Retired accountant finds slice of heaven at Jupiter wildlife center

By Liz Best
Special to Neighborhood Post
Wednesday, November 08, 2006

George Laurence is a retired widower with no family in the area, and if you think that sounds like a recipe for loneliness, don’t worry.

He has Simba.

Simba is a Florida panther at the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter. Laurence says Simba is a big sweetheart of a cat who has learned to recognize his voice and has a special way of saying “good morning” each day when Laurence shows up at his cage.

“He says, ‘Owwww, owwww.’ Each of the panthers have their own way of talking,” said the Jupiter resident.

Laurence has been a volunteer at the wildlife sanctuary since it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1994. He was recognized recently for his devotion to the sanctuary when he received a Senior Achievement Award from the American Health Society.

He said he didn’t know that the folks at the Busch center had nominated him, and he certainly didn’t expect to receive a beautiful plaque lauding his time, talents and efforts.

“I don’t really do what I do for any sort of publicity,” said Laurence.

When he and his wife, Cathy, moved here in 1989, Laurence was semi-retired from a corporate accounting career that spanned 30 years. He worked for 11 years in the accounting department of the Palm Beach County Public Library System before making his retirement official five years ago.

That left him with more time to devote to the some 3,000 orphaned and sick wild animals that wind up temporarily at the 20-acre preserve off Central Boulevard. Because of his background in accounting, Laurence pretty much runs the gift shop there.

But his heart is outdoors with the animals, especially Simba and the three other Florida panthers at the sanctuary.

“The panthers are my favorite people … I’m known as the ‘panther man,”” he said. “But I’m also sort of an ambassador to the animals.”

He says his aunt, Osa Johnson, an early 20th century explorer, naturalist and writer, ignited his interest in wild animals. She and her husband Martin traveled faraway lands chronicling exotic animals.

Cheetahs were a special interest of hers, and Laurence became intrigued by them through her photographs when he was growing up in Bergen County, N.J. His family always had a few cats and dogs, he said, but he never got familiar with a “big” cat until he started working at Busch.

Even though Simba and the other panthers had been declawed by private owners before being rescued by the sanctuary, Laurence plays with them through the bars of the cage. A clawless panther cannot be released back to the wild, but that doesn’t mean it’s like a house cat.

“When you rub them you can feel the solid muscle. You just know they would overpower you without even wanting to,” said Laurence. “I’m a little guy and they’re a big guy and, without any willfulness, they would knock me right over out of the excitement of seeing me.”

Busch also is home to a variety of impaired animals, such as reptiles, bald eagles and raccoons, that can’t be released. The scariest attraction seems to be the snakes, said Laurence, who also helps the Busch staff with educational and community outreach programs.

For Laurence, whose wife died in 1999 and whose only son and family live in Ohio, being able to spend 10 to 30 hours a week at a wildlife sanctuary is pretty close to heaven. He spends the remainder of this spare time researching and writing about his family’s French-Canadian history, and studying American Indian culture.

He sees his volunteer work as a way to enlighten, educate and, most importantly, make the world a better place for the critters.

“The more people know about the animals, the more they will respect them.”

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