FALLON - If humans don't work to preserve the existence of exotic felines, the day could come when future generations will be limited to pictures and videos of the cats.
That's the message John and Barbara Williamson hope to spread through Tiger Touch, a feline sanctuary and research center in a rural part of Churchill County. The Williamsons are committed to saving the beautiful creatures and educating others about how to ensure the survival of the species.
The compound is home to 10 exotic cats, most of which have been rescued from neglect and were in danger of being euthanized.
Rocky, a 500-pound African lion was kept in an underground pit by his former owner and showed signs of physical and emotional abuse when he was rescued by the Williamsons five years ago.
Three cougars and a tiger also were endangered after their previous owner left Fallon and dropped the animals with another person, whose property was not zoned to keep large cats, John Williamson said.
''It was a big mess,'' he said of the situation the cats were in when he and his wife were approached about taking them.
''We did not have big cat experience but knew about big cats and loved them a great deal. We couldn't see them being put down.''
The couple had just moved to their home in Churchill County from San Jose, Calif., and scrambled to build a secure outdoor compound in 30 days to house the felines. Rocky now enjoys an expansive outdoor area he shares with Nala, a 5-year-old female African lion; Detonator, a huge Bengal tiger and Kicky, a 7-year-old cougar.
An indoor complex houses two bobcats, another cougar and Niki, a 425-pound Siberian tiger.
Niki was formerly a photographic model in Montana. She looks spectacular rushing down a mountain of snow in photos displayed at the compound. Her past is evident whenever a camera is pointed her way. Niki actually poses and rushes to the fence of her cage to greet visitors and solicit attention.
A Siberian lynx and a serval live indoors with the Williamsons as companion cats.
The main focus of Tiger Touch is preventing certain species of cats from extinction. Natural habitats are being destroyed and human population growth is endangering the wild feline.
''There is no place in the world for big cats,'' John Williamson said. ''Their habitat range is being chewed up by people.''
''We've done a lot of research and have come to the conclusion that if we want to save the cats as a species, we have to do it in developed countries and build up the gene pools. The zoos can't do that.''
The couple hopes to encourage others to develop small sanctuaries to rescue and breed large cats.