Monday, 25 May 2015
Veteran's vision to save big cats lives on in Louisburg
LOUISBURG, Kan. (AP) — The big cats probably no longer look for Billy Dean Pottorff.
Three years have passed since they last saw him. Some used to recognize the sound of his footsteps coming across the shaded brown dirt.
"Voodoo would raise his head and make that noise of his when he knew it was Billy," said Rebecca Shaffer, Pottorff's sister.
Voodoo is a male African spotted leopard, one of 25 big cats that live at Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center, about 4 miles east of this town, The Kansas City Star (http://bit.ly/1KTuM3J ) reported.
Pottorff, who died of a heart attack on April 18, 2012, at age 60, started the place. He was a local boy who went off to war at 17, nearly died and brought home scars, medals and something else: witness to the decimation of jungle tigers by war and poaching.
Cedar Cove, his idea to show people how to save the world's big cats from extinction, drew only a handful of visitors at first. Last year, nearly 60,000 showed up, many on school buses, to see lions and tigers in the Kansas countryside.
Pottorff's legacy has lived on in the lives of close friends like BJ, Sarge and Too Tall - everyone got a nickname - who kept the place going and growing. Same for the volunteers, including high school students introduced to the cats on field trips.
The guy who took over for Pottorff? The one called Too Tall.
Steve Klein lived in Kansas City's River Market and worked in advertising when he took the Cedar Cove tour. He thought he knew spiel. Never had he heard anything like Pottorff's passion for big cats.
The 6-foot-7-inch Klein soon started volunteering and now is board president and lives in the small house at Cedar Cove.
"Billy made this place," he said. "When he died, my life began. Poaching and expanded agriculture is going to kill off the big cats if something's not done.
"Here, we can't save the tigers in Asia; we can't buy land for them. But we can educate kids about what needs to be done.
"That's what Billy set out to do. I'm trying to keep it going."
Shaffer, nine years younger than her brother, knew something was wrong when neighbors picked her and her sister up from school.
When they arrived home, two military cars were parked out front. It was April 26, 1970.
Pottorff's helicopter had taken fire and gone down in the Ben Tre province of Vietnam. Some crew members were dead. They didn't know what happened to Pottorff, who had been a door gunner.
"My mom was bent over a table like a weeping willow," she remembered.
Days passed before the family learned that Pottorff had been taken to a hospital in Japan. Severe burns covered more than a fourth of his body. He recovered, came home, then returned for a second tour in Vietnam.
When he came home for good in 1972, mostly he talked about the tigers. Casualties of war and greed. He heard them in the jungle. He saw their hides in the village markets. He saw their parts pickled in jars.
"He was a witness to the black market selling tiger parts, and he never forgot that," said Bettie Jean "BJ" Auch, vice president of the Cedar Cove board and a longtime friend.
After a mishmash of jobs - welder, county deputy, small engine repairman - Pottorff got the idea for his big cat conservatory.