The colorful adventures found in Holly Unruh’s life weren’t always on the pages of the books in her bookstore.
She is the owner of McDonald’s Used Books, located at 322 S. Summit St. in downtown Arkansas City.
But 20 years ago, Unruh had a much different job — she helped to raise large cats, such as tigers and cougars.
“I was going through a divorce and I didn’t want to move home to my parents’ (house),” she said.
“I was invited to stay with the owners, who were friends, in exchange for helping with the ‘babies.’”
Among the animals Unruh cared for were lions, Siberian and Bengal tigers, cougars, leopards, bobcats, lynxes, gray wolves, and one black bear.
Unruh: Big cat nanny
The breeding outfit Unruh was associated with hand-raised cubs from 2 weeks old, which is when she began to care for them.
“When babies were brought in, they had to be fed a special formula every two to four hours,” she said. “I was the nanny.”
In addition to feeding, Unruh also gave pouncing lessons to the cats.
Most of the animals they bred have low populations in the wild.
Some of the animals were endangered, too, including the Siberian tigers. “I stayed out of the politics and just cared for the animals, to give them the best upbringing I could,” Unruh said.
Biting and swatting
Unruh shared a few of the most memorable experiences she had while raising large cats.
One of them involved an African lion cub. “She was very feisty,” Unruh said. “She, at one point, bit my kneecap because I was taking too long to make her formula.”
She recalled another experience with the same animal, when she soothed the yowling cub to sleep.
“I also had an experience with a male Siberian tiger that I raised,” Unruh said. “He kept climbing the 10-foot enclosure.” They attempted to remedy the issue by adding a ledge around the perimeter of the enclosure.
“He climbed up and playfully swatted me off of the ladder. He didn’t realize how big he was,” Unruh said.
“Pound for pound, they are just like a house cat. He used no claws because he didn’t intend on hurting me.
“He was chuffing at me with concern after the fact. Just knocked the wind from me.”
Like domestic cats, but bigger
Large cats are much like their domesticated cousins, according to Unruh.
“They pounce and bat at moving objects. They like to hide and jump out at anything moving,” she said.
“They always remembered me as Mom, but it was too dangerous to be part of a pouncing lesson when they got beyond 150 pounds.”
After the cats reached that weight, Unruh couldn’t go into the enclosures with them.
“Cougar babies were my favorite to raise. (They are) such sweet creatures,” she said.
Cougars chirp similar to a bird when they communicate, and they also purr.
“They are the largest cat that purrs. I got to interact with them longer because they don’t weigh as much as the larger cat breeds,” Unruh said.
“They are also a little calmer than some of the other breeds, as well. Not sure if that is a natural thing or if it was because I would interact with them longer.”
Change of perspective
“I loved every single one of the babies that I raised and it was a sad day when I could no longer be in with them,” Unruh said.
While she is grateful for the experiences she had with the large cats, she said her perspective has changed since her time with them.
“As I have gotten older, I realize that having any wild animal in captivity is not ideal,” Unruh said. “They belong in the wild and (to be) appreciated from afar.”
She said she now believes that all wild animals should remain in the wild, unless their only chance for survival is for humans to intervene.
“I was very young and thought we were helping (to) preserve,” Unruh said. “And we were, to an extent. But now I feel nature is best.
“I would love to be able to interact with any baby ‘big’ cat, if given the chance. But for now, I have three domestic cats that I adore.”