At first glance, Jeff Kozlowski has a perfectly normal life: a fiancee, a 2-year-old daughter, a basement apartment in Rock Springs, a dog, and a couple of cats.
Well, more than a couple. And these aren't just house cats.
In fact, Kozlowski's rural home, a few miles west of Baraboo, has more in common with "The Jungle Book" than "American Gothic."
The 33-year-old Kozlowski runs Big Dad's Big Cat Rescue & Educational Center, which is currently home to four tigers and two lions. Two of the tigers and the lions live in outside cages, while two tiger cubs, only 8 weeks old, live in his apartment. But Kozlowski is adamant that even though the cubs live in his home, his big cats aren't just larger versions of the tabbies at the local Humane Society.
"These are not my pets," he said. "If you don't respect that they're wild animals, you're going to get hurt."
Kozlowski adopted his first tiger, Khan, two years ago from a zoo in Illinois. A year later, he picked up a tiger cub, Thunder, from Animal Haven in Weyauwega, along with two lion cubs, BamBam and Pebbles, from a private owner in Iowa.
"They needed a place," he said. "Most people don't think they do, but there is a big need for it . . . if they don't get taken in, they'll just get euthanized."
After scrimping and saving -- even taking pictures with the cubs last summer, which he said he hated for the stress it put on the animals -- he finally got enough money and land to officially start his rescue in March. With help from donations, he built four large cages, put in shelters for the cats to sleep in, and was licensed as a rescue by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cats might not have a ton of room to roam for now, but they seem to enjoy their homes. They are fed 50 to 60 pounds of meat every few days (except for Khan, who eats double that), and the wood chip floors of their cages are cleaned every day. Pebbles, the female lion, is spayed, and Kozlowski says he will never breed the animals to sell cubs. The rescue will be their home for the rest of their lives.
Kozlowski lets them out to run in the inside perimeter of the cage area several times a day and even plays with the three adolescent cats, Thunder, BamBam, and Pebbles. The tiger and lions pounce on him, try to eat his baseball cap, chew on bottles and hoses, and roll over to get sprayed with a hose. Kozlowski controls the cats when they get rough by spritzing vinegar in the air -- the cats hate the smell and will run away.
The 2-year-old tiger, Khan, watches the younger cats play with a faint air of amusement. The 500-pound Khan is too big to run with Kozlowski and is let out to play on his own.
"We don't run together anymore, because he's 500 pounds and when he tackles, it starts to hurt," said Kozlowski. "I stick my hands in, and that's our interaction. If he would have done what Thunder did to me (pouncing), he would have thrown me through that cage."
But according to Kozlowski, Khan, despite his size, is the best behaved of the outdoor cats. While the adolescent cats are more rambunctious, Khan "thinks he's a dog" and has never been aggressive towards his owners.
Diamond and Alure, the 8-week-old tiger cubs, are Khan's sisters and come from the same Illinois zoo Kozlowski rescued him from. They live in the apartment with Kozlowski, his fiancee Jenny Meyer, 21, and their daughter, Mercadeze, 2.
The cubs are too small to be dangerous, and Meyer often leads them out to the fields in back of the house to feed them. Inside the apartment, they mostly sleep and play with Mercadeze's toys, although Meyer admits that "you kind of have to kitty-proof it a bit." The cubs enjoy lounging in the shade and trying to climb trees.
The cubs are helping to turn the rescue into the educational center that Kozlowski wants it to be. Visitors are always welcome, as long as they call ahead, and occasionally groups come up to see the cats. A group of senior citizens from Maplewood of Sauk Prairie who visited June 23 were able to meet Diamond when Meyer brought her on their bus.
"It's the first time I've ever seen them," said Cecile Steele, 90, as her fellow seniors petted Diamond's back. "They're beautiful."
Kozlowski said he loves it when groups get to interact with the cubs, who will soon be too old for handling.
"We took the cubs out yesterday, and there was 100-year-old lady that said she'd waited 100 years to touch a tiger," he said.
Kozlowski and Meyer are looking to expand the rescue. They received a land donation and hope to build 15 cages, each with 1,600 square feet of room for the cats. That way, Kozlowski can accept some of the 20 or so big cats -- mostly tigers, leopards, and cougars -- that he's had to turn away in the past three months because he doesn't have room. He also plans to lobby legislators to pass a law forbidding Wisconsinites from keeping big cats as pets.
Big Dad's Big Cat Rescue
Big Dad's Big Cat Rescue can be reached at 608-697-8643 or online at www.bigdadsbigcats.com.