Long before Netflix's Tiger King, Canada had 'Noah of the North'

Long before Netflix brought people into the underworld of big cat breeding, a man and his own big cat roamed Canada’s prairies.

Al Oeming ran an exotic species breeding program and travelled the country

A souvenir card features Al Oeming and his pet cheetah Tawana (Submitted)

Long before Netflix brought people into the underworld of big cat breeding, a man and his own big cat roamed Canada's prairies. 

The Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has become the latest Netflix special to captivate audiences. The docu-series follows one man's path from being an attention-seeking zoo owner to a convicted criminal. 

The show brought back flashbacks for Regina's Lisa Grills who was working at San Francisco Gifts in the Victoria Square Mall in the 1990s. She remembers seeing a man with his cheetah, parked in front of the store. 

"They had a little exhibit set up and so I spent quite a bit of my time at work that day just scratching her behind the ears," she recalled. "It was really cool and she was really friendly." 

The man she met was a well-known figure dubbed "Noah of the North", featured on TV shows including Wild Kingdom and a CBC documentary called Al Oeming: Man of the North.

A man and his pet cheetah

Oeming served in the navy during World War II, as well as studied zoology at the University of Alberta. After leaving the Navy, he went on to become a professional wrestler and promoter. 

He sold half of his Stampede Wrestling promotions company to longtime friend and business partner Stu Hart — father of famous wrestlers Bret and Owen Hart — and in 1959, he took that money to buy land for his Alberta Game Farm. 

Oeming went on to start a successful exotic species breeding program. To supplement his income to pay for upgrades to the farm, he began travelling across Canada, specifically Saskatchewan, with his trusted cheetah Tawana in tow. 

Companies would do promotions and say "come on down and meet a live cheetah," drawing crowds to see Oeming and Tawana everywhere from malls to schools. Oeming would use his platform to talk about conservation and protection of endangered species.

Oeming and Tawana await a Regina city bus in the early 1970s. (City of Regina)

Cam Addley was two years old and living in Loon Lake, Sask., when his dad brought him into the local school to meet Tawana. 

"He thought it would be an exciting thing for me to see," said Addley, remembering that he was wearing a hat with a pom pom. The big cat seemed to be attracted to the outfit.

"He bolted — the trainer did not have a good enough hold on the chain obviously, and he was able to get to me rather quickly and knocked me down."

Addley had to get a few stitches, which the doctor explained he had gotten from getting "scratched by a cat."

But far from giving him a phobia, Addley said his momentary meeting with Tawana left him with a lifelong connection to big cats. 

Addley met Oeming 20 years later at an expo in Saskatoon, and had a chance to get his picture taken with the 1990s incarnation of Tawana, bringing his brush with big cats full circle.

With files from Fiona Odlum