Article © 1995 Darlene Arden. First published in Cats,
Celebrities' Cats: Joan Embery
An expert and author of several books on animals, Embery
is spokesperson for the world-famous San Diego Zoo. She has
visited numerous TV shows ranging from Today to The Tonight
Show to speak on behalf of exotic animal species.
Cats first became a part of Joan Embery's life when she moved
with husband Duane Pillsbury to a ranch home in rural Lakeside,
California. The goodwill ambassador for the Zoological Society
of San Diego (which includes the San Diego Zoo and the San
Diego Wild Animal Park), Embery makes appearances on local
and national TV and at numerous regional events. Once people
discovered where she lived, they started dropping off animals
at her ranch. "I would hear a plaintive yowl from a tree,"
she says, "and there'd be a kitten."
She ended up keeping three of the cats that arrived in this
manner. While nursing them back to health prior to finding
them other homes, they stole her heart. Two of the three,
now 17 years old, are still around. "My cats have been
incredibly long-lived," Embery says with satisfaction.
Wacko, a shorthaired orange tabby, was less than a year old
when he was found screaming in a tree. He seemed to be afraid
of everything -- a condition reminiscent of paranoia -- so
he was named Wacko. "He was the type that wanted to hide
everywhere and didn't trust people," says Embery. "Of
course, now he's a big mooch. He always sleeps on your head."
Omar, the other old-timer, is a laid-back orange long-hair
who's been featured in photographs, books and commercials.
"Whenever a crew comes, he's right in the middle of all
the action, sitting on people's laps, very gregarious,"
The third feline family member is Stealer, an Ocicat born
nearly a year and a half ago. Registered as G.P. Saga Steal
the Spotlight, the nickname stuck because if his habit of
stealing things from open drawers, playing with them and throwing
them around. "The appeal for me was to be able to show
people that they could have something with an exotic look
without having to get a wild cat, because exotic animals,
wild animals, really don't make good pets," Embery says.
Most of them grow too large and are too difficult for the
average pet owner, she adds. People who are around them risk
being injured, and the animals themselves are often left at
zoos or destroyed after someone has unsuccessfully tried to
turn them into pets. "It's just not a good scenario,"
Comical and good with people, Stealer is Mr. Personality.
True to his Abyssinian and Siamese roots, he's very active
and vocal. Not allowed outdoors unsupervised, the Ocicat,
whom Embery describes as "athletic and aerial,"
has learned to navigate the house "above ground level,
by points that he bounces off," she claims.
Initially Embery worried about whether Stealer would be accepted
by the rest of her menagerie. Now she says, "I've got
to give credit to the Ocicat, he charmed them all. Within
one week that cat was part of the group." The group,
incidentally, includes not just the two other cats, but a
Weimaraner (Gunrunner's Greystoke, called Blue), a Yellow
Labrador (Traveler) and a Mastiff (Baron), as well. Embery
refers to her cats and dogs as "one big family"
with "a lot of interaction and little territorialities."
Playtime among the bunch is often instigated by Stealer.
"He and the Weimaraner both have very high activity levels
and engage the others," says Embery. "They run,
they roll over. Omar will stand there while the dogs lick
him because he loves to be licked or groomed or petted. Wacko's
always been the more aloof one."
At the end of the day, Embery gets to spend time with her
animals. If she goes for a walk, Wacko and Omar follow along.
"Whenever you're out doing chores or walking the dogs,
they're right there with you," she says. "They ride
on the golf cart and so do the dogs." If she's inside,
"I sit down and then they're all over me, everybody wanting
When it comes to toys, there's plenty from which to choose.
"These guys have every toy that's ever been designed,"
she adds. And, she admits, "Everything in the house is
their toy. Nothing is sacred. It's a very livable environment,
very kind of ranchy, rustic." On occasion, dogs and cats
can be seen vying for the same toys or, if they're feeling
generous, the dogs will actually roll a toy toward a cat and
watch one of them play with it.
On bath days, Embery is well-prepared. "They have their
own towels with their names on them," she says. "And
I have the show tack box, and it's filled with shampoos and
cleaning products and grooming products and combs." Flea-dip
day on the ranch is a regular occurrence. "Wacko does
not like his bath, but Omar sits in the sink like it's just
part of the routine. Little Stealer was a show cat, and he
sits there and takes his bath and considers it a form of attention,"
says their proud owner.
Completing Embery's animal family is 10-year-old Tumba (Swahili
for flower), a 120-pound cheetah born at the Wild Animal Park,
the first zoo in the Western Hemisphere to breed the animals
in captivity. Well over a hundred cheetahs have been born
at the park. Because Tumba's litter has pneumonia, they were
hand-reared. Embery got him when he was 4 months old and raised
him on the ranch.
Tumba's indoor area is a horse stall; his outdoor area is
a big chain-link run. (He also goes for walks on the ranch.)
He was trained to walk on a leash and sit and is often used
for photographic purposes and television work. "Many
people have had the opportunity to touch him and have a picture
taken with him," Embery says. "He's the goodwill
ambassador of the cheetah world. He's probably done more [than
any of his species] to make people familiar with cheetahs,
if you figure how many millions of people have seen that cat."
He's very good with people, but "he's still a wild animal."
And, although Tumba trusts Traveler, Embery says he wouldn't
tolerate a strange dog. As for the domestic cats, there is
no interaction between him and them, which is "probably
Embery has written books about dogs and wild animals; now
she's talking about one with felines as its subject, "just
because there are so many interesting exotic cats." A
member of numerous animal-related charities, she most recently
was the spokesperson for My Pet Matters, the public education
campaign sponsored by The Delta Society, Alpo pet foods and
With all the interests in her busy life, Embery is grateful
for her cats. "It's a tremendous enjoyment to have them
there," she exclaims. "I don't have children. I
travel a lot, and I work a lot of hours. The cats are kind
of self-sufficient, but they're always there for you."
Reflecting on her life with a variety of animals, she sums
it up this way: "The exotics are my work, the horses
are my hobby, and the cats and dogs are my family."