CASWELL COUNTY — Enock the lion might respond with a low grunt to any of the volunteers who lead tours at the Conservators Center, their human cries prompting a baritone chorus of 20 lions accompanied by the high wail of a half-dozen New Guinea singing dogs.
But when Mindy Stinner arrives, Enock pushes all of his 500 or so pounds into the fence between them, rubbing his face against it with a low, purr-like grunt while she rubs his thick mane.
Stinner, 45, hand-fed him as a cub, and personally oversees his diet and medical care, as she does for nearly 100 animals at the center, from lions to lemurs. About 15,000 people visit the animals every year.
The center, co-founded in 1999 by Stinner and her partner, Douglas Evans, is an unusual blend both a sanctuary for animals that need homes, in particular the crowd-pleasing lions and tigers, and a breeding facility for a few rare carnivorous species.
But Stinner says both types of animals contribute to the centers central goal: education. Her 14 years of building cages, coaxing tigers into ear cleanings, and mincing venison for lynxes have served a single purpose: getting people to love, and therefore protect, wild animals.
If you dont have something to show people, you dont have anything for them to fall in love with, says Stinner, a former English teacher. Youll never think of lions the same way after you see them here. It makes an impact.
Tours of the facility are open to the public, and other programs target students, exotic pet owners, animal control officers and others. A recent partnership with the N.C. State University veterinary school allows students gain valuable experience while helping care for the animals.
She has that contagious kind of personality, says Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf, a professor with the veterinary college who works with Stinner. She really, really cares about these animals, and that enthusiasm makes other people want to help as well.
Stinners passion for animals has also helped her gather a devoted group of employees and volunteers who now also know each animal by name, food preferences and medical condition.
Its like family here, says Mandy Matson, a volunteer-turned-employee whose daughter and son-in-law also work at the center. People love to visit because you feel like you get to know the animals personally.
Started with a dog
Individual attention is key to animal care at Conservators Center. A doddering ocelot likes its meat smeared with canned cat food. Taz the lynx climbs on carpeted wood platforms that are easy on his joints. The placement of lions and tigers evolves to suit their relationships.
Stinner says her attitude toward the animal kingdom was formed as a child, when her main companion was a black cocker spaniel.
She was the center of my universe from when I was 2 till when I went to college, says Stinner. She caught my moods, and I paid attention to her needs. It was a partnership. As a kid, you get that.
Stinner grew up in Raleigh, where she moved as a preschooler, following her fathers job as an N.C. State entomologist.
She thought about being a veterinarian but instead chose to be an English major, earning her bachelors degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She went on to teach English at Enloe Magnet High School for several years.
She says she planned to leave teaching temporarily because an illness in her family forced her to look for a job with more flexible hours. She found one working in the office at Carnivore Preservation Trust, now Carolina Tiger Rescue, near Pittsboro.
Her affection for the wild cats there turned her life in a new direction.
She moved from the office to work with the animals as a keeper, and recalls one day when she was eating Chinese food with a bunch of volunteers, all covered with mud from working outside with the cats. Her fortune struck her as perfectly true: You have found your hearts desire.
Stinner met Evans there; both of their previous marriages ended because their spouses didnt share their passion for wild animals. And many of her current employees and volunteers worked with her in Pittsboro.
Many of these volunteers left during an era of uncertainty there in the late 1990s. Stinner hung on through a contentious change in leadership but was eventually fired.
In 2000, the site was accused of unsafe practices by a private animal welfare investigator, and became the target of several lawsuits.
Stinner told The News & Observer at the time that she felt the loss of its longtime workers under its new director had led to dangerous instability. That leader eventually resigned.
At the time, her departure was a blow.
I left feeling totally devastated, she says.
Stinner took a job as a zookeeper with Zoofauna in Wake Forest. Evans volunteered for a veterinarian.
Soon, the pair started planning their own wild animal refuge.
Lived in a shack
The process was painstaking. Evans parents helped pay off the mortgage on the 45-acre plot near Burlington, and they added facilities and animals as they could.
They built most of the 50 or so cages themselves or with volunteer help, and for a time lived in a 12-by-20 shack on the property. Stinner does not take a salary.
The facility is not fancy. Tall, chain-link cages are filled with custom-made toys and furniture hammocks of woven fire hoses and balls filled with allspice, for instance.
They opened the center with just three tigers, and added more slowly until 2004, when they abruptly expanded. A facility in Ohio was closed for health reasons, and they agreed to take 14 lions, some of whom were pregnant.
Practically overnight, they had more than 30 big cats.
They started doing tours in 2007, and recently refurbished a donated building where they can hold classes and workshops. Much of the more than 500 pounds of meat the animals each eat day are donated by hunters, farmers and stores.
And Stinner is constantly forging new partnerships. Last week, visitors from Costa Rica and Nashville were each touring the facility.
Stinner says the work puts her background in education to use.
If you rescue one animal, thats great. Youve given that animal life, she says. But if that animal can in some way connect with the public so they understand why that animal is important, then youve done much more.
The breeding program includes species that are rarely bred in captivity, such as nocturnal Geoffreys cats and binturongs, a particular favorite for Stinner. These endangered slothlike creatures are important for their role in spreading seeds in Southeast Asia. Several have gone from the center to zoos.
Not a lot of people like them because they smell funny and theyre not glamorous and they scratch you by accident, she says. But I feel like thats our niche. Were here because not everything is easy.
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