T&D's Cats of the World: How a state trooper retired to save lions, tigers and bears

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

PENNS CREEK, PA. − The tigers were hungry and scared.

Night was beginning to fall on the woods and farm fields by the time the 10 grand beasts finally arrived at their forever home in backroads central Pennsylvania.

It was a week before Christmas, and never in Terry Mattive's 37 years of caring for hundreds upon thousands of wild animals had he gotten so many big cats at once. The old state trooper was a bit nervous.

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A white tiger dozes in a sunny spot with its enclosure mate at T&D's Cats of the World.

At their sanctuary, Mattive usually knows what kind of animal is coming, how many and when. But he never knows for sure what condition the animals will be in.

Still, the Mattives almost never say no.

These cats had been cooped up in travel cages for a full day, and they were frazzled. Their hauler had broken down during the long ride from a facility in the South that did not want them anymore.

Mattive and his grown son and daughter worked quickly in the dark, safely settling 10 of the world's apex predators into their new home.

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Sure enough, the tigers took to their three new enclosures without incident or uprising. They instantly became part of one of the largest misfit families anywhere, more than 600 animals from near and far, most with no other place to go.

They come to T&D's Cats of the World to live out the rest of their days in relative peace and comfort. They are accepted without question, all shapes, sizes and varieties.

A White Bengal Tiger watches visitors walk by from the tall grass of its large enclosure at T&D's Cats of the World

The big cats have always been the headliners, so to speak. (Where else can you see eight white tigers?) But they are just a bit of what this place is about.

"This is the last stop. You can be mean, nasty, hate me, and that’s fine. You’re not going anywhere," Mattive, soon to be 74, said of the animals. "This is your home."  

His transformation: State trooper to animal savior

It was a tough month, even by wild animal-saving standards.

Everything seemed to be breaking: two of their trucks, the walk-in cooler, the skid-loader. They had to quarantine their 400 birds because of the avian flu. And the price of everything kept rising, from sheets of wire to fix their cages and enclosures to gasoline for long supply runs to the food to feed everything.

Terry Mattive walks along the fence line of his enclosures.

When the cooler died, five pallets of precious meat spoiled and was relegated to compost. (Their big cats each eat 30 to 40 pounds each day).

It's not in the Mattives to complain.

How can you, truly so, when you're living and working your dream? Terry Mattive grew up wanting to be a police officer and to take care of every animal imaginable. Through a 25-year career in law enforcement, he met many of the people who would help him in his second chapter: game commission officers, farmers, bank managers, grocery operators. A York County exotic animal caregiver, Barbara Gregory, gave him a starting knowledge and experience. And his own drive, ingenuity and family made the rest work.

Jennifer Mattive says that since the staff is family, who don't get paid by the refuge, all donations go to the animals.

His son and daughter grew up bottle-feeding lions and tigers, and his wife supported a mid-life undertaking like no other. Rescuing and raising a squirrel monkey and a bobcat eventually led to caring for any kind of mammal or bird, as long as it could be safely handled.

Their range of species and numbers are mind-boggling, especially considering only three adults and a dozen or so part-time volunteers do all the work.

On a recent afternoon, two Himalayan black bears took turns submerging themselves in a 300-gallon tub of water. Peacocks screeched from somewhere, unseen. A fisher (a member of the weasel family) gnawed on the end of what looked like a long-discarded Christmas tree, apparently showing off for guests.

A fisher checks out visitors from its enclosure at T&D's Cats of the World.

The coyotes and wolves began to call out, joined by dingos and New Guinea singing dogs, an eerie blend of howls and barks echoing through the trees.

Often, in the earliest morning haze, Mattive will allow himself time to soak it all in. He'll walk his stone paths, gaze at the animals and think of their stories.

There's the African lion who was sickly and near death when they picked it up in the Beaver Stadium parking lot. The monkey that was kept for years in someone's attic bird cage; the bear chained to a tree in a backyard.

A white Bengal tiger rolls on its back at T&D's Cats of the World.

When that pigtail macaque, now named J-Lo, finally arrived at T&D's, she had to acclimate to the simplest tenants of living − sunlight, the sounds of birds, the feel of grass and dirt on her feet. It took her a year to gain the upper-body strength to climb a rope.

They all make this tough, gruff, barrel of a man melt a little.

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Just like his menagerie of a donkey, a mule, miniature horses and pot-bellied pigs. They were dropped off, unwanted, left to feed to his big cats. He didn't have the heart. They've grazed and meandered about his front yard for years now.

"I remember where they all came from," he said. "I remember the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s like your heart. This is my heart out here.

"When I walk around and look at everything, each one is basically a beat in my heart. Because I know, between me and whoever … how we pulled them out of that dark hole and started to give them life again." 

He and his children make unbreakable promises to the animals: They will be on display to the public and picture-takers for only 76 days each year. And they will never have to leave.

The paw of a white Bengal tiger is about five times the size of a human hand.

The summer tourist income certainly helps, but Mattive said he's turned down much more, like busloads of visitors who show up unannounced on holidays and requests for private tours on days off. He's refused offers for up to $10,000 for the body of one of his deceased big cats.

He said he once even handed back a blank check from movie producers wanting to "borrow" and train two of his lions. Could he have made $50,000, $100,00 or even more?

No matter. Someone else's lions, he said, were used to film "Ghost in the Darkness," starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.

"I want to sleep at night. Money does matter, but it has to be done the right way," Mattive said. "That would have been like farming my kids out and giving them to a stranger for two years. 

"... If an animal came here and was only here overnight and died, it will get buried here," he added. "Because that one day, it’s part of this family."

Caring for eight white tigers

They stepped slowly from the high weeds and brush without a sound.

One white tiger appeared, then another, then a third.

They wanted to announce their presence to their keeper and protector. The lead male briefly stalked a robin then found its spot as close to Mattive as possible along its fence line. It laid down and rolled on its back as if looking for a belly rub, like an over-sized house cat.

The others found their lounging spots 20 yards apart.

The sanctuary has eight white tigers, five of them from the group of 10 that arrived near Christmas. White tigers owe their dramatic colors to a rare genetic mutation, which animal profiteers have exploited through inbreeding. Tiger cubs, in particular, draw big money as tourist attractions.

The Mattives don't pay much mind to that. They don't breed or buy animals or trade for new ones. They simply take in whatever needs a place.

They do not make a profit and have no paid employees.

They survive on Mattive's pension, summer admission proceeds, donations and the goodwill of others. A local company provides fuel to heat their animal enclosures as long as needed, without pay, knowing Mattive will eventually be good for it. Locals bring him deceased livestock and fresh road kill for his big cats. Walmart's distribution center in Pottsville gives soon-to-expire produce and meats for free, as long as he'll drive 90 minutes to pick it up.

They all do their part, like the local Amish, who have "carried me for 30-some years. I can literally owe them 10 grand and get more wire and put it on a bill. They give me whatever I want, whatever I need, to help the animals."  

Terry Mattive's children, Jennifer and T.J., handle much of the day-to-day operation now and his grandchildren help with the chores as they learn their way.

His daughter says the quiet mornings are her best with the animals, too. The never-ending rush of feeding and watering and touring and rehabbing always come soon enough.

She may think of her mother, Donna, the special education teacher and background support for this all, who died of cancer six years ago. And of how they always find the will and the help to do what nearly no one else does.

The otters chirp and hum like birds. The emus make drumming sounds like a percussionist.

A lion roars.

The sound of it draws everything to attention, just about shakes the dew from the pines and poplars.

Those moments center, settle her.

“We just hope we've made their lives better" she said, "than where they came from.” 

Frank Bodani covers sports and outdoor stories for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him atfbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.