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At a North Carolina Refuge, the Cat's Meow

Sunday, November 20, 2005

WHAT: Carnivore Preservation Trust

WHERE: Pittsboro, N.C., about five hours south of Washington by car.

WHY GO: So you can get three feet from a tiger and watch it chow down.

The 12-foot chain-link barricade that surrounds the Carnivore Preservation Trust has a sign warning about the facility's electric fence. It's there for good reason, as the 55-acre preserve contains just about every lethal cat you can name -- and plenty you can't.

You won't see lions, but it has tigers, leopards (even a snow leopard), servals and civets, as well as ocelots, kinkajous and binturongs. Visitors also see high-leaping servals and caracals, the ferocious northern African hunter. On a recent tour, our guide told us she once saw a caracal go airborne to snare a flying cardinal.

The trust is a refuge for abandoned animals, which come from most anywhere (one tiger was found tied to a tree in Houston). But unlike at your neighborhood kennel, the animals here would eat you alive if not for those chain-link fences.

This became startlingly clear when my group of 15 stopped to watch Rajah and Kaela, two young tigers who haven't quite figured out they're in captivity. A boy garnered the tigers' full attention. After tour guide Julie Brittain explained to the child's parents that the cats were simply stalking their prey, the blood drained from their faces as the rest of us took a step back.

The tour is essentially two hours of learning about carnivores while watching them devour chicken drumsticks. It's like going to KFC, minus the leftover bones. All that remains afterward is the jarring memory of a jaguar cracking through a leg like a potato chip.

While the trust was created in the mid-1970s by Michael Bleyman, a geneticist at the University of North Carolina, it only began giving tours in 2004 to raise money. Bleyman started CPT -- a gently rolling, woody spot in the sticks with gravel paths winding past generous cages -- as a refuge and breeding center for carnivores that were vanishing. The trust stopped breeding in the '90s, shifting its attention to rescue and conservation.

To that end, the guides see themselves as educators, not entertainers. Actually, they're downright serious. "We rank animals from one to four based on their ability to kill us," said Brittain with the same tone used earlier to convey the location of the restrooms.

While the guides steer well clear of corniness, rest assured that someone in your group will fill the gap. A fiftysomething man treated our tour to the Tweetian refrain "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!" And the guides and cats share some light moments as well: There's nothing quite like seeing a 500-pound tiger playing "hide and seek" in some sparse weeds.

Then there's 800-pound Romeo, so named because he's fond of women. The tiger, one of the biggest on the East Coast, is decidedly less smitten with men.

After an afternoon of ambling, an evening of front-porch reclining may be in order. The Rosemary House Bed & Breakfast (76 West St., Pittsboro, 919-542-5515, http://www.rosemary-bb.com/ ; from $85 a night double occupancy)has a full-fledged veranda with rocking chairs begging to be used, as well as whirlpool tubs and fireplaces in some of the rooms. Across the street, the General Store Cafe (39 West St., 919-542-2432) has meals well covered, with a varying schedule of breakfast, lunch and dinner; sandwiches from $3.25, dinners range up to $15. There's also live music Thursday through Saturday nights.

S&T's Soda Shoppe (85 Hillsboro St., 919-545-0007) is almost as much of a throwback as Pittsboro's downtown. The eatery -- serving up egg creams, malts, burgers and Coke or Pepsi floats -- has wood paneling and booths rescued from a defunct soda shoppe and an antique jukebox to match its real-deal soda fountain.

Finally, Fearrington Village (919-542-2121, http://www.fearrington.com/ ), a pastoral mixed-use community, is three miles north of Pittsboro. The development and its 33-room inn advertise in the New Yorker and have the accommodations, shopping and dining to please that readership. Rooms start at $240 per night double. White farm fences abound, but they have no need for electric ones. Their striped (Belted Galloway) cows are no carnivores.

-- Jonathan Bloom

Tours of the Carnivore Preservation Trust (1940 Hanks Chapel Rd., Pittsboro, N.C.) are given Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Cost is $10, and you'll have to pay an extra $3 photo release fee to capture that special wink from Romeo on film. Reservations required. Info: 919-542-4684, http://www.cptigers.org.

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