SPRING HILL - A 150-pound African lioness slipped out of her enclosure at the Survival Outreach Sanctuary and remained loose within the larger fenced-in complex for about three hours Friday.
The 7-year-old lioness, named Savannah, never breached a secondary, 10-foot-tall enclosure on the property before she was tranquilized and caged, said Baryl Martin, public information officer for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"After the animal left its initial enclosure, it left to the trees and was calm the whole time," he said. "At this point we (were) prepared for any contingency. The animal can be in just as much danger as a person can."
How the lioness got out of the initial enclosure remained under investigation, Martin said. The facility was inspected twice during the past year, and the FWC and U.S. Department of Agriculture were reinspecting facility reports to determine if there were any violations.
Ron Gard, owner of "Gard Zoo" in Brooksville, has owned plenty of rescue animals including lions, he said, and was called to assist Friday.
"They can jump 12-14 feet in the air," he said of female lions. "We got a mountain lion that can jump 16 feet in the air, so you've got to watch them. If she got out of this (sanctuary), it would be very easy for her to get in the one next to it, because they got a lot of cats in there."
Gard said Savannah ultimately allowed officers to lead her back to the enclosure.
Martin said the lioness never left the secondary enclosure, so she never posed a threat to the public.
David and Heather Gillman, who live outside the sanctuary gate, said they know the sanctuary's owners, and used to live across the street from them.
"The guy who owns the sanctuary is a great guy; this is just a freak accident," said Heather Gillman, adding the lions are well-fed and the owners normally have to worry about animals breaking into the sanctuary, not out. "It just blows your mind."
While authorities have not determined what caused the enclosure to break, David Gillman said he suspects heavy winds Thursday night and early Friday morning.
"I believe the lion in question was a pet that somebody decided had gotten too big," he said.
Survival Outreach Sanctuary, or SOS, is a nonprofit, no breeding facility. The sanctuary's owners could not be reached for comment.