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“They tried to make me go to rehab: I said meow, meow, meow…”

Here's a cure for the common Hollywood rehab story:

Deep in the Brazilian cerrado lies a rehabilitation center for eight species of wildcat. From feral jaguars, to an elegant ocelot, to stealthy pumas, to a deceptively cute Geoffroy’s Cat, the felines come from all over Brazil. Each cat comes with his or her own case of abuse or mistreatment; others, like our friends in Hollywood, are just too dysfunctional in their zoo.

The non-profit group is called NEX (No Extinction). The workers and volunteers are wildly compassionate about wildcats – though some would argue they are wildly out of their minds. Big hearts and big cojones, president and landowner Cristina Gianni and her employees have dedicated their lives to giving these animals the care they need. Their goal? Reintroduction to the wild (or at least into the more expansive freedom of a zoo).

During my tour of NEX, I was struck by the cats’ majesty, even when caged and recovering from abuse.

Here are a few of the "big cats" I met:

"Princess Zagaia" was taken from a tribe from the Amazonas region in northwest Brazil. She was a pet and a friend until she began eating their dogs. The tribe, worried she would begin to eat their babies and young children, called NEX, and Princess Zagaia now plays chase with the caretakers and is given more appropriate meat.

"Brutus" was found in the forest by a family. The family gave the kit to a couple who had just given birth to a daughter. The mother lovingly nursed the wildcat (yes, the human way) alongside the daughter. Not surprisingly, Brutus loves playing with humans. Watching him play was reminiscent of a frisky domesticated cat...just three to four times larger.

And then we have sweet "Xuxo" (shoo-show), their latest protégé, who was taken to the refuge by Brazilian police after his owner (an evil veterinarian) was arrested for animal cruelty. He had been neutered and was living chained to a post like a junkyard dog. He was, however, the most loving, kissy-faced jaguar in this hemisphere (they say). I played hide-and-seek with him next to his cage. When he tired of the game, he swung on a tire swing like a lazy child.

Finally, “Samson” wasn’t about to share his chunk of cow. Within five months of his enclosure, he had figured out how to pick the locks. (I did not ask how he was found and returned.) Samson, they assured us worried extrangeiro tourists, taught them that the animals needed – and now received – round-the-clock observation and attention.

Vagabonds, nomads, wanderers (and cat owners) of all species have long known that you can take the cat out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the cat. A trip to kitty rehab (and perhaps Hollywood) can teach us this.

Visit nex.org.br for more information.

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