to the cats on field trips.

The guy who took over for Pottorff? The one called Too Tall.

Steve Klein lived in Kansas City’s River Market and worked in advertising when he took the Cedar Cove tour. He thought he knew spiel. Never had he heard anything like Pottorff’s passion for big cats.

The 6-foot-7-inch Klein soon started volunteering and now is board president and lives in the small house at Cedar Cove.

“Billy made this place,” he said a day this week. “When he died, my life began. Poaching and expanded agriculture is going to kill off the big cats if something’s not done.

“Here, we can’t save the tigers in Asia; we can’t buy land for them. But we can educate kids about what needs to be done.

“That’s what Billy set out to do. I’m trying to keep it going.”

Big cats are housed near Louisburg, Kansas at the Cedar Cove Feline Sanctuary and Education Center. Steve Klein and volunteers help care for nine adopted big cats while providing the public an opportunity to learn of the cats' dwindling numbers.

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Shaffer, nine years younger than her brother, knew something was wrong when neighbors picked up her and her sister from school.

When they arrived home, two military cars were parked out front. It was April 26, 1970.

Pottorff’s helicopter had taken fire and gone down in the Ben Tre province of Vietnam. Some crew members were dead. They didn’t know what happened to Pottorff, who had been a door gunner.

“My mom was bent over a table like a weeping willow,” she remembered.

Days passed before the family learned that Pottorff had been taken to a hospital in Japan. Severe burns covered more than a fourth of his body. He recovered, came home then returned for a second tour in Vietnam.

When he came home for good in 1972, mostly he talked about the tigers. Casualties of war and greed. He heard them in the jungle. He saw their hides in the village markets. He saw their parts pickled in jars.

“He was a witness to the black market selling tiger parts and he never forgot that,” said Bettie Jean “BJ” Auch, vice president of the Cedar Cove board and a longtime friend.

After a mishmash of jobs — welder, county deputy, small engine repair — Pottorff got the idea for his big cat conservatory.

Not everyone around Louisburg was thrilled with the idea; some worried a tiger might escape and eat a cow. Or them.

During the spat, a fellow Vietnam veteran in town, George Criswell, stepped up and gave Pottorff 11 acres for his park.

“I just got tired of people jacking him around,” Criswell said back then.

So like he used to sneak raccoons and squirrels into the house as a boy, he started taking in rescue lions, tigers and leopards.

Cedar Cove opened in 2000. Each cat arrived with a story. Tom, an African leopard, used to ride shotgun with a long haul truck driver. When Tom hit 140 pounds, the truck driver figured the cab was getting too small. So he gave the leopard to a bar owner in southwest Iowa.

A sheriff told the bar owner, Uh, no, you can’t keep that thing in there.

Most others were simply bad-idea pets that got too big, ate too much and tore up furniture. They arrived scared.

Pottorff lived with them. He’s the one who visited when everybody else was gone. He talked to them at night.

Just hours after his death, the conservatory’s board of directors convened. Someone said maybe they should close down for a while.

No, Shaffer said, “Billy wouldn’t want that. You carry on like he’s right here beside you.”

From a handful of visitors years back, a Saturday now brings about 150. School field trips and other youth groups show up during the week from as far away as Topeka.

The crowds and school buses please Alberta Whitaker and brings memories of her son. She chuckles when she tells about him sneaking a raccoon up to his room.

“He could talk to animals and they would talk back,” she said before pausing.

“He tried lots of things after the war, but Cedar Cove — that was his life.”

***

Take Kansas 68 east out of Louisburg about four miles and you’ll see the entrance sign to Cedar Cove.

The gravel drive winds past a small lake. The park, with several buildings including one with a classroom, sits in a cluster of trees.

This is cow country and herds have grazed nearby. The cats watch, a lifetime in captivity unable to squash the nature of a species.

“They’ll eye the calves that wander off alone,” Klein said.

The big cats are enclosed in habitats surrounded by a 16-foot perimeter fence. They climb on wooden decks and each gets time daily in the adjoining grassy, treed area.

Klein is gathering pipe and fencing material to expand the cats’ territory.

“Every year, they show some kind of improvement down there,” said James Estes, facilitator of the animal health program at Olathe North High School.

He’s taken students on field trips to Cedar Cove for several years.

Jyl Stewart, a junior, said the trip is more than looking at animals. Visitors are first shown what is happening to the different species of big cats all over the world.

“Then when you actually see them, you look at them at differently because you know what is happening,” she said.

Estes said the place is limited by size and capital.

“But it shows what grass roots efforts can do for animal conservation and public education,” he said. “Those people down there are living out a passion.”

About noon a recent day in the vet building, volunteer Sara Harvey measured out raw meat for two lions, six tigers, two leopards, a cougar and an assortment of caracals, servals, Asian leopard cats, bobcats and coatimundis. There’s even a couple of gray wolves, Lakota and Kiowa.

Good meat, too. Big chunks of beef, pork and chicken just past the expiration date. Starting to turn — that’s when big cats like it best.

A chart on the wall told how much each gets. First up was Rajah, a 10-year-old Bengal tiger.

How much does he get?

“Thirteen,” she said.

Pounds?

She smiled and nodded.

“That’s light,” Klein said as he watched. “In the winter he gets 18 to 22 pounds.”

Most of the meat is donated by retailers. Hunters bring in some venison. A highway crew will bring in some road kill.

The animals at Cedar Cove eat three times a week. The 4 p.m. Saturday feeding is a big draw.

Harvey, one of a dozen volunteers, drives from Lee’s Summit. As does Sierra Emberson.

So why do they do it? One might think two women in their 20s could find something better to do on a day off than fish around in large tubs for smelly meat.

“Being here has changed my life forever,” said Emberson, who studied veterinary emergency medicine. “This place is a small piece of the big picture. What goes on here, we speak for the animals in the wild. We want to inspire people to save these animals. That’s what humans are supposed to do.

“That’s why I’m here on my day off.”

Billy Pottorff would love that. Friends and family say he’s out there everyday. They feel his presence.

Maybe the big cats, too. They just don’t hear his footsteps in the dirt anymore.

Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center is located four miles east of Louisburg, Kan., on Highway 68. Hours are 10 to 5 on Saturdays and 10 to 3 on Sundays. Admission is $7 for adults; $5 for seniors and children ages 4 to 12; under 3 free. To schedule a group tour or for more information, call (913) 837-5515 or go to www.saveoursiberians.org/

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