Lucy Lynx hasn't seen many Augusta Lynx hockey games lately.
She is enjoying a vacation at a foster home until construction on her new home is complete.
Tim and Melanie Gress rescued Lucy nine years ago from a fur dealer.
"I have always loved big cats," Mr. Gress said. "The more I learned about them, the more and more interested I got."
The Gresses began Augusta Conservation Education - a nonprofit refuge for exotic animals - with Lucy on their 5-acre homestead off Columbia Road. As their menagerie grew, the couple decided to expand and rebuild on 11 1/2 acres in rural Columbia County.
The new construction will increase space for more cats and will include a 100-by-40-foot training building, runs, pens and a bear habitat complete with a cave and gully.
Kali, an 8-month-old Bengal tiger, is the only one the Gresses did not send to a foster home during construction.
That's because Kali is special. Her mother gave birth to a litter of five in a maggot-infested pen. The Gresses adopted Kali at only 3 days old and have been training her ever since. She is currently about 170 pounds - 30 pounds heavier than average for her age - and she is expected to top out at 450 pounds, Mrs. Gress said.
Many of the rescued animals come from people who purchase a large cat as a pet, which is legal in Georgia.
"So many people get large cats with the best intentions," Mr. Gress said. "But when they are full-grown at 300 or 400 pounds, they can no longer enjoy them."
The couple uses the cats to show the importance of caring for the earth and its natural resources. They take their "animal ambassadors" when they give conservation presentations to church, civic and club groups.
The couple also assists the Georgia Department of Natural Resources with housing or placing seized animals and working to change laws that regulate people who keep exotic animals as pets.
"If we educate children and try to get some laws changed, we can make it better over time," Mr. Gress said. "We want to educate. ... To do nothing is part of the problem."
Kali the tiger, shown here with Tim Gress, is expected to weigh about 450 pounds when fully grown.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
The Gresses understand that a leopard cannot change its spots, so no matter how tame they seem, each cat is a wild animal kept in captivity. Instincts can charge in at any time, so they always take precautions and use leashes and fence-topped pens to ensure no escapes.
"We cannot expect them to be anything other than what they are," Mrs. Gress said, adding that in nine years there have been no escapes or attacks.
The Gresses' group holds the required annual licenses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Natural Resources to keep a lynx, cougar, leopard and two tigers.
The refuge runs completely off donations. Kali alone eats 5 pounds of chicken and 3-4 pounds of beef a day in addition to the occasional bottle of a dairy-creamer mixture as a treat. The couple buys chicken in bulk and gets beef leftovers from a butcher shop at huge discounts.
But with five cats, it gets expensive quickly.
"We would have to make millions to make a profit off this," Mr. Gress said. "It is our life. This is what we do."
Mrs. Gress agrees.
"It takes everything. But it is a labor of love," Mrs. Gress said. "You have to really love it."
The Gresses' group always is in need of donations and offers membership levels from $25 to $10,000 with a series of perks including training sessions with an animal and sponsorship recognition. Since construction will begin soon, the group has a wish list of tools, building materials, cleaning supplies, appliances, pen materials and clothing.
To schedule a presentation or for more information about Augusta Conservation Education, e-mail email@example.com or call Mr. Gress at 831-5969.
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