Cool cat

Roberta Kirshner

Photo By Emanuella Orr

The sound of roaring lions isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Durham, but for Roberta Kirshner, it is the first thing she hears in the morning. Kirshner is in charge of the nonprofit Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation, nestled in the middle of the Durham orchards. She runs the foundation in the name of her deceased son, Barry. The foundation has more than 100 animals—everything from boa constrictors to lemurs to Bengal tigers. Kirshner’s specialty is large cats—she has 32 of the 38 different species of cats, including cloud leopards, black leopards, bobcats, ocelots, lions and tigers. Kirshner’s day typically starts before 3 a.m., when she wakes up to feed the cats. People can make an appointment to visit the Kirshner Foundation by calling 345-1700.

How many years have you been here?

My son purchased the property in ‘88 and the foundation he established in ‘94. Then he was killed in a car accident in ‘95. This was his dream. He wanted to make homes for animals that had special needs, and also to make it possible for people to help.

How did you get started in this field?

I started when I was 8. I started washing 62 feed buckets a day for an animal trainer that lived next to my grandmother.

Where was that?

This was in the San Fernando Valley. And I used to sit on her horse and watch him work the animals, and one day a bear almost jumped on me cuz of the horse, so he came over pretty upset and talked to my grandmother. He wanted her to keep me away, and she said, “No, she’s going to be an animal trainer.” And he said, “This isn’t a profession for women,” but he said, “OK. What time does she get off school?” And later on, his wife got ill and they had baby bears that needed to be bottle-fed, and by then I was, like, 9, and I started bottle-feeding baby bears.

What kind of training did you have to be able to do this?

I apprenticed with the gentleman for about nine years. It takes about nine years to become a trainer. It takes years to develop your own technique. You have to develop an eye and be able to see what’s going on and analyze it.

Every bit of the money you accept from donations goes directly to the animals?

None [of the money] goes to anyone. It goes directly to the animals and their upkeep. I do accounting for a company, so that’s how I exist. Working with the animals, it’s a labor of love. There’s no money in it, but the satisfaction comes when you see an animal thrive.