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The splotches of blood run deep. They've turned Rebecca Rizzo's camouflage jacket a dark brown.

The stains come from the cow heads, horse carcasses, and chunks of raw muscle that Rizzo carves off dead animals with a chainsaw. She can be found most days carting them through the 100-acre Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, about 65 miles west of Indianapolis, feeding them to the big cats pacing inside their cages.

Kya, a tiger, greets Rizzo at the 12-foot-tall fence, standing up to place her paws against her keeper's hands. Max, another tiger, rubs his whiskers along her face. A grumbling lion growls at Rizzo as she passes, but in a loving tone. He knows she cares and wants her to acknowledge his displeasure.

When Rizzo shouts "BOYS!" in a stern voice to Rodney and George, two leopard brothers, for putting each other's heads in their mouths, they quickly look at her and stop.

To call her the cat whisperer would be too easy, but that's kind of what Rizzo is. Six days a week, the 32-year-old head keeper with piercing violet-blue eyes oversees the care and feeding of 230 cats at the sanctuary — ranging from tigers, lions and leopards to ocelots, black leopards, servals and Canadian lynx.

The work is physically grueling; Rizzo, who weighs a mere 110 pounds, works out daily to stay strong. And it can be dangerous. In June, one of the center's workers, Marissa Dub, was attacked by an 18-year-old tiger. A side gate to the cage she was cleaning had accidentally been left open. Dub spent about two weeks in intensive care, recovering from a head injury.

"She is very lucky to be alive," Rizzo said.

Rizzo, who grew up in Shaumburg, Ill., majored in biology and minored in chemistry at Eastern Illinois University. But, she knew her life's mission was to take care of big cats.

"I don't really know where it came from," she said. "I remember having it one day in my head. It was there and it never went away.

"I didn't think that was a realistic plan for life and pretty much everybody told me it wasn't. I knew... there was something out there where we could rescue big cats and save them and help them and that's just something I wanted to do."

About 10 years ago, she applied for a job at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center and was hired by Joe Taft, founder of the not-for-profit center. To the average person, the cats can look the same, but Rizzo knows each animal's name and can distinguish by subtle traits such as fluffiness of fur or a kink in a stripe. "She's pretty amazing," Taft said.

Most of the animals at the center have been rescued from horrific conditions. They've been beaten, nearly starved, chained up, confined in too-small cages. They've lived at roadside circuses, tattoo parlors and even meth labs where owners knew an aggressive cat would keep the cops away.

They show up at the center ready for a fight. But in time, they soften. There's room to run and play. There is medicine for their pains. Ingrown toenails are fixed. Dentists work on abscessed teeth. Food, good food, is aplenty.

"It's almost like you can see them smile," Rizzo said. "Some of these guys I feel like, really, you get a thank you out of them."

Almost all of the center's $700,000 annual operating budget comes from donations. Its yearly fundraiser, Saving the Big Cats Charity Auction on Jan. 25 in Zionsville, comes at a crucial time.

In November, following the June incident, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the center, leveled $70,000 in fines and listed upgrades required to comply with standards.

That means the center, which is one of the largest in the world, will be hiring new personnel and upgrading temporary enclosures to permanent ones, which cost about $25,000 each. There is also building materials and labor.

"We're certainly concerned about how this will all play out," said Taft. "We have a commitment to provide care for these animals. There's no place else for them to go. We are quite literally their last resort."

In advance of the fundraiser, we spent an afternoon with Rizzo to talk about what her job is like, the toll it takes on her love life and how she gets those blood stains out of her clothes.

Q. What does it mean to be head keeper around here?

A: Caring for the cats, making sure they are fed well every day, that they're happy, healthy, their cages are cleaned, any repairs that need to be done in the cage, make sure that everybody gets medication to them if they need it for whatever reason. These guys get a lot of the same problems that people do. Arthritis hits them pretty bad as they get older.

Q. What's your work schedule?

A: I work six days a week. Mondays off. I start at 8 in the morning and we go until whenever we're done. No two days are ever the same and that's mainly up to the cats. If the cats are cooperative, our day can go really quickly. But they are cats.

Q. Where do you get the food?

A: We go through over 3,500 pounds of food every day. Our food is given to us by local farmers. When they find a cow or a horse dead on their property, they call us. We either go get it or they bring it to us, so it comes in full carcass form. We cut it up here. So we get a little dirty. By dirty, we mean bloody. It is food in the rawest form.

Q: What is a daily meal?

A: We vary it all the time because we don't want them to get sick of anything. So for the leopards, we might give them a calf leg one day and then the next day they might get about a 6- to 8-pound chunk of meat and that's just muscle meat that's taken off the cow or the horse. And then the next day, they might get a calf head because we just want to keep their diets varied.

Q: OK, the clothes. How do you wash them?

A: Work clothes are a totally different closet than regular clothes. But you just wash them, just in the washer. Blood is very corrosive so it will eventually eat away at stuff so work clothes only last for so long anyway.

Q: How many animals do you have at home?

A: Let's see. I have two hedgehogs, two chinchillas, four dogs, two cats, seven rabbits and that's it.

Q: You're single. Do you think your job may scare men away?

A: Yes and no. It doesn't scare them away as far as what I do. It scares them away as far as I like to be out here six days a week. And if the seventh day, I'm required to be out here, I'll do it. I don't want to take more days off. I love what I do, so I want to be here. The other problem is I do this at home as well, obviously not big cats, but I rescue animals. And most of the men I have encountered do not like a lot of animals.

Q: So, you're the crazy cat lady?

A: Kind of the crazy random animal lady. This is what I like to do. It's hard to find somebody that understands that.

Q: Do you get attached to these big cats, like your own animals?

A: Very much so. Obviously, they are not pets but they essentially are our pets at the same time. We see these guys every day. Every single one of these pets and myself, as well as all the other (five) keepers have a relationship.

Now, it's different with every single cat. The relationship might be that they hate you and they want to kill you, but it's still a relationship and that's something that you wouldn't trade for the world. So when they get sick and when we lose one, it is just like losing a pet.

Q: Do you go into the cages with the cats?

A: No. It's too risky for the cats. If something happens to one of us, that's their life on the line. They could hurt you or kill you even if they were just playing with you. Their size, the way these guys play with each other, they don't understand that they can't do that to us. We lose limbs or die from how rough they play with us.

Q: Are there some cats you know you would be safe with?

A: The same cat you could go in with every single day and you catch them on a bad day and that's your last day.

Q: Can you update us on the status of Marissa Dub?

A: She's doing well. She currently is taking some time off for the holidays and getting surgeries done. But she is doing well. She had been back to work before the surgeries and she'll be back to work after the surgeries.

Q: What's the best part about your job?

A: When we've gotten a cat from a really terrible situation and we bring them out here into a big beautiful cage, when they go into that cage for the first time and they're exploring and they're seeing that everything is going to be OK. It is amazing.

Then, at the end of the day when we're finishing up, when we're driving on out of here, just to see the cats all looking at you. They're all well fed. They're happy, they're laying around there just looking at you like, "I'm good. I'm good. Thanks guys."

SAVING THE BIG CATS CHARITY AUCTION

What: A fundraiser for the Exotic Feline Rescue Center includes a cash bar, hors d'oeuvres, live and silent auctions and a 50/50 raffle.

When: 3 to 7 p.m. Jan. 25.

Where: The Palomino Ballroom, 481 S. 1200 E., Zionsville.

Tickets: $65; http://www.exoticfelinerescuecenter.org.

Call Star reporter Dana Hunsinger Benbow at (317) 444-6012. Follow her on Twitter: @danabenbow.

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