Family, staff, students and furry friends of the Cat Tales Zoological Park remember Mike Wyche for his selfless love of animals, larger than life personality and constant jokes.
Wyche, whose friends called him Sun Bear, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 72.
Before Cat Tales Zoological Park became the home for rescued big cats it is today, it was just Wyche’s home in Colbert, with rescued tigers roaming about.
“Back then of course – no perimeter fence,” said Lisa Wyche, his daughter. “So cars drive down the highway and do that double take: ‘Did I just see a tiger?’ They’d come to the door and knock and say, ‘Can I come see this?’”
Lisa Wyche was in high school when her father and stepmother, Debbie Wyche, began taking steps toward making Cat Tales a zoo.
Initial tours started with a knock on the Wyche’s front door, a quick signature of a release form, then a trek through the Wyche’s living room before heading out back to see the big cats.
“He was always a big dreamer, but he always turned it into reality somehow,” Lisa Wyche said.
Cat Tales is a nonprofit that cares for rescued big cats from Siberian tigers to African lions. None of the animals are taken from the wild and usually are rescued from dangerous or traumatic situations.
He was very “compassionate towards furry critters” his whole life, Lisa Wyche said, and going for carnivores just matched his larger-than-life personality.
If an animal got agitated or upset, Wyche was always the one to step up to the plate to “be bold and try and keep the animal calm,” Lisa Wyche said.
Since Cat Tales started out of the Wyche’s home, funding was always a challenge.
“He just had drive and vision,” Lisa Wyche said.
Wyche and his family transformed what had been their yard into a space more suitable for the animals and visitors, putting in natural enclosures, adding buildings and eventually making space for a zookeeper-training program that constantly adds new students to the Cat Tales family.
Jan-Michael Gambill, a close family friend and former professional tennis player, recalls meeting Wyche.
When he was about 20 years old, Gambill had just begun winning championships that came with charity funds.
“Cat Tales just came to mind, and I thought I can do something right where I live,” said Gambill, a Spokane native.
“That’s how we met. I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, do you need some money?’ ” Gambill recalled.
Soon he was spending time at Cat Tales almost every day he was home.
“Mike and Debbie both took time to teach me slowly and work me with the animals,” he said.
The selfless love that Wyche showed for the animals was an inspiration to Gambill.
“Mike was the kind of guy that was completely selfless,” Gambill said. “He would put himself second to the cats.”
Like the zookeeping students who now learn at Cat Tales, the lessons Gambill learned from Wyche came with lots of laughter.
“He taught a lot through humor and sarcasm,” he said.
He was always a jokester, said Lisa Wyche. He liked the attention, she said, but he also just liked making people laugh.
And Wyche also had a softer side.
One time he had a sick cat, a cougar that has since passed away, Gambill said. Instead of letting it be in the den alone, Wyche went out and slept with the cat in the cold and the snow, he said.
“It’s a very family driven business,” Lisa Wyche said. “Always has been.”
Wyche is survived by his wife of more than 30 years, Debbie Wyche, and his children, Lora Doohan, Lisa Wyche and Ryan Wyche. They and other family and friends, including Margaret Hunter, Naomi Worcester and Marilyn Valentine, remain involved in the business.
But the Cat Tales family wouldn’t be complete without the animals, caretakers and students who continue to carry on Wyche’s legacy, Gambill said.
“I think it’s part of his legacy, being able to pass down what he’s learned to his students,” he said. “I would hope that people learn from his selflessness.”
Those who wish to pay their respects to Wyche are welcome at Cat Tales. Visitors can leave notes at a space set up in the conservatory or at the “fairy fountain,” where it has been customary to remember animals who have passed on.
“It’s been almost 30 years and I’d like to see it go another 30 years,” said Lisa Wyche. “You walk around the zoo, and he’s there.”
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