TAMPA — What kind of person would leave a plush condo in South Tampa to live in a trailer with a tiger for a neighbor?
And who would lose part of a leg in a dog attack yet go on to make sure animals are well fed?
The kind of people who wind up as finalists for Animal Planet's Hero of the Year award.
Scott Lope, 41, of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa and Jaye Perrett, 59, of the Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary in Marion County are among 10 finalists this year.
The year's hero will win $10,000 for an animal charity and a vacation for two. Lope and Perrett were selected as finalists out of 4,500 nominees. Online voting ends this weekend.
Last week the competition grew heated when an e-mail began circulating encouraging people to vote for Perrett instead of Lope.
"Jaye is in desperate need of a new truck … The prize money will help her get one. Her sanctuary, EARS, is on a limited budget, unlike Big Cat Rescue which has a multimillion dollar budget," wrote Robin Greenwood, president of Elmira's Sanctuary in Wimauma.
Lope and Perrett both scoffed at the e-mail, expressing similar sentiments.
"If we win the $10,000 there's another animal we're going to be able to rescue," said Lope, who has worked at Big Cat Rescue for 11 years. "If someone else wins and it goes to help an animal, I'm happy."
A self-proclaimed weird kid who liked animals more than people, Lope saw an article about Big Cat Rescue in 1997 while working as a pathology technician at Tampa General Hospital.
In a matter of months Lope decided to leave his job at the hospital and go work for the rescue.
"You feel that there's something missing," Lope said about his medical job. "It wasn't what I wanted to do."
Lope is a Gulf War veteran. He used his training as an Air Force sergeant to reorganize Big Cat's volunteer program, taking it from 40 volunteers to 125. At the time, the animals were in concrete and chain-link exposures. Now they live in more natural habitats.
There are about 115 cats at the sanctuary, including tigers, panthers, lions and bobcats. Most of the animals there had previously been abused or neglected.
As operations manager at Big Cat, Lope lives on the property in a double-wide trailer. His only day off: Sunday.
"He is the epitome of what we all wish we could be," said Barbara Frank, a volunteer at Big Cat Rescue. "He's an animal rescuer who will put everything on the line to help animals."
While Lope has made appearances on Animal Planet shows like Monster Quest and Untamed and Uncut, he most enjoys the daily care of the animals, he said. Lope doesn't regard the cats as cuddly pets. He will tell you they're meant to be in the wild but unfortunately they didn't get that opportunity. His goal: Give them a safe quiet place to live out the rest of their lives.
"It's not one of them things where I think I'm Dr. Dolittle, but I can relate to their plight," he said. "When you know what they can be, it's heartbreaking."
"I cannot look into these animals' eyes and not help them," she said. "For some reason, the exotics, their eyes just go through to their soul."
Perrett began her work with animals more than 30 years ago as the first deputy to handle animal cruelty cases for the Marion County Sheriff's Office. In 1999, her career as a deputy came to an end when a 160-pound Rottweiler rammed her right leg while she was trying to save another dog.
A portion of her right leg was shattered and had to be replaced with a titanium prosthesis.
She became hooked on caring for exotic animals after she witnessed the birth of a tiger cub.
In 2001, she opened EARS, an animal sanctuary in the town of Citra. The sanctuary is now home to more than 150 animals, including tigers, bears, primates and dogs rescued from Hurricane Katrina.
Perrett prides herself on giving her animals large open spaces.
"Our motto is preserving with dignity," Perrett said. "If you're going to give these exotic animals a home, give them the space they need to have a home."
When the economy fell, Perrett began dealing in wholesale meat to help out struggling sanctuaries.
These days she spends most of her time pulling a 30-foot trailer filled with meat. She buys up to 300,000 pounds of meat at a time, feeding about 4,000 animals a month. Perrett maintains cold storage facilities in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Florida.
"What she does now for sanctuaries in this economy is just absolutely huge," said Joanne Strinka, a St. Petersburg resident who nominated Perrett for the award. "I've literally seen her pay for meat for a sanctuary out of her pocket so animals could eat."
If Perrett wins the contest her first order of business is a new truck.
"If I win I really want to keep this meat thing going," she said.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.
By Nicole Hutcheson, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, September 26, 2009
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
Free ways to join us and help the big cats:
Twitter: Follow Me and be invited to enter our Animal Lover's Dream Vacation Giveaway! http://twitter.com/BigCatRescue
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