Nestled in the Pasco County side of Spring Hill lies a serene sanctuary where tigers, cougars and leopards can live out the rest of their days in peace and proper care.
Many of the animal residents of the Wildlife Survival Sanctuary in Spring Hill came from other facilities that fell on financial hard times. Others were rescued from breeders and private owners from the exotic pet trade.
Many people who desire exotic animals, such as big cats, are misguided into thinking that they can make good pets. Some are not aware of the complex dietary needs or the adequate housing and environment, mental stimulation and enrichment needed to care for these animals from the wild. Therefore, many of these animals from the exotic pet trade live out their lives in sub-standard, unsanitary conditions. And often times these animals are euthanized when their owners no longer can care for them and cannot find a home for them.
Enter Spring Hill resident Jim Moore.
"I started working with exotics about 16 years ago because I saw how exploited they were, even by the people who were supposed to be helping them. So I felt compelled to do more. I've always been a sucker for the underdog," said Moore.
In 2000, Moore founded the Spring Hill sanctuary to rescue and provide a safe, caring environment for big cats and other animals from the exotic pet trade.
Moore's vision also includes educating the public about the plight of these animals.
"Our outreach to the public is two-fold, to raise support for the sanctuary and awareness to their plight," Moore said. "These animals face problems both in the wild and in captivity. The one common denominator is humans. But through education, hopefully we can make people understand that conservation is also about saving ourselves."
The sanctuary is home to not only tigers, cougars and leopards, but also brown lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs, an ostrich, an emu, a deer, an iguana and a sulcata tortoise.
The sanctuary meets the physical needs of the animals, and they are given mental enrichment activities as well. Besides being given toys, mealtime is made into a fun activity for the animals. Food is placed into puzzle feeders; fruit popsicles are given to the lemurs, blood popsicles to the big cats; cardboard boxes filled with food goodies are given to the big cats to find and play with; pumpkins are given to them at Halloween; and different scents are sprayed into the habitats that the animals then seek out.
Brigitte Ivory, a volunteer for the sanctuary for the past 13 years, said, "What I love about our sanctuary is the amount of enrichment we do here for the animals. Although our sanctuary has oversized natural habitats for all of our animals, we provide enrichment activities for the animals to break the monotony of their day and to make sure they are physically and mentally stimulated."
Many volunteers assist at the sanctuary with ground maintenance, feeding, cleaning, enrichment, operant conditioning, enclosure maintenance and construction.
"While others at the sanctuary take care of feeding and general maintenance, when I am there, I usually do the dirty job that I love of enclosure cleaning and enrichment activities," Ivory said. "Cleaning an enclosure allows me to be close to the animals, and at the same time, it gives me a feeling of satisfaction when everything looks all cleaned up. Once the animal is back into the enclosure, it's an immediate enrichment for them. They inspect the entire enclosure for new smells that we humans left behind.
"The feedback that we get from all volunteers is that it's a great experience and people feel they make a difference."
To see these magnificent and beautiful creatures, the wildlife sanctuary typically hosts three open-house events throughout the year and hosts educational field trips for school children of all ages. It is also open to the public for tours by appointment, seven days a week. Tours can even be requested during the evening feedings. All visitors receive a guided tour by one of the sanctuary volunteers. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated. All of the donations go toward the feeding and care of the animals.
Wildlife Survival Sanctuary is located at 18212 Booming Road, in Spring Hill, just east of U.S. 41 and south of County Line Road. For more information or to schedule a tour, contact Wildlife Survival Sanctuary at (352) 797-4785 or visit www.wildlife survival.com.
Hernando Today correspondent Heather Francis can be reached at email@example.com.