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Fla. facility with baby cougar, tigers has history of violations

By Donna Kelly
The Ledger
LAKE WALES

It looks and sounds like a movie set for an adventure flick – a lion’s roar reverberates through the thick, green tropical foliage and is seemingly answered by the growl of a tiger and hiss of a wildcat.

But this is neither a Hollywood set or a South American jungle. This menagerie, to the delight of school children, artists and animal lovers, is here in Polk County.

Run by founder Darryl Atkinson, the Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Refuge is off State Road 17 on the outskirts of Davenport.

The artists of Winter Haven’s Art Cottage have enjoyed it for years, spending hours painting the natural Florida landscape and exotic animals Atkinson has rescued since taking in his first tiger in 1984.

During the last four years, Art Cottage co-founders Velma and Dexter Daniels have garnered the support of artists in staging annual fundraisers to benefit the preserve.

The 2007 Wildlife on Canvas Benefit Art Auction will be 7:30 p.m. March 3 at the Lake Wales Country Club, 2925 State Road 60 E.

The event will include hors d’oeuvres, artist demonstrations, a PowerPoint presentation about the animals at the refuge and a live art auction.

Artists Kay Phillips and Tom Freeman will be on hand to demonstrate their technique. Freeman will be painting a Florida landscape in acrylic and Phillips will work in mosaic tile.

More than 120 pieces of artwork will be on display with 30 to 40 of them up for auction.

Tickets cost $30 in advance and $35 at the door.

“We saw how needy they were and how clean and well cared for the animals were,” Velma Daniels answered when asked why the artists became involved in fundraising for the refuge. “We wanted to be a part of saving the animals.”

Atkinson purchased the five acres that became the Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Refuge between 1978 and 1982 while working with Barnum & Bailey Circus as an assistant elephant trainer. He purchased his first leopard in 1983, which he trained for use in movies and stage shows.

The following year, a tiger was brought in for refuge. He’s been sheltering homeless animals ever since.

Today, Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Refuge – so named for the creek that passes along the property’s boundaries – is home to more than 80 animals, including 40 big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, bobcats, Florida panthers and ligers, which are a combination of a tiger and a lion.

But cats aren’t the only animals living there.

Atkinson and his volunteers also take care of bears, wolves, monkeys, deer, lemurs, a variety of reptiles, skunks and possums. There are also several rather daring domestic cats, who delight in walking along the edges of cages containing lions, tigers and bears.

“We have them here because nobody else wanted them,” Atkinson said of his refugees.

He talked about the animals as if they were his children, and he has a story to tell about each one.

They include several bears that were confiscated from a neglectful owner in Tampa, tigers who are siblings and a small 8-month-old cougar who has been raised with – and has no fear of – two 7-month-old Bengal tigers.

The refuge has expanded over the years, both in size and purpose. In 1991, Atkinson opened his facility to schools and youth organizations, giving guided tours of the property and illustrating the need for protecting wildlife.

In 1994, Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Refuge became incorporated as a nonprofit organization, surviving on donations and volunteer help.

Money has always been tight, with more animals being brought to the refuge faster than Atkinson could expand.

While he was dealing with citations from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2003 stating that animals were housed in cages that were too small for them, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne compounded problems by destroying the animals’ habitats in 2004.

After a lengthy legal battle and the threat of jail time, an influx of donations from animal lovers helped pay for repairs and volunteers helped make them.

Atkinson said things are looking better.

“The repairs have been completed. We are in compliance,” he said.

On Jan. 6, State Attorney Jerry Hill’s office inspected the facility and “made just a few minor suggestions that have all been fixed,” he said.

Now that the facility is repaired, Atkinson said he hopes to expand the refuge.

But expansion will mean a jump in annual expenses from $100,000 to $250,000. The extra $150,000 would enable him to hire two full-time employees and provide “hurricane-proof” buildings to house the animals during storms.

He also hopes to build three new tiger enclosures and four additional leopard cages.

“With the hurricanes in 2004, we ended up rebuilding instead of expanding,” he said.

Atkinson, who lives on the property with his mother, Penny Atkinson, and nephew, Kody Atkinson, doesn’t draw a salary. And while his house needs repairs, this need comes secondary to the needs of the animals.

“The animals always come first,” he said. “They eat before we eat.”

And the animals eat a lot.

Adkinson spends $40,000 a year for meat, including horse, beef, chicken and lamb. He keeps 3,000 pounds of food stored on site at any given time.

While Atkinson is looking for corporate sponsorships for the refuge, he is thankful for the attention and funds that Wildlife on Canvas will bring to the animals.

In the past, the Art Cottage fundraiser has raised about $8,000. The Danielses and Atkinson say they hope the event will raise $10,000.

“That would be awesome,” he said.

Atkinson brushes away a lock of his grey tinted hair that has escaped from a ponytail and waves as he turns to head back to the animal cages. There’s always more work to be done.

Donna Kelly can be reached at donna.kelly@theledger.com or 863-401-6969.

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