Over 300 people poured into the Sebastopol Community Center on Sunday, Jan. 11 for the Wild Cat Adventure, an educational program that allows audience members to come face-to-face with majestic wild animals while learning more about the perils they face in the world today.
The program is part of the outreach conducted by Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund (WCE&CF), a nonprofit organization celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The Occidental-based organization was founded by husband and wife team Barbara and Rob Dicely, who both gave up their careers as teachers to focus on conservation efforts to help their feline friends.
“I taught kindergarten for 20 years, and about 35 years ago I had the opportunity to do some work with big cats and really fell in love with it,” Barbara Dicely said.
Since then, they’ve converted their property into a compound for captive-bred ambassadors to bring awareness to their wild cousins, housing 21 animals and 12 species of cats.
The 25-year-old Wild Cat Adventure educational program primarily holds events in schools, but also does work with other institutions, such the Boy Scouts and the Boys and Girls Club. Barbara Dicely believes programs like theirs are the only way the dire situations many cats are facing in the wild are going to change.
“I think the only way to prevent extinction is through education,” she said. “It’s very difficult to care about something you don’t know anything about. I think that having the children meet the cats, and learn a little about them is basically the only way that we are ever going to save them.”
During the Wild Cat Adventure outreach, the Dicelys bring out five representatives of different species, in Sunday’s case an ocelot, a Geoffroy’s cat, a fishing cat, a black leopard and a cheetah. Rob guides each cat with a leash along a table, enticing it with pieces of raw red meat, while Barbara tells the story of the species and answers questions from the audience. Sunday marked the Sebastopol debut of the five and a half month old black leopard, Kanika.
Barbara knows that the impact of these programs can have a lasting impression, saying that she’s been to elementary schools where parents recognize her.
“They’ll say, ‘I know you! You came to my class when I was in third grade!’ and they’ll still be able to spout off some of the things that I said. It makes such an impact that they remember it a generation later,” she said.
While the program has been immensely popular over the 25 years it’s traveled across the Bay Area, recently schools have become increasingly worried about liability issues and have less funding to spend on assemblies. Though venues like the Sebastopol Community Center have shown continued support over the years, the decreased demand for shows and the age of their current cat family prompted the Dicelys to open their doors to the public last March.
“We have more older cats that no longer travel, so the only way people are going to see cats like our snow leopard Ashakiran is to come here,” Barbara said.
Meeting a snow leopard is a rare opportunity, as it is one of the most endangered cats on the planet according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with an estimated population of only 4,000 - 6,000 remaining in the wild.
All tours are private and on an appointment only basis, allowing groups of up to 10 to take a tour around the facility and meet each of their cats (though it should be noted that guests will not be allowed to touch the animals during the tour).
While tour participants will have the opportunity to see large cats like leopards, cheetahs and a cougar, the Dicelys also care for smaller cats that don’t receive a lot of attention from the public and, subsequently, conservation efforts. The Dicelys hope is that when people meet the small cats, they will become inspired to learn more about the species.
WCE&CF volunteer Christine Llewellyn first got involved with wild cats as a senior at Santa Rosa High when she consulted the Dicelys for help with an economics project that required her to build a hypothetical business model, in her case an animal compound.
Since then, Llewellyn has become an education specialist at the Sacramento Zoo and shares the Dicelys hope for the smaller species of wild cats that largely get ignored.
“A lot of people think of lions and tigers and leopards when they think of wild cats,” said Llewellyn. “What’s great about their program is that they have a lot of smaller cats that no one has ever heard of — fishing cat, a Geoffroy’s cat — species that people aren’t as familiar with.”
Awareness like that is the first step towards reserving the damage done to these animals’ wild populations. But what are the biggest problems facing wildcats today? According to Barbara, it comes down just to one main issue.
“People love the animals and want them to be in the wild … just not near their home, and that’s the problem,” Barbara said. “There are increasingly less and less places for these animals to live.”
The Dicelys partner with organizations like Cheetah Conservation Botswana, which reaches out to rural communities and promotes coexistance with the feline predator.
Some may criticize the fact that these animals are being kept in captivity, but Llewellyn says that’s sadly the only place people are going to see these animals anymore and the most effective way to raise awareness.
“All of us who love animals, would love to see them in the wild and have them live in the wild,” she said. “But unfortunately we don’t live in a world where that can happen. People can look at these animals in books and they think they’re pretty, but to actually see them in person and see the animal move around and maybe even have them look at you, gives people a whole different kind of interest and respect for that animal and a different feeling toward it.”
The Dicelys also want to emphasize that their cats are not captured from the wild, but born into zoos or licensed breeding facilities that provide animals for zoos exhibits or educational programs. They do not support any facility that breeds wild cats as pets.
Rob Dicely stressed that those ogling the petite Geoffroy’s cat at the Adventure program on Sunday should keep in mind that though the smaller breeds seem cute and similar to a domestic house cat, they are still a wild cat and not meant to be pets.
“I never forget I’m handling a wild animal and give it the respect they deserve,” he said. “I never turn my back on them.”
To learn more about the Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund or to book a tour, go to www.wildcatfund.org or call 874-3176.