Pals with Claws: Tiger World owner promises safety
Sat, Jan 26, 2008
By Mark Wineka
ROCKWELL ? Apollo, Boo and Icis ? two tigers and a lioness ? ease out of their brick, lockdown structure and move immediately toward Lea Jaunakais, who is standing outside the front fence.
“Hey, Boo-Boo, how ya doing?” she says, bending down to the 400-pound Siberian tiger. “Tigers love to rub. It’s funny that they want to come greet instead of play.”
Jaunakais thought the big cats would go to a perch or push around the large ball in their enclosure. But she figured out why they made the beeline toward her first.
“I haven’t seen them all day so, of course, they want to say hi to Mamma,” she says.
In a week, Jaunakais will take possession of the animals left over from Metrolina Wildlife Park, which closed at the end of last year, and combine them with Apollo, Boo, Icis and brother tiger cubs Riley and Jackson to form “Tiger World.”
Her plans to open Tiger World this coming summer have drawn comment and scrutiny both from supporters of her dream to form a nonprofit, educational center for endangered species and skeptics who question just how safe Tiger World is for the surrounding community.
Jaunakais says she expected some concerns after the initial publicity about the change in ownership. It simply made people more aware of this privately owned zoo, she says.
People also were surprised to hear Tiger World, located at the end of Cook Road off N.C. 152, will include up to 30 tigers, 10 lions, a leopard, jaguar, panther, reptiles and primates ? even though all of these same animals have been at Metrolina Wildlife Park for a long time.
“If you’re not familiar with it, and it’s new information,” Jaunakais says. “It can be scary. … I’m not discouraged, and I feel very optimistic and excited.”
The Tiger World owner says she has been receiving about 70 e-mails a day, many from people who want to volunteer or express their support. One neighbor said she hears the lions roar, “and it’s like magic,” Jaunakais says.
The Post has received a steady stream of letters to the editor ? pro and con ? while county officials have quietly been investigating whether Tiger World will meet existing county regulations.
Rowan County Planning Director Ed Muire says his office will render an opinion next week “on what we think the status is on her project.”
From a zoning standpoint, Metrolina Wildlife Park was a non-conforming use in its rural agricultural district. The wildlife park was allowed because it was in operation before the county established zoning.
As a non-conforming use, Tiger World could continue as long as it opened within 360 days of the change in ownership, according to zoning rules.
Muire says he has met with Jaunakais twice, once on site and once in his office.
Jaunakais says she’s not exactly sure of the total number of animals she will take possession of next week but stresses that the animals and the public will be safe, thanks to modified procedures and renovated exhibit areas.
“Steve (former park owner Macaluso) has had an establishment here for 11 years and has never had a big cat escape, ever,” Jaunakais says. “He has been successful in housing these animals, and I’m going to continue with that and even add safety features.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects zoos, fined Macaluso recently for violating the Animal Welfare Act for some aspects of his park’s operation.
Jaunakais plans for the non-profit Tiger World to offer memberships, whose privileges will include visits to the zoo throughout the year and Internet access that will allow online viewing of the tigers 24 hours a day.
The cameras also will be part of Tiger World’s new safety and security features.
She also envisions members being invited to special programs and conducting fundraisers for better exhibits. She speaks of having a day near her grand opening when she will invite all Rowan Countians to visit Tiger World for free and learn about the animals and safeguards in place.
Long range, Jaunakais dreams of building a “Tiger Splash,” a large exhibit providing a pool, waterfall, jumping logs and climbing sticks so tigers could demonstrate their natural behaviors.
Jaunakais established Tiger World and took over the direct care and financial responsibility for Apollo, Boo, Icis, Riley and Jackson late last summer. They were cats she had worked and bonded with most closely as a longtime volunteer with the wildlife park.
“I thought they would be a good bunch,” she says.
Just outside the wildlife park, Jaunakais has an enclosure for the three bigger cats that includes a 14-foot-high, angled fence, a separate lockdown area for bad weather and cleaning of the enclosure and double-entry doors to reach the exhibit.
The 9-month-old tiger cubs, Jackson and Riley, likely will move to a similarly appointed enclosure next door, once some angled fencing is added. The enclosures are set into 200 pounds of concrete every 8 feet and the galvanized, stainless steel fencing is stretched between reinforced poles, Jaunakais says.
The three bigger cats are 2 years old and were born at the Metrolina Wildlife Park. Teeka and Puffer were the parents of Boo; Zeus and China, the parents of Apollo; and Big Willie and Shirley, the parents of Icis. All of the parents will become part of Tiger World.
Jaunakais isn’t sure where Riley and Jackson came from. “Steve took them in because they needed a home,” she says. The brother cubs are still teething.
Because the cubs are “hand-raised,” Jaunakais says, she can be in the cage giving them “unprecedented care” ? and no sedation ? for injections, medications or examinations.
The cubs weigh about 120 pounds each. Boo and Apollo (a bengal tiger) each weigh about 400 pounds. In captivity, tigers normally eat about 10 pounds of meat a day ? chicken, pork, beef or even deer that hunters sometime bring by.
Their coats grow thick in the winter, and the tigers shed like dogs in the summer. The big cats are not declawed because of the deformities that can occur. “And there’s no need to declaw them,” Jaunakais says. “That’s really cruel.”
As they move close to Jaunakais near the fence, Boo and Apollo make a sound called “chuffing.”
“It’s how tigers greet each other and let everyone know they’re in a good mood,” Jaunakais says.
Tiger World will take visitors on guided tours through the park. Four-foot-high fencing will keep visitors about 10 feet away from each exhibit.
“I just hope that people who are skeptical about what I’m doing give Tiger World an opportunity,” Jaunakais says.
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