FELINE CENTER A BREED APART; SITE SAVES CATS FROM EXTINCTION.
Katia snuggles close to her mother, Aijka, like any youngster.
Katia is an 8-1/2-month-old Amur leopard, of which less than 100 remain in the wild.
She is one of 13 cubs from five feline species and subspecies born last year at the Feline Conservation Center's Exotic Feline Breeding Compound, founded more than 20 years ago as a private wild feline breeding and reproductive research facility dedicated to preserving endangered species.
``These cats are here for breeding to keep their species from becoming extinct,'' said Sandy Masek, general manager. ``We work with zoos all over the world.''
Offering up-close views of magnificent rare cats, the nonprofit center houses 65 wild cats representing 16 species: from the small Gordon's wildcat, the ancestor to the domestic cats of today, the fishing cat, a south Asian species with partially webbed front paws, to leopards, jaguars and tigers.
Located on more than 24 acres near the defunct Tropico Gold Mine west of Rosamond, the center takes in felines from zoos as far away as Germany and Russia for breeding, mostly matched through a computer database.
When they arrive at the center, the prospective mates are introduced gradually: for the first few weeks they spend time in adjacent cages, then they're put in a cage together.
The resulting births are monitored through cameras in the cages, and usually occur 68 to 120 days later, depending on the breed. Some of the cubs in the litter remain at the center, others go back to the zoos where their parents live, or to other animal facilities.
If the mother rejects her litter or is not lactating enough, the staff will take over: bottle-feeding the infants baby formula. If they are too small to feed, they are tube-fed until they are able to be fed through the bottle.
Masek has the job of feeding the rejected infants, and they remember her. Taking visitors on a tour last week through the compound, talking about each of the felines as she passes their cages, Masek drew the attention of Masha, a 10-month-old Amur leopard.
Bigger than a German shepherd, the leopard walked to the fence separating her from Masek. Masek put her fingers through the fence, and the leopard licked them, purring.
The center opened to visits from the public in 1983. People can take escorted tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Wednesdays. There is no admission fee.
The public can get a special look during the center's upcoming Spring Twilight Tour, which will let visitors see the cats at their favorite time of day - dusk.
The Twilight Tour will start at 5:30 p.m. April 25. Tickets are $15 per person and visitors for the event must be over 18 years of age.
The nonprofit center depends on donations and fund-raising events like its tour. The benefit will include a bake sale by the center's chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers, a raffle, and photo opportunities with Peaches, a 19-year-old ocelot.
Currently, the center is trying to raise funds for a new tiger exhibit called, ``Project Tiger: Evolution to Extinction.''
The exhibit will consist of two 50-foot by 50-foot cages with swimming pools, trees and landscaping for the compound's four tigers, Siberians named Natasha, Max and Tedi Bear, and a Bengal named Jasmine.
Signs along a trail leading to the exhibit will show which subspecies are extinct and the status of the remaining subspecies.
For more information, call the center at (805) 256-3793, or visit their Web site at http://www.cathouse-fcc.org/.
PHOTO (1--Color) no caption (A tiger)
(2--Color) Sandy Masek, general manager of the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound in Rosamond introduces visitors to Masha, an Amur leopard.
(3-4--Color) Hobbes, a clouded leopard, and Meesha, right, a black Asian leopard; are two of the center's rare cats.
Jeff Goldwater/Daily News