TRYON — Leah Aufill knows people find her a little crazy; allowing a 150-pound cougar to sleep in your bed will do that to your reputation.
But Leah, 49, and her husband Bob, 72, said they both feel it's their duty to provide a space for displaced wild cats. Both want to educate the public before all contact with wildlife is lost for good.
“We believe in giving back,” Leah Aufill said. “For us, we don't feel like we are crazy, but the rest of the world may see it that way. I guess each of us has something we have a passion for. This is what we believe in.”
If you take a drive down U.S. 177 in Lincoln County, the Aufills' house is hard to miss.
After passing field after field of cattle, the juxtaposition of the giant cougar cage next to a field of dairy cows is striking.
The Aufills have spent the past five years outfitting a converted veterinary clinic to house two fully grown female cougars, one Canadian lynx and an Oklahoma bobcat.
Their backyard looks more like a gigantic hamster cage than home. Cage walls stretch into a dome shape more than two stories tall with crisscrossing platforms and actual catwalks running through the tops of trees.
Welcome to Pumarama San Francisco.
The Aufills have run the cougar rescue out of their home since 2004, when they were given their first cougar cub, Zinnia.
Bob had worked with large cats for more than 50 years and was itching to get back into it when he married Leah. He said it took a while to convince her they should take in one of the cats, but once she held baby Zinnia, he knew she was hooked.
“I just never shut up about it,” Bob said. “Once she got that little baby in her lap, then I knew we would be taking her home. They just stared into each other's eyes, and she was amazed by how blue Zinnia's eyes were.
“She chose us as much as we chose her.”
Adjusting to life with a cougar cub was difficult, Leah said. Some Perkins residents complained that they were dangerous and that they shouldn't be kept near other people.
Knowing they needed a bigger space to accommodate the cats anyway, the couple purchased the property a couple of miles south of town and set to work on creating the enclosure for the rescued animals.
Leah said the cats are of the same species as the regular house cat, and both are incredibly similar.
“Zinnia purrs, and she nurses on Bob's arm and goes to sleep; that's a very big bond,” Leah said. “She's just like a domestic cat, but she's about 10 times bigger.”
Native to North, Central and South America, a cougar's habitat can vary greatly. The Aufills believe more cougars reside in Oklahoma than experts think because recent habitat destruction in Colorado and California have pushed the animals this way.
“They follow the stream where the deer population is,” Leah said. “We hear stories from hunters and others about cougars all over the state.”
‘Their love and passion'
Leah said with the population rate rising, people are starting to interfere with cougars' natural habitats, even going so far as taking them out of the wild as cubs to raise as house cats.
The Aufills are licensed to take care of the big cats and are available to adopt the cats that others couldn't handle once they were fully grown.
“Once they are too familiar with people then they can no longer be reintroduced back into the wild,” Leah said. “The state has given us two rescues. Not a huge demand, but we help where we can.”
The Aufills took in Simba more than a year ago from a man near Houston who owned the cat. They then took in a lynx named Isabell and a bobcat named Thunder who live inside the house, usually found atop the kitchen cabinets.
While the Aufills are comfortable with Zinnia because they raised her from a cub, Simba still hasn't taken to the couple and can act very aggressive because of fear.
“It's been nearly a year and a half, and she still doesn't trust us very much,” Leah said. “We are working on her though. She has a nice home, and I think she'll start trusting us one day.”
Jon Cunningham, game warden for Payne County, helped the Aufills get set up in the early days before they moved to the new rescue.
Cunningham said the Aufills go out of their way to give the cats the best possible experience.
“They try and feed them a natural diet,” Cunningham said. “They do a service to them. That is obviously their love and passion, and they take it very seriously.”
Leah said she is very familiar with the warnings people give her about wild animals. People don't trust the big cats and think the Aufills are set to be attacked any day now.
“Some people are so fearful,” she said. “They always say, ‘I hope they don't turn on you.' I always tell them that won't happen with Zinnia because we raised her, we are her mom and dad. With Simba we give her respect and space. I have a hard time convincing them that we know what we're doing.”
The Aufills said they are dedicated to providing a good home to any wild cat in need and that they hope to educate those around them about the importance of remaining in touch with nature.
“Europe is going through a big loss of conservation and a loss of connection with the wild right now,” she said. “The reason is because people are detached from the importance of those animals. When they make decisions at the people level, they don't realize the impact they are having on the wild.
“People have a lot of fear. It's time to restore the wonder and amazement.”