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.”
What: Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund
Owners: Barbara and Rob Dicely
Years in operation: 33 years.
Number of cats over the years: 45
First cat: Asali, the caracal, in 1985
Breeds: African leopard, snow leopard, bobcat, lynx, serval, ocelot, caracal, Geoffroy’s cat, fishing cat, mountain lion and cheetah
Private tour info: $95 per person, $50 extra for cheetah run
Tip: The annual open house event will be held July 21. Check the website for updates.