Desiring to see lions, tigers, bears, and elephants up close and personal? You can skip the zoo and visit two unique Central Florida sanctuaries that provide humane and compassionate care to some of the world’s most fascinating animals.
PHOTOS: Fred Lopez+Matthew Gaulin
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my…
Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (EARS) provides animals with loving care so they can live the remainder of their lives with dignity in a safe and secure setting.
STORY: James Combs
Unwary of strangers, a 7-year-old plump tiger named Tom Quin happily consumes a big chunk of red meat. Looking at his beautiful coat and watching him eat, few people would realize he was once hairless and severely underweight due to ringworm.
Nearby, a large black bear, Adam, sits in an upright position to the delight of curious onlookers. He was rescued as a cub after his mother was killed by an automobile.
Not far away, two brother leopards, Tafari and Okoki, walk leisurely across an elevated wooden plank. They were rescued from a roadside zoo in Nevada.
Animals that have been abused, abandoned, and neglected have found a loving home at Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (EARS), a 35-acre reserve in Citra, located 17 miles north of Ocala. On this property, live oaks tower overhead, forming a shaded canopy and creating a private, forest-like wonderland for these beautiful animals.
EARS was formed in 2001 by Gail Bowen and Jaye Perrett. Gail has spent 30 years as an advocate for big cats and as a mentor for other sanctuary owners throughout the country. Jaye was formerly in charge of the Marion County Sheriff Office’s Animal Cruelty department.
A noticeably missing pinky finger on Gail’s left hand is ultimate proof of her love for animals. She lost it years ago when a chimpanzee she was rescuing bit her as she fed it bananas.
“These scars are my badge of courage,” she says. “The incident did not bother me because I still worship animals.”
Although EARS is open to the public, it is not a zoo. It is a sanctuary for previously unwanted animals that, for one reason or another, cannot be released into the wild. “We refer to this place as hospice because the animals come here to live out the rest of their lives,” says Gail, who lives in a home on the property. “Our reason for starting this sanctuary was to provide a loving home and help them overcome the wrongdoings by humans.”
A walking trail winds around the property and leads visitors to the cages of these fascinating animals — 22 tigers, eight bears, three lions, two leopards, and one liger (a cross between a tiger and lion). The sanctuary is also home to dogs, bobcats, cougars, monkeys, deer, and African tortoises. Many of the animals at EARS were illegally owned by Florida residents and seized by the state. Norman, a Bengal tiger, was severely beaten by its owner and his jaw was dislocated. Without medical treatment, gangrene set in and destroyed half of the tiger’s lower jaw. Others, like Tafari and Odoki, were “picture babies” at roadside zoos where people could hold or touch them as babies and take keepsake photographs.
“You can hold a baby cat until it is 25 pounds, and then you can touch a baby cat up to 40 pounds,” says Sue Nassivera, who has volunteered at EARS for 11 years. “After 40 pounds, the public can no longer have interaction with them so no money can be made. They are either euthanized or brought to sanctuaries like ours.”
One of the greatest joys for volunteers is educating the public about the welfare and well-being of the animals. “There are only 3,200 tigers remaining in the wild,” Sue says. “Today, there are actually more tigers in captivity because so many in the wild are killed for their fur and skin, which bring a ridiculous amount of money.”
Deceased animals at EARS are treated with respect and given a proper burial. They are so beloved they even get headstones in a cemetery located on the property. Look around and you’ll spot headstones for their fallen friends, including Loki (a lion), Mr. Peepers (a marmoset), and Savannah (a tiger).
It’s not prison
Sue kneels down on the ground. Teaman, who is on the other side of a fence, comes to greet her. The 700-pound Siberian tiger allows Sue to pet his beautiful fur. He makes a chuffing sound, a tiger’s unique way of saying hello.
How can one of the world’s fiercest predators seem so tame? “We feed our animals seven days a week, and they see people all the time,” Sue says. “They are not hungry so they do not want to hurt us.”
Still, volunteers take precautions to prevent unnecessary attacks. Signs that read “I can reach you through the fence” remind visitors to view and photograph the animals from safe distances. Attached to each cage is a small lock-down area where the animals go during cleaning or feeding. There is also an eight-foot fence around the perimeter to ensure animals cannot escape the property.
However, these animals aren’t treated like inmates in a prison. Each is allowed to roam freely during the day in large play or “turnout” areas. These areas have pools that serve as drinking holes or pure fun for notorious swimmers such as bears and tigers.
“Some people think these animals should be released back into the wild, which is ridiculous,” Gail says. “In a foreign country they would be hunted and killed for their body parts. Most of them could not survive in the wild because they’ve been in captivity all their lives due to humans. We do everything possible here so they are healthy, happy, and comfortable.”
Group tours and private tours are available. For more information about tours, please call 407.647.6328. You can also visit the organization’s website at earsinc.net.
EARS operates strictly on donations and does not receive state funding. In 2001, it cost Gale $25,000 to feed just eight tigers.
On April 26, Sue is hosting Hot Cars and Cool Cats, which will feature unique cars, trucks, and motorcycles. The free event will include raffles, an auction, and great food. All proceeds will benefit EARS. Call Sue at 352.266.2859.
Two Tails Ranch in Williston is home to one of Earth’s most magnificent creatures — the elephant. And at the helm of the brood is a woman on a mission to save these majestic animals from extinction.
STORY: Shemir Wiles
He may not be as influential as Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso once were, but Luke’s artwork is just as intriguing. Bunny, who is a bit of a loner, loves flipping tires and standing in rain showers.
Roxy is the oldest — a bit of a grumpy old lady, if you will. However, she loves people, so everyone tends to overlook her obstinacy. And Rajah is certainly not one to be told what to do. If it’s not his idea he refuses to participate, but he will bend just a little for some bread and grain.
These colorful characters live at Two Tails Ranch, a privately owned elephant sanctuary and educational facility in Williston. Founded in 1984 by the late Theodore Svertesky and his wife and current owner Patricia Zerbini, the ranch started out as an elephant care facility to board Asian and African elephants needing temporary or permanent housing. But in 2008, Patricia decided to open Two Tails to the public as a way to share her passion and educate people about the elephants’ plight.
A ninth generation exotic animal caretaker, Patricia has worked with all different species of animals both exotic and domestic. Nevertheless, elephants have always been her personal favorite. She has traveled the world working, training, and consulting on the care and management of both Asian and African elephants.
“I love their intelligence and their social structure,” she says. “I’ll admit I need to work on my people skills, because I actually prefer being around my animals more than humans. With them, there is no beating around the bush. Animals don’t do something without a reason. People unfortunately do.”
More than 250 elephants have come and gone for various reasons at Two Tails, but there are four residents that never leave: Roxy, Rajah, Bunny, and Luke. Because elephants form tight family bonds, Patricia serves as the matriarch of group, which can be fun but also very demanding.
“I’m constantly at their mercy. I never get a day off,” she says. “But I would never trade having them look up to me. I compare them to my four kids. They look at me like I’m their mom and that’s pretty neat.”
Of the four Asian elephants that call Two Tails home, Luke is probably the most popular. He’s easy to spot because he is the one with the perfectly crossed tusks. He also loves to paint, creating works of art with the stroke of his paintbrush. Patricia stumbled upon his hidden talent by accident.
“I played around with him when he was young and would walk him around the property. My eldest sons had an easel in the backyard and Luke would watch them paint with interest. Then one day I offered him a brush and he began swishing it all over the paper. It was kind of a fluke, but now when he does it, it’s like a treat for him.”
Rajah, born at an elephant camp in Bangkok, Thailand, was originally brought to Two Tails in hopes of starting an Asian elephant breeding program. Patricia admits Rajah is a bit of a grouch, which reminds her of her father.
“He can’t be bossed around. If you want him to do something, you have to make it his idea,” she says and laughs.
The two females, Bunny and Roxy, are elephants Patricia inherited from her father. Both aren’t too fond of being around other elephants, but Roxy does great with people. That is why she is often picked to work off-site events.
“I do a lot of ceremonial Indian weddings and I usually use Roxy for those since she is the best around people,” Patricia says. “These are my favorite events to do because the amount of respect these elephants receive is phenomenal.”
And respect is vital when it comes to intermingling with Patricia’s elephants. She encourages visitors to interact with them, but she does not allow human interaction to encroach upon their privacy. Her main purpose is for people to walk away from Two Tails with a deeper sense of admiration and appreciation for these animals.
“A lot of people assume there is a big, beautiful world out there for these elephants, but there isn’t,” Patricia says. “About 40 to 100 elephants are killed every day in Africa for their tusks, and if this keeps happening, elephants could be extinct in 10 years.”
Sanctuaries like Two Tails and other conservation programs are needed to ensure elephants have a future.
“It blows people’s minds when they hear the statistics,” says Patricia, “so it’s most gratifying when people thank me for opening their eyes and ask how they can help. Every little bit counts.”
Two Tails does not receive any state or federal funding. Its only source of income is from visitors, donations, and off site events. Costs for a tour are $20 for adults and $10 for children, but appointments are required. To learn more about Two Tails, call 352.528.6585 or visit www.allaboutelephants.com.