by ERIC RUTHFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & at Tales volunteer zookeeper Sarah McCorkley is surrounded by a bunch of active little furballs: four tigers, three weeks old, 10 pounds each, and they're teething.
"Climb on me and play on me. You want my finger? I've got plenty of fingers," McCorkley sings to them in a sweet, motherly tone. "Here, have a knuckle."
At three weeks of age, the goal is to habituate them to humans as they grow up in the house that contains the offices and meeting rooms of the Cat Tales Zoological Training Center, the rescue facility for large cats and bears in Mead.
It's a hands-on learning experience both for the cubs and for McCorkley, who recently finished a yearlong program at Cat Tales, which is not only Spokane's only zoo that's open to the public, but also a training facility for budding animal handlers.
McCorkley hopes to build a career out of the skills she learns there. The 30 to 40 students who are usually enrolled come from across the country. They pay about $6,000 tuition to attend the school's one-year program. They don't get paid, and they work around 50 hours a week. A day's duties can include cleaning cats' exhibits, giving tours to visitors, slaughtering horses to provide meat for the cats and, this time of year, shoveling a lot of snow -- if a 600-pound cat slips and falls, it can break bones.
From the time Cat Tales opened 17 years ago, zoo director Debbie Wyche and her husband, Mike, have relied heavily on volunteers because they didn't have the money to hire zookeepers. Debbie Wyche says she trained the volunteers as they worked, but she couldn't keep them long term because they were able to find paying jobs at larger zoos.
So she opened the Cat Tales school 12 years ago. The students' tuition brings in between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, which covers the costs of the school -- including paying instructors, and buying zoo equipment.
Since the school opened, 250 students have come through the program. One-third of them, says Wyche, have gone onto jobs working with large mammals with entertainment companies such as Siegfried and Roy or at theme parks such as Six Flags. Another third have gotten more general zookeeping jobs, and one-third have gone on to veterinary schools or jobs.
Meredith Haines, a current student, moved here from Clemson, S.C., for the experience of working with the 45 cats and two bears that live at Cat Tales.
Haines says she has learned that the cats demand respect, and that it's important for zookeepers to remember that they're working for the cats, not with them. She learned that as she tried to get Kalki, a 100-pound North Chinese leopard, to switch from one enclosure to another. At first she commanded the cat, "Switch, switch, switch," without much effect. Then she changed her tone. "I would really appreciate it if you would go ahead and switch," and Kalki cooperated.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he needs of large cats, and the dangers of working with them can only be learned by experience, says Wyche. She explains that the way large cats respond to smell and touch can surprise a new zookeeper. Wyche remembers the time that she and a student entered an exhibit area containing a Bengal tiger named Ali. The student had put some perfume behind her ears, which is against safety protocol.
"Six hundred and fifty pounds of tiger stood up to smell behind her ears," Wyche remembers. It was only curiosity that made Ali stand up, but it was still a shocking moment.
Zookeeping is a difficult field to break into, says Melissa Williams, repeating the catch-22 that lures aspiring zookeepers to Cat Tales: "To get a job, you have to have experience, but to get experience, you have to get a job."
The Coeur d'Alene native graduated from the program six months ago and now works as a manager for Cat Tales two days a week. She wants to get more experience working there and then get a permanent job working full time at a zoo or a rescue facility.
Wyche often gets calls from directors of zoos and other exotic-animal entertainment companies looking for new trainers.
Chandelle Skye Cotter, a 2005 graduate of the program, was able to realize her childhood goal of becoming an animal trainer. At Cat Tales, she made a connection with Cimarron, an unapproachable puma who Wyche said was "all teeth and claws." Cotter spent extra time with Cimarron, eventually getting her to the point where she would purr and allow Cotter to pet her.
From Cat Tales, Cotter went to work for Yellowstone Bear World in Rexburg, Idaho, an outdoor wildlife park with bears. There, she helped raise 13 bear cubs in her home.
A year ago, she got a job with Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., a theme park with many animal exhibits. "It was such a great opportunity for me because we have such a huge variety of animals," she says. She's a trainer in the Wildlife Theatre Department, which has cheetahs, cougars, servals, a caracal, giant Indian fruit bats, North American and Mexican porcupines, opossum, coatimundi, squirrel monkeys, a kinkajou, and tamanduas (lesser anteaters). Also, she got the opportunity to train two bush babies (small primates).
Even with all those experiences, her first "animal love" was Cimarron back at Cat Tales. "I still get teary eyed when I look at her pictures and I hope with all my heart I will have the opportunity to go back and see her again," Cotter says. "Leaving her was one of the hardest things I ever had to do."