Gene Davis likes cats: He keeps 19 extremely large ones on his farm here, and not just to hunt barn mice.
The other day, he sent his son Jimmy to scare a few of them out of a stable to show to visitors.
There was some yelling and some thumping, and then out leaped a full-grown Siberian tiger, with two other tigers close behind.
And then came Jimmy, swinging a riding crop to keep the beasts in line while the visitors cowered on the other side of a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
Jimmy and the tigers ran around the paddock until Davis told his son to put the big, orange and black striped tiger named Mindy on a leash. Jimmy walked the cat out of the paddock and handed the leash to his father.
Mindy reared up against the trunk of a tree, like a kitten clawing the furniture. Davis wrestled the beast to the ground and, with a little pushing about the haunches, got her to sit.
It was clear that the leash was purely symbolic. Mindy is 900 pounds of muscle and teeth, and Davis is 200 pounds, 61 years old and wearing glasses.
Mindy could have slaughtered Gene and Jimmy Davis in a second, and made short work of a reporter and a photographer and a man clearing brush across the yard, too. Davis, however, rubbed noses with Mindy and said: "Good cat."
The other five tigers are also pretty well behaved, Davis said, and so are the five leopards, the three lions and the two bobcats among his cat menagerie. The bobcats sleep in the house at night because that was where they were reared, and they like it there.
It is not all fun and cats here at the 30-acre Davis farm, located on the headwaters of the Magothy River halfway between Annapolis and Baltimore.
Davis also keeps two black bears, which were "feeling hostile" that day, he said, and were not available for interviews. The farm's black leopard, which was eating raw chicken meat in his big cage, is "ornery as hell" at all times, Davis said, and doesn't get to mingle with the other cats or with humans.
Davis raised almost all the cats, which have a life span of about a dozen years, from the time they were cubs. He said that is about the only way to keep them tame, and to get to know and respect their changing moods. But sometimes, as in the case of the black leopard, even these efforts fail, he said.
Davis said he is the only resident of Maryland, except for zoo keepers, licensed to keep large numbers of lions and tigers. Officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said a handful of Marylanders have permits to keep one or two wild cats, but only zoos have collections that match Davis'.
Davis makes his living running a nearby feed store and keeps his cats as pets, showing them for free at charity events and community fairs.
"I just get a really big charge out of it," he said. " . . . They are all my children. They all have names and they all have personalities."
It started 17 years ago when Davis was delivering hay to circuses and traveling animal shows and fell in love with the cats. He was given a lion cub and a leopard cub, and one thing led to another. Now he has a full-scale menagerie and a lot of scars.
Some animals were gifts of circuses and fellow animal trainers. Some he bred himself and others he traded. All were born in captivity.
Davis says breeding animals is a nuisance because the mothers generally don't look after their young very well, leaving much of the work to Davis and his wife Jane. He said it is only when the tigers start breeding that his animals make a lot of noise: The big cats holler like domestic cats messing around on the back porch, except a lot louder.
State and federal restrictions on keeping wild animals have been toughened over the years, partly in response to the threat of rabies. Anne Arundel County law now forbids residents from keeping most types of wild animals, which Davis calls a good idea.
The animals are hard to control, Davis said, and he has achieved his skill only after years of experience.
But the law was passed 10 years after Davis began his collection and, under a grandfather clause, he is allowed to keep his pets. He said he wouldn't do it again, however, because "it's too much work."
Dr. Nancy Wiswall, a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said only minor problems have been found during inspections of Davis' farm and animals. Bill Olson of the county Animal Control Department said Davis appears to know what he is doing with his animals and looks after them carefully. "We don't have any problems with him," he said.
Davis says his cats haven't caused him any real problems -- except once, eight years ago, when a tiger escaped and attacked his cows. He shot it with a tranquilizer gun and brought it back on a stretcher. Then he built a higher fence and topped it with barbed wire.
Agriculture Department officials said one of Davis' neighbors complained three years ago that a leopard was wandering in his garden. Davis says a former employe had taken the leashed leopard to his house nearby and it slipped away. The leopard was tame, he said, and returned home by itself without attacking anybody.
The neighbor, George Steg, has different memories of that escape, however. He said he was transplanting flowers when he saw the leopard crouching in the yard. As he fled into the house, he said, the leopard pounced on the family cat, Gypsy.
Steg said he got his rifle but didn't use it because children were playing not far away. He said the leopard started to come after him, the unfortunate Gypsy still in its mouth, so he retreated and got a shotgun. By the time he came outside, the leopard had approached the cellar door, where Steg's wife was swatting it with a broom.
Anne Arundel County police arrived and ordered him to put his guns away, he said. As the officers went through the neighborhood ordering children inside, the leopard fled, eventually making its way back to the Davis farm, Steg said. Gypsy, who had escaped during the confusion, returned three days later and required $56 in treatment, he said. Davis was later fined $10 by the county animal control commission for letting his animal run at large.
Steg says he has nothing against Davis, but fears the giant cats could harm his grandchildren.
Davis, who has reason to fear the animals himself, said most of his scars are the result of attacks by lions, which have cornered him four times in the dark stables. When they snarled and lunged, he said, all he could do was to stand still and hope they bit only once. You stay frozen on the spot until they calm down and lose interest, he said, and then you go to the hospital.
These encounters have left him with many small scars on his arms, teeth marks on his left shoulder and a scar from a lion bite on his left leg that took 22 stitches to close up. One elbow bulges from a leopard-caused injury and one thumb was wrenched out of place and scarred by the jaws of a lion.
"Do you think I'm a freak?" Davis asked rhetorically, adding that large cats are to him what a stamp collection might be to another person.
The rewards, he said, are his closeness with some of the animals. Teddy, his 2-month-old black bear cub, accompanied him on a walk across the yard and then danced for rewards of miniature marshmallows.
The down side is an occasional unintentionally rough encounter.
Later that afternoon, Davis walked into the big cage of leopards. The cats stalked around him, rubbing their sides against his leg. Then one of the smaller leopards, Leaping Lena, jumped on Davis and grabbed his head with her claws -- in what Davis later described as an excessive display of affection.
Davis struggled under the cat's weight, and Lena grabbed his arm with her teeth. Davis grabbed the big tin watering tray and crashed it onto Lena's head. Lena growled and clawed and let go, and then became friendly again. Davis left the cage and wiped the sweat from his brow and the blood from his arm. If the tigers decided to do this to him, he said, "maybe they would kill me."
But he said he believes he'll be playing with lions, tigers and leopards for another 30 years, even though "there's a good possibility I'll be badly mauled."