"Eventually we'll have 70 different cats of 28 different species," he said. "Then we'll be the largest cat park in the world, said Wagner, the park's exclusive cat trainer. Wagner prides his cats and the park on the fact that people get an up-close and personal experience with the cats and that, "They're not just sleeping in a little cage like you see at the zoo. "We have lions belting it out, and tigers that'll do deep growls that will put the fear of God in you. "We'll have 500-pound tigers who'll be playing and start sparring, and I'll go in there and break it up when they get serious and tell them to go to their corners, and people are on the edge of their seats," Wagner said, laughing. "I do stuff here that nobody else does in the world. I'm in there with Amur leopards, black panthers, and tigers, doing demonstrations. I can count on one hand how many people in the world do the kind of work that I do with leopards, and they declaw the leopards, I don't," he added. Despite the fact that leopards are the most dangerous cats in the world, Wagner said that he conducts demonstrations with fully armed leopards all the time, making him truly one-of-a-kind. But his long list of achievements doesn't stop there. Before he started building the park 18 months ago, Wagner presented shows with his cats at Wildlife Safari in Winston, where he attracted 90,000 people a year, he said. "I've done segments with the Crocodile Hunter; I've trained cats for Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas," said Wagner. "I've been on the Letterman Show, Conan O'Brian and Newton's Apple. I've worked with Glenn Close and Peter Mathiason; and in 2000 I trained two snow leopards for the movie, ‘Vertical Limit' by Columbia Pictures," Wagner said.
Wagner may be a celebrity in his line of work, but so are his cats, he said. "Sixty percent of the cats you see in magazines, calendars, books and posters are my cats," he noted. "I have an Amur leopard, ‘Meiki,' who is the most photographed cat in the world. He has his own line of bedspreads, wall hangings, floor mats, posters, and so much more. He's in 25 different publications this year, including the front cover of the National Geographic calendar," Wagner exclaimed. Getting to where he is now hasn't been easy, Wagner said. It's been more than two decades since Wagner first realized that he was destined to work with cats. His journey to the present has been a long and bumpy ride filled with many cuts, scrapes and three near-death experiences, he said. "I used to run a very successful restaurant in Minnesota," he said. "I was driving home from work one day when I saw a rickety old sign on a tree that read, ‘Cougars for sale next exit,' so I checked it out and was amazed that you could buy these things. "But that was 20 years ago. I got one, and decided that this was what I wanted to do. "I gave my ex-wife the choice of the restaurant or the farm, and she, of course, chose the restaurant since it was the money-maker, and the farm was a payment, a liability," said Wagner. "I moved into a granary with no plumbing, water or heat for a couple years," he recalled. "It took me about six or seven years to understand the cats enough to start working with them, and it took me a full 12 years until I really understood them." During the course of the past few decades, Wagner has undergone 25 hours of major surgeries. He has had 350 stitches and staples and more than 1,000 holes punctured in his body by the cats. But, he said, it's been worth it, since they are his "kids," and when they're young "they're like four-year-olds with fangs." Wagner said that he's able to do the kind of work he does with cats because he has no fear. If he did, he said, the cats would sense it and kill him in a heartbeat. Wagner's love for the cats and his passion for the park are obvious through the state-of-the-art, clean set-up he's built for his "kids." Plans for the park include adding the largest saltwater aquarium in Southwestern Oregon inside the gift shop; and adding a full-service restaurant featuring a delicatessen from around the world. He also wants to install bleachers for audiences to watch demonstrations, and a lot of landscaping.
"We have two years to go until we really have it set up," he said. "I designed the entire park, and I'm not an architect. It took me many months sitting out here at night with a beer and a clipboard figuring out exactly where the lines needed to go, and how I was going to set it up. "I just did the bare minimum, what I thought we had to do to open. Me and another guy, Chris – he's a really hard worker – are constantly working. We never get a break. We put in 17 hours a day times seven days a week for several months," Wagner said Wagner stated that once the park becomes well established, a percentage of the gate with go toward habitat and research projects. The park is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. For more information, phone 592-2957.