Working with lions, tigers and bears… oh my!

In North Carolina, I spent many hours of my free time volunteering with local animal shelters by walking the dogs and socializing with the cats. There’s something about furry, whiskered faces that make me unbelievably happy, and I’ve often fantasized about training police dogs, running a boarding facility or owning a pet supply store as a full-time profession.

When I moved to Florida, I decided to move up a step. I began volunteering at Lions, Tigers, & Bears (“Oh my,” as my boyfriend likes to say after every time I mention the name), a wildlife sanctuary for both local species and large predators in the far northern corner of DeSoto County. Every Sunday, I feed, clean cages, refill water bowls and shovel feces for a variety of animals, including Bengal tigers, an American black bear, a wolf hybrid named Hobo, a plethora of parrots, a ring-tailed lemur who loves purple grapes and a snarky serval cat. After three hours, I’m soaked through with sweat, and there’s dirt, pieces of food and other unmentionables all over my clothes, but I am happy.

At first, I was warned that I might not get along with the owner of the facility, Lynn Wittmeier. She has run wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers for over 20 years. I was told she was rough around the edges and very blunt, normally not a personality my Scorpio characteristics get along well with. When I met her, she marched up to me in big wading boots on her feet and a worn out visor circling her head with a fierce look of trying to figure out if I’d be another flake or floozy that just wanted to cuddle with animals all day long. I don’t blame her. Some people are meant to love wild animals from afar and then cuddle puppies and kitties at home. Others are made to love them by getting dirty, cutting up meat for meals and watching them enjoy life because you put in the hard work to care for them. Lynn is the latter. I’m doing my best to convince that I’m the same.


JR, one of the cougars

During my first tour of the facility, Lynn quickly explained that every animal on the property could, and probably would if given the chance, bite me. The parrots could take off a finger. The gibbons can be so vindictive that not even Lynn goes into their enclosure, and I was never to turn my back on Cody the black bear while I was cleaning his cage. Immediately, I loved her brusque manner and how she didn’t sugarcoat anything she expected from me as a volunteer. I could listen to Lynn for hours as she spoke about the different animals, their instincts and how their thought processes work. She is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. She even helped me face my fear of possums.

And, she does make her point about how to approach the animals. In fact, Lynn convinced me so wholeheartedly of their danger and being cautious around them that I was even tiptoeing around a cute, fluffy bunny during my first visit. Lynn noticed my behavior and said, “You know, you can pet the bunny.”


Lynn socializing with John Deere

Over the last month and half of volunteering at LBT, I have accumulated a variety of stories about the animals. I’ll share with you one of my favorites.

Sampson and Delilah are Bengal tiger siblings. They were brought to LTB from another facility that wanted them to have a permanent home. The other center was worried they’d fall into the hands of the photography trade where people pay to have their photos taken with tiger cubs at the local mall or pet store. After a certain age, the cubs are no longer allowed to be used and become unwanted commodities to the business, so they get dumped at sanctuaries or possibly killed. Sampson is my favorite animal at LTB. He’s a gorgeous, hefty boy at 800 pounds! I’ve always been fascinated with tigers, and Sampson in particular reminds me of my cat, Rameses, with the mischievous twinkle he carries in his eye. He always greets me by chuffing, a very odd sound kind of like a gruff purr only made by tigers, which is a “Hello” in their language.


One of the tigers at LTB

Delilah, on the other hand, has decided I am no friend of hers. While Lynn and another volunteer can walk around her cage without any reaction, Delilah will stalk me on the other side of the cage bars whenever I’m around. I’m not sure what I did to annoy her, but ever since, she has always kept an eye on me. Lynn believes it’s because female mammals have an instinct to be fiercer since they raise cubs. Delilah has a stonger drive to protect her territory as opposed to Sampson. Once, she decided to show just how powerful she was. I had walked away from the enclosure to quickly eat a protein bar. Delilah, in her lock-out pen where she is kept while we’re cleaning the cage, had her eyes locked on me. Lynn and the other volunteer, Stephanie, couldn’t get Delilah to go back in her cleaned enclosure, so Lynn called me back. I walked up to the cage, ducked down under some branches and walked further along the side toward the back. I was watching my feet to make sure I didn’t trip over a root or branch in the dense foliage along the back of Delilah’s fencing.

Suddenly, I looked up, and there was Delilah a few inches from me on the other side of the fence. She stood on her back legs with her front paws pressed against the fence as if she had just tried to pounce on me. She was breathing heavier than usual after having run from the lock-out pen to the side of the enclosure. You’d think you’d hear a 400-pound Bengal tiger running, jumping up to grab you, but you don’t. They are deadly, silent hunters born with powerful skills of camouflage and weaponry to keep them on top of the food chain.

I smiled at her. “Hi, sweetie,” I said. Surprisingly, the experience didn’t scare me. I didn’t feel my stomach drop to the floor like it does when I see a quarter-sized cockroach scurrying in my kitchen cabinet. I felt a sense of awe and respect.

As I came back around the enclosure, Lynn looked me in the eye and said, “You were walking too fast, Lex.”

That’s Lynn. And, I listened, and since then, have moved slowly and patiently so I won’t look like food to the tigers.


A coatimundi

Lynn is now having me come to the facility to learn how to feed the animals. She said it’s going to be bloody and messy. “You will get blood on your clothes,” she said. And, I am unbelievably excited about it!

Lions, Tigers, & Bears, Inc. is located at 9801 NE Bahia Ct, Arcadia, FL 34266. You can reach them to schedule a tour at 863-494-0054.



Florida can be a shock

It’s not just moving that’s an adjustment for North Carolinians when arriving in Florida. It’s simply visiting, too.

My friend Chris recently took a vacation to Miami for a week to celebrate his graduation with his bachelor’s degree and being promoted to sergeant at the police department in Lenoir. He and I met about a year ago through my work at the News-Topic since he was the school resource officer at one of the high schools. As I was the education reporter, we ran into each other often and started a friendship. When Chris said he was in Miami, I badly wanted to see a friendly face and asked him to meet me halfway for dinner.

We decided to meet in a tiny town south of Lake Okeechobee at a diner. For both of us, the trip should have taken an hour and a half to get there. Chris’s route involved tolls so I texted him, “Make sure you bring quarters.”

“Quarters?” he said.

“You’ll hit a few tolls. They’re usually 65 cents to $1,” I replied.

“Ohh gotcha! Thanks for the reminder!”

That evening, I left my house and headed for the diner. Chris left at the same time. However, he was immediately caught in horrendous Miami traffic. He texted me that he’d be half an hour late. I told him not to worry; I always bring a book with me because I’m usually an early bird. As I continued at 65 mph down nearly empty highways, Chris was still stuck in stop-and-go traffic. Half an hour turned into 45 minutes, which turned into over an hour.

As I was approaching the town where we’d meet, Chris told me he was still stuck in Miami. I pulled over at a gas station and texted him that I was going to give him a new place to meet closer to him. However, there’s not many towns in the middle of the state, so we met at a steakhouse that was only 15 minutes closer to where he was. It was odd little town, and the steakhouse was out of nearly everything on the menu, including most of their steak cuts. I ended up sitting in the parking lot talking to my boyfriend on the phone then reading for an hour before Chris and his cousin showed up.

Poor Chris was so frustrated from the drive that he stopped at a gas station to get some headache relief medicine before coming to the steakhouse. He said that not only was the traffic bad but that he also got caught in one of Florida’s infamous thunderstorms and stuck at the toll booth.

“It said it took exact change, and all I had were dollar bills,” he said, explaining that there were people honking at him as he tried to figure out how to pay.

“I told you to bring quarters,” I answered, laughing.

“Wait, you literally meant quarters?” he asked.

Chris was also sporting a large straw hat, a very Floridian wardrobe choice, and a red, blistering nose from having too much fun in the sun without any sunscreen.

Despite the great hurdles we faced to get together, seeing each other was worth it. Chris is one of those people who will move the earth if it means the happiness of his friends and family, and I was beyond excited to see an old friend! I cannot thank him enough for braving the traffic, toll roads and thunderstorms to meet me.

Most of the people I’ve met in Arcadia have been sweet, welcoming and enjoyable to be around. It’s been two months, and I’ve made a small group of friends. In fact, I’m hosting Game Night this week! However, there’s something comforting and refreshing about sitting down with someone you’ve known for over a year and picking up right where you left off. Honestly, I’m just terrible at small talk!

A dog out of water

My dog, Bindi, is attracted to water like a fish.

She will dive into water and lay on her stomach with her legs stretched out in front and behind her. There is just glee on her furry face. In fact, she’s usually so excited that she’ll snort water up her nose or swallow it the wrong way and end up coughing for five minutes. She’ll run after sticks and splash all around.

However, she has certain demands about that water before she will jump in and go swimming. First, it cannot be above her head. Second, there must be no waves. Third, baths are not the same thing as swimming in water and must be avoided at all costs.

In North Carolina mountains, nearly every hiking trail curves alongside some type of body of water. There are shimmy lakes, swift streams, muddy creeks and mosquito-laden ponds. Bindi jumped in all of them.


Swimming in Cullowhee, N.C.

However, when we moved to Florida, Bindi quickly realized I wasn’t allowing her to play in the water anymore. At 55 pounds, she is the perfect size to be eaten by an alligator. She’s probably big enough to give a it a good fight, but I think ultimately, she will meet a heartbreaking ending.

I tried to introduce her to swimming in the ocean. Well, the ocean breaks criteria number two, so once a wave slapped in the face, Bindi wasn’t interested in the ocean anymore.

So, I bought a plastic kiddie pool from Walmart. It was $8, a perfectly priced investment in my dog’s happiness. Seriously, some of her chew bones cost more than that. An $8 kiddie pool wasn’t going to break the bank. I dragged the kiddie pool from the car to the backyard, filled it up and brought Bindi outside. She absolutely refused to get in the pool. So, I stepped in. She walked into the pool and right out of it again. I pleaded and begged her to get in the pool, but to her, it looked too much like a bath tub. Eventually, she learned that “Bindi, get in the pool,” meant to hop in, which she would, but only for a minute or two before jumping back out. It turned into a required trick to perform, not a fun activity. She wouldn’t wag her tail. She just looked nervous. Well, so much for that idea.

So, Bindi has had to go without swimming for quite some time. Then, recently, we drove to the Port Charlotte area to visit Petsmart and take a walk at Bayshore Park. It is a beautiful spot right on Charlotte Harbor where you can get some great exercise and watch wading birds look for food in the shallows. There are also beautifully painted benches and several cool statues, like the two manatees in the playground area.


Meeting manatees in the playground

When we arrived at Petsmart, Bindi and I hung out in the car for 20 minutes while a thunderstorm rocked us in the parking lot. Eventually, the rain tapered off just enough that we could sprint to the doors without getting too soaked. When we left the store, the rain had moved on. However, the evidence of the heavy storm was everywhere.

Florida has puddles like out-of-towners wouldn’t believe. I mean, there are whole areas of parking lots that become submerged underwater after a good storm. Streets turn into canals. My own front yard will disappear in a few minutes and water will lap at my front steps if the rain is heavy and lasts long enough.


In the Petsmart parking lot

When we arrived at Bayshore Park, it, too, was showing evidence of the heavy rainfall. While the sidewalks around the edges of the park were clear, there were deep puddles drowning the grass all throughout the park. It might as well have been one big lake.

The nice thing about the puddles is that I could clearly see there were no alligators or predators hiding there. Bindi noticed, too. She immediately started dragging me toward the puddles. It was almost like a toddler that had seen a desired toy on the other side of the store. When Bindi starts pulling, it takes all of my strength to stop her, and even then, my shoes are still skidding across the pavement.

I didn’t have a towel in the car, but when I looked at her eager face all excited about possibly getting to swim, I sighed.

“You know what? Go for it,” I told her and released the tension in the leash.

Bindi flew into the nearest puddle, nearly dragging me in with her. She laid down in the cool water and began lapping at it with her tongue while stretching out her back feet behind her. You could see the happiness radiating from this dog just because she got to go swimming. She paddled around, shook herself off, dove back into the puddle all with a huge smile on her face and wagging her tail with glee. Whoever said dogs don’t have personalities has never seen a dog participating in its favorite activity.

I believe that my pet’s safety is far more important than her getting to swim in every body of water we encounter. So, if Bindi wants to keep swimming safely, we’ll keep going to parks and finding giant puddles. Since it rains every afternoon, it seems we won’t have a problem. Now as for her love of sledding on her back in the snow … well, I think the only solution will be to visit North Carolina in winter once in awhile.


Bindi in full happiness mode while paddling in a puddle at Bayshore Live Oak Park.