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.