To fully understand their love of wild cats, you must know this about the Dicelys: They’re both wearing T-shirts with snow leopards on them. Barbara drinks coffee out of a mug that reads, “The term ‘cougar’ is so demeaning” on the front. And on the back: “I prefer man-eating tiger.”
A cheetah pendant hangs around her neck. Cats of every shape and size appear on nearly every piece of art in their house. Unopened wine bottles emblazoned with cats are encased in glass. Taped inside a kitchen cabinet is a typed birthday list of more than 40 cats they’ve owned over the past three decades as part of the Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund.
But the piece de resistance is the massive Wall of Fame in the kitchen. Assembled from hundreds of snapshots, it charts all the cats they’ve nurtured on their 22-acre property west of Occidental.
“We don’t have children,” said Barbara Dicely, 71. “People say as women get older and your biological clock starts ticking, you often have remorse that you didn’t have children — I never have had that. But when I would have those (feline) babies, it just felt so right.”
Instead of high-school graduation and wedding photos, “this is 33 years of babies,” she said, pointing to the collage that spans at least 10 feet.
There’s Chhinsu the snow leopard that would sit in her lap. A black leopard named Usiku is reaching with its paws to greet her husband Rob. Samburu, their first cheetah, is very aware of the camera. While Umfazi, an African leopard, is dwarfed by a curious Great Dane.
Rob was actually a dog person when they first met at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo more than 50 years ago. He even served as the president of a dog obedience club. But it didn’t take long to win him over, as he embraced “the challenge of training something that didn’t want to be trained.”
After volunteering with another cat breeder, Barbara got her first wild cat, a caracal she named Asali, in 1985. With a breeding license from the State Fish and Game department, she began acquiring servals, Canada lynx and Siberian lynx.
A school teacher by trade, she learned at first by doing. It didn’t take long to figure out “the cats bond to the person who raises them,” so she adopted only babies she acquired from public and private zoos and sanctuaries. When her cats had litters, she found homes for them in places like the Cincinnati and San Diego zoos.
As the family grew with the acquisition of snow leopards, African leopards, mountain lions, bobcats, Geoffroy’s cats, fishing cats and ocelots, the Dicelys learned to read each unique behavior and mood.
“It’s all in the personalities,” said Rob, 72, a former shop and auto teacher turned contractor, who would take Chhinsu, the snow leopard, to job sites with him. “Every animal, like every human, has a different personality. They train us to let us know what they want. And then you work with that. You have to not be macho and know when to say when.”
Sometimes by “learning by doing,” they learned the hard way.
“We’ve never been attacked,” Barbara said. “We’ve never needed stitches. But if you’re dealing with teeth and claws, you’re gonna get bitten.”
In the wild, the cats typically live around 8 to 10 years. But in captivity, they can live more than 20 years. The more time they spent with the cats, the Dicelys began to realize a role for their new family as ambassadors to raise awareness and millions of dollars for their cousins abroad — the thousands of endangered cats all over the world.
“A hundred years ago there were 100,000 cheetahs living in Africa,” Barbara said. “Today there are a little over 6,000. The way things are going, 20 years from now the cheetah will be extinct in the wild, only existing in zoos and private sanctuaries.”
Embarking on their outreach mission, the Dicelys teamed up with conservation partners such as Cheetah Conservation Fund, Snow Leopard Conservancy and Mountain Lion Foundation. After becoming the first private facility in the country allowed to keep cheetahs, they began sharing programs with Cheetah Conservation Fund founder Dr. Laurie Marker, who moved to Namibia to study cheetahs in the 1970s. After she would speak, they would introduce their cheetah, Samburu, as part of the presentation. One night, at a fundraiser in Silicon Valley, a donor in the audience wrote a check for $1 million.
“He would later say, ‘Sam looked me in the eye and I knew I had to do something for this animal,’” Barbara remembers.
To date, they’ve raised over $2 million for cats around the world. But, despite their intentions, they still get hate mail.
“Extreme animal rights people feel that it’s better for a species to go extinct than to live in captivity for any reason,” Barbara said. “They don’t distinguish between what we’re doing and people who want a tiger in their backyard for a pet.”
Reaching out to schools, from elementary to college, they’ve taken their cats all over the Bay Area, teaching kids “that we share the planet with a lot of different wildlife. Human beings are not the only species on this planet,” Barbara said. “And if things keep going the way they’re going, at some point the only living beings on this planet will be people. And I think that’s going to be kind of boring.”
Three decades into their journey, the public fascination with big cats has never waned. At a sold-out show at the Sebastopol Community Center last month, they had to turn away dozens of people. It’s not uncommon to run into parents who remember when the duo brought cats to their elementary-school classes.
“You cannot care about something you know nothing about,” Barbara said. “If the children have never heard of a snow leopard, how will they want to care about one?”
Along with educational outreach, they also offer private tours on their rolling redwood-shaded property. For $95 per person guests can meet the cats and learn about each unique species. For an extra $50, you can witness a blazing cheetah run as the spotted cats race after a red towel lure attached to a motorized line.
“We had a cop at one of the events we did and he clocked (a cheetah) at 68 mph as it was slowing down,” Rob remembers.
Today, 19 wildcats live in pens behind their house. Many are reaching their twilight years. Their go-to team for school outreach includes Themba the cheetah, Kanika the black leopard, Chachi the ocelot, Bandhu the fishing cat and a Geoffroy’s cat named Guarani.
Now in their 70s, the Dicelys are finally facing the looming question: “How much longer are we going to do this? We’re now getting cats that will probably outlive us,” Barbara said.
In case that happens, the nonprofit board has plans in place to relocate every cat to a safe home and sanctuary.
As the years pass and they collect even more feline memorabilia (which Barbara swears are mostly given to them as Christmas and birthday presents), she looks back on the time spent raising their family of ambassadors as worth every minute: “Every year we do this, I just say we have to die a year earlier because we’ve used up another year of our retirement.”