Horseshoe Creek Closes to The Public
Founder Darryl Atkinson loses license to keep big cats, other animals.
By MAYA CARPENTER
Atkinson, founder and director of the sanctuary, is losing his license because he did not meet federal requirements for keeping large animals, such as tigers and bears.
The papers were signed last week and Horseshoe Creek closed to the public Sunday.
His state license is good until September, but without an exhibitor’s license, he can’t keep the facility open.
“The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been trying to close us down for nine years and they finally succeeded,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson has been waging an uphill battle to keep open the refuge for unwanted predatory animals, as well as other animals.
It costs between $6,000 and $8,000 per month to run the facility, and Atkinson hasn’t made that much money in the past six months.
“We brought in about $2,000 in the last two months,” he said.
The refuge has 60 animals that will need a place to live – that has been the hardest task, Atkinson said.
“The alternative is for them to be euthanized,” he said.
That’s the last thing he wants to happen.
Atkinson has found a couple of places for some of the animals.
One of the 20 tigers has been sent to Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, he said.
He has four black bears and five lions that are older, which makes them difficult to place.
He also said he doesn’t have any money to transport the animals to other facilities.
Friends of Atkinson said they don’t understand the action to close the facility.
“I don’t understand how it is for the betterment of animals (to close the sanctuary),” said Michele Clark, a Winter Haven resident and former sanctuary volunteer.
Atkinson agrees, saying he knows that there are probably more facilities that look better than his, but he cares about the animals just as much as any other animal facility, he said.
“He’s put the animals before his own comfort and pleasures,” said Velma Daniels, a Winter Haven resident.
Atkinson bought the five acres between 1978 and 1982 for the sanctuary while working with Ringling Bros. and 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. Then in 1984, a tiger was brought in for refuge.
He’s been sheltering homeless animals ever since.
Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Foundation is a nonprofit organization that started 1984 and was incorporated in 1994.
At its height, Horseshoe Creek Wildlife Sanctuary – named for the creek that passes along the property’s boundaries – was 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. Atkinson also gave a home to bears, wolves, monkeys, deer, lemurs, a variety of reptiles and mammals.
But since 1999, Atkinson has been in a tug-of-war with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission over the conditions his animals live in.
In 2003, Atkinson had more than 20 violation with keeping his tigers in cages that are too small. In 2006, he was charged for failure to meet minimum wildlife cage requirements. In February, Conservation Commission investigators found two cage violations. In one, a tiger was found in a 13-foot-by-13-foot cage, constructed of 11-gauge wire with no safety entrance. State requirements call for a 10-foot-by-24-square-foot cage, which is 41 square feet larger, and built of heavier 9-gauge wire with a safety entrance.
In May 2007, he pleaded no contest to 12 counts of maintaining wildlife in unsafe conditions. He was ordered to pay a $267 fine and agreed not to take in any more animals until he could show he had the money needed to maintain the sanctuary.
Atkinson has given up his life for the facility and said he is disappointed that he has to see it go away. “I spent the last 30 years caring for animals,” he said. “I have gone without food so they can eat.”
Maya Carpenter is a News Chief staff writer. She can be reached email@example.com or 863-401-6977. Material from Ledger staff writers Donna Kelly and Shoshana Walters was used in this report.