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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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