When everyone in your life is on a spectrum of, “deeply weird,” to, “a danger to themselves and others,” you become conditioned to confront a lot of crazy shit without blinking. But a man riding a lion bareback? That’s blink-worthy.
Because I was the band guy with a van, I’d driven to Bloomington one Saturday to pick up a group of friends, acquaintances and fellow animal rights activists. Our destination was the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, home to an assortment of retired circus animals and apex predators that people adopted because it’s fuckin’ badass to own a cougar cub until they get big enough to eat your face. The plan was to volunteer at the center, crush some Little Tibet and head home.
The center was and is owned and operated by Joe Taft, a chaotic good counterweight to Joe Exotic’s chaotic evil. In the late ‘90s, the property was a collection of enclosures containing one or two animals of a certain species. A lynx here, a couple of bears there. The, well, lion’s share of the land was devoted to the lion enclosure, which Joe took a lot of pride in.
You see, according to Joe, some lions lived in his house when he was first getting started and lion piss is just not something you want in your carpet or bedding. Putting the lions in their own enclosure was a big milestone.
I remember him explaining how deep the posts had been sunk in the ground and how high the fencing had to be to prevent the lions from getting out. And I remember him asking if we’d like to go into the lion enclosure as a reward for the day’s work. What that day’s work consisted of, I have no idea. I don’t have any idea why I walked into that enclosure, either, but I did.
Once inside the enclosure, the lionesses approached us and started checking us out. Three or four of them started sniffing me and one used her muzzle to nudge me away from the group. I started to panic when I realize that multiple six-foot long carnivores are now between me and the exit and Joe is riding around the enclosure on a male, bareback, shootin’ the shit.
One lionnness nudged me and then turned her head, opened her mouth and put her jaw around my midsection. I felt the light pressure of her teeth on my spine and sternum and as calmly as possible I said, “I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW.”
Joe dismounted, pushed the lions away from me and cleared a path to the gate. Once we’re all out of the enclosure, Joe got an expression like he just remembered something and said, “Mm. Close to feeding time.”
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