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Article © 1995 Darlene Arden. First published in Cats, October 1995.


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," says Embery.

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," she cautions.

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 attention."

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 smart."

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 Sierra Antifreeze.

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."