Living with a lynx is sharing your space with a gorgeous mid-sized exotic who can kill you, but if you play your cards right, will probably choose not to.
Of course, nothing beats a lynx in the looks department – emerald eyes, flaring mutton chops, black tufts on their huge pointed ears, bobbed tail, oversized paws doubling as snowshoes, fur so soft and warm they are hunted for their pelts and farmed in many countries.
Weighing in anywhere between twenty to seventy pounds, lynxes can take down a 250- pound deer though you can litter-train them like domestic cats and walk them on a leash if you have the strength and the knack for it.
As an exotic animal volunteer, I lived with four lynxes in Nevada, U.S.A.
Peggy Sue, a 60-pound Siberian – the largest of the four lynx species native to Europe and Siberia, ruled the roost. She was brought up to be the lady of the house and has the run of the whole place. She takes naps on the bookshelves, parks herself on the kitchen sink by day and before the refrigerator whenever she’s hungry. At night, she hogs the center of her masters’ bed.
Her masters – two drug-addicted senior citizens deluded into thinking they’re still the flower children they once were half a century ago, bought her from an exotic breeder as a week-old kitten to serve as an animal companion.
In their twenties, the couple took a wild bobcat driving all over the country after they were kicked out of their first nudist camp. Now, they fancied it will be “cool” to keep a lynx in their twilight years.
However, they constantly plied Peggy Sue with marijuana and other drugs during their so-called “family nights” that she became so unpredictable and can’t really be handled.
Of course, I didn’t discover their dark secrets – and the fact that they established the sanctuary to fleece money from donors, until too late – almost half a month after I’ve arrived deep in the remote Nevada desert.
Online, they passed themselves off as a childless couple – a retired aviation engineer-divorcee who married an insurance saleswoman.
The rest of their mid-sized exotics consisted of rescued Canada lynxes – Teddy, Mildred and Sunshine, supposedly bought from breeders – or perhaps from fur farms – as pets.
Nevada’s laws are lax when it comes to exotic animal ownership. However, exotics are not for everyone.
Lynxes are fairly laid-back but they have different dietary needs from domestics and have to be caged securely according to certain specs. They should be well-socialized, trained early and enriched constantly if you want to be able to handle them as adults. Even then, there can’t be any guarantees they won’t turn on you.
Worst, it’s extremely difficult to find exotic animal veterinarians willing to see them if they get sick. You can’t take vacations and board them with neighbours or friends. They can injure or kill people if they get loose. The police will shoot them first and ask questions later.
Exotics are creatures of habit and won’t usually bond with a second owner. Zoos won’t take them and wild animal sanctuaries are always full. It’s almost impossible to re-home them.
Not surprisingly, my Canadas’ first owners abandoned them when they can’t cope with the 24/7 demand and cost of owning truly wild cats. Despite being captive-bred, the Canadas have all their wild instincts intact. They have individual quirks and preferences too.
Teddy hated men. His mates loathed women, especially Sunshine, who was traumatized when her 300-pound mistress rolled over in bed and crushed her.
I was in luck though. When the girls saw Teddy purring and rubbing himself ecstatically all over me, they hastened to follow suit. But I had to be careful, especially with traumatized Sunshine.
If something startles them even in the middle of a loving session, they can bite.
They bite hard and move lightning-fast.
It doesn’t help that the couple housed them in an outdoor pen, with just a single shed between them and the lions, cougars and tigers. Hearing their big relatives roaring, grumbling and humming day and night stressed them to the limit.
One thing to remember if you are in the company of wild animals, be they predator or prey, is that they spook easily. They are hard-wired for either “fight or flight”.
If you get in their cage or hold them at the end of a leash, you leave them with no means of escape. So, if they trusted you enough to go in and touch them, or if they consented to walk with you, they hold you responsible for their safety. And it’s an immense responsibility.
If something frightens or threatens them, they will lash at the nearest person – you.
If a branch snaps overhead, or if a stranger sneaks up from behind, they can turn on you and attack you. There’s no malice in that. It’s pure instinct on their part.
Because I know the lynxes don’t like to be touched by their owners – they’re particularly protective of their heads – I never do, unless they asked me to. I let them initiate all interaction and respected their private space.
But I have to interact with all four many times daily, for their feedings, the cleaning of their enclosures and their enrichment.
Peggy Sue presented the biggest problem, aside from the fact that of the four, she was the one most capable of killing me.
Like all exotics, she’s possessive of her humans. When I first came to the house, she deduced her masters accepted me but doesn’t know where I stand in the pecking order and how to treat me.
I knew enough not to rush her. I sat down on the floor with her for hours, talking nonsense to set her at ease, purring as she circled me, never staring at her in challenge but not cowering, either.
On our second day, while I nibbled on chocolate, she approached me, murmuring and showing great interest.
“No,” I told her. Chocolate is toxic to all felines.
Undeterred, she clasped my neck with her sheathed paws and licked my lips. Yuck!
Having a huge lynx wash my mouth with a sandpaper tongue reeking of her raw chicken lunch – she eats three drumsticks a day together with supplements and moist cat chow – wasn’t my idea of bonding.
Luckily, I remembered she’s fond of fruits. I persuaded her to get off me long enough to rummage for melon slices and bananas, which she gleefully snatched.
And thereafter, Peggy Sue started greeting me, lynx fashion, as if we’re sisters.
Whenever I sit down to my meals, she’d jump up on the table and give me a head-butt, vigorously ramming her furry forehead against mine. She scent-marked me as her property too, rubbing her cheeks on my face.
And Peggy Sue loved to accompany me at tea. Her favourite’s camomile.
It breaks my heart to deprive her of anything, but inasmuch as many plants are toxic to cats, I just give her a sealed sachet. She just sniffs and rubs herself all over the teabag, anyway, like it was catnip. She doesn’t eat it.
Still, I worried whenever I see her scratching her mite-infested ears.
I don’t know where she picked up the bugs but her owners can’t restrain her to medicate the affected area. She will kill them both if they try. Already, she has attacked them several times. The only way to treat her is to sedate her, despite the dangers.
Sedating an exotic is always a matter of trial and error. Too little won’t work and the person treating her can get killed. Too much and the animal can die of it. To complicate matters, the only exotic vet who could do it lives in another state.
After I fled from the facility, Peggy Sue, now 17-years old, and Sunshine, 11, still live in Nevada. Lynxes live up to two decades. Sadly, they are still being used to solicit donations for the sanctuary although the rest of the feline residents have perished.
Teddy died aged 13 and Mildred, aged ten. No reason was given how and why. Concerned people reported the sanctuary to the authorities. Nothing was done so far and the cougars, lions and tigers died one by one.
Today, whenever I see a lynx, I remember Teddy begging me to caress him, Mildred and Sunshine rubbing their cheeks on my hands, nibbling on my fingers. I remember how Peggy Sue’s whiskers tickled my face.
For as long as I live, how can I ever forget?