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Wild West of Florida

Wild West of Florida

 

From the Express on Sunday:

Wild west of Florida

Sunday, January 4, 2009
JACK TEAGUE

 

CANOE ride on an alligator-infested river.

 

It may sound like the title of a really bad horror flick but it’s actually an experience anyone can sample with Canoe Escape, a tour outfit offering a host of excursions in Tampa’s Hillsborough River State Park.

 

Established in 1935, Hillsborough is one of Florida’s oldest parks and its 3,400 acres are home to some incredible vegetation and wildlife. As we arrived we encountered a jungle-like canopy beneath which some unforgettable creatures thrive.

 

Almost immediately I spotted a pair of baby turtles soaking up some rays on a fallen tree; just downriver was a heron trying to snare a couple of fish; dragon” ies buzzed around our heads.

 

There was no doubting the stars of the show, however, and they were currently lurking ominously, out-of-sight beneath the surface of the glistening river.

 

“Alligators have a natural fear of humans, ” our guide said before we set off in our canoes for the two-hour tour.

 

“We’ve been running these trips since 1991 and nobody has died or even been bitten, ” he added reassuringly.

 

There’s always a first time, I thought, as we paddled tentatively out into the river.

 

We tried to ignore the black vultures circling above our heads.

 

A commotion in the water turned out to be a snapping turtle swimming underneath our canoe, a magical moment. A few minutes later the main attraction arrived.

 

Seeing alligators in captivity is one thing; when they’re in the wild and sharing the same stretch of water as you it’s a whole different matter. The park’s alligators vary dramatically in size, from babies little more than 11in in length to fully grown adults more than 8ft long. The one we spotted basking in the sunshine by the riverside was near the top end of the size spectrum. He lazily turned his head towards us and then slid into the water to come and give us a closer look as we all held our breath, before taking up another warm spot further down river.

 

The trip left us all elated but also tired. Canoeing for two hours is physically quite demanding, so don’t expect an easy ride.

 

Inspired by our brush with the natural world we headed to Big Cat Rescue a short drive away in Tampa itself. The city, located midway down Florida’s peninsula on the western coast, has a laid-back feel with great views out across the Gulf of Mexico which we took in as we drove the final few blocks to the rescue centre at the end of an innocuous dirt track off Easy Street.

 

As we got out of the car we were hit by a pungent smell. Far from big cat experts, we all assumed this came from the cast we were about to meet. That was until the adjacent pig farm was pointed out.

 

The independently financed sanctuary is dedicated to caring for mistreated or abandoned wild cats; those rescued from fur-dealers as well as abandoned pets and retired circus animals.

 

Its boast is that it houses the most diverse population of exotic cats anywhere in the world with more than 150 from 23 species, including lions, tigers, cougars and lynx, together with rarer breeds such as snow leopards and white tigers. We wandered around the ample cages, which are spread out along a lake, admiring the magnificent beasts.

 

Some were calm, fixing us with piercing eyes, while others prowled, letting out growls that had us instinctively stepping back.

 

Those species that don’t relish Tampa’s semi-tropical conditions receive special treatment; the snow leopards, for example, have air- conditioned cages.

 

There is a strong educational theme to the centre. Our guide Neil (bizarrely from Nottingham and working in Florida as a volunteer) told us how breeders often make a living by convincing people that cute cubs make good pets and the wild cats are simply abandoned when they get too big.

 

Incredibly, many American states still do not prohibit the sale or private ownership of wild cats.

 

Sadly, some of the most prized beasts were not visible during our tour; as nocturnal animals, they only venture out of the concealed parts of their caves at night.

 

The centre does offer night tours, however, although the prospect of returning after nightfall to wander among 150 of the most deadly beasts on the planet didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. I think I’ll stick to the alligators.

 

GETTING THERE: BA Holidays (0844 493 0758/www.ba.com/Florida) offers a seven-night fly-drive to Tampa from Gatwick from GBP422pp.

The Grand Hyatt in Tampa Bay offers doubles from GBP104pp (two sharing), room only. The Ritz Carlton in Sarasota offers doubles from GBP141pp (two sharing), room only. Bookable through BA Holidays.

Canoe Escape (www.canoeescape.com) offers guided canoe trips from GBP57pp.

Big Cat Rescue (www.bigcat-rescue.org) offers a one-day tour from GBP10pp.

Tampa Bay & Company: 020 7253 0254/