I always was concerned about puppy dogs and pussycats,” says Miss Kitty, recently retired from a 19-year-run on TV’s Gunsmoke and known around Phoenix as Amanda Blake or Mrs. Frank Gilbert. “And I still am.” These days, however, the cats she cares about are a bit more exotic: a 400-pound lion, a leopard, four smaller leopard cats (a Southeast Asian breed) and a total of 10 cheetahs—five of them cubs.
Since she quit frontier saloon-keeping in Dodge City last year, Miss Blake has been raising her menagerie with almost no public attention—in almost total obscurity—until last month, when a Phoenix man charged that she and her husband, a retired businessman, were keeping the animals illegally. After almost two decades of being on the right side of Marshal Matt Dillon and the law, it seemed unlikely that Miss Kitty was in the wrong. Sure enough, appearing before the Arizona Fish and Game Commission this month, she produced valid permits for all her animals, including the cheetahs.
Miss Blake and Gilbert were married seven and a half years ago (the fourth marriage for each) and were content to raise horses, cows and dogs until 1972. By then they had acquired a de-clawed lion, which they boarded on their four-acre estate, and were offered a semi-domesticated male cheetah cub by a vet. The following year they acquired four more cheetahs, all of them decidedly undomesticated. That year the state prohibited the sale of wildlife in pet stores (a measure Miss Blake wholeheartedly supported) and required permits for all cats in captivity. The Gilberts, who have a live-in couple to care for their animals, qualified easily.
Two of the cheetahs were bred and last month a litter of five cubs was born—one of only a dozen recorded cases of the sleek cats reproducing in captivity. “We’re doing this,” Miss Blake says, “to save the species. The cheetah isn’t surviving in its native habitat. Future generations might not be able to see one.”
The cheetah cubs, she reports, are examined by a veterinarian once a week and are in splendid health. “We don’t want them as pets. Our goal is to keep them genetically as close to the origins as possible.” She hopes to work with zoos in the breeding of the cats, “although I don’t like the idea of them being on exhibit—they’re such private animals.”
Understandably, Miss Blake has strong—but not inflexible—views on the killing of wildlife. “It’s killing for fun or profit I can’t stand,” she says. “There’s a difference between an Eskimo killing a seal for survival and some dumb broad strolling down Fifth Avenue in a leopard coat. I gave up my fur coats years ago—what an ego trip, walking around wearing cut-up animals. Besides,” Miss Kitty says with the knowing smile that used to light up the Long Branch Saloon, “fur coats don’t last. I’d rather have diamonds.”