Sanctuary by the sea

Sanctuary by the sea

Beaches beckon, but Tampa, Fla., visitors also can dive into history and marine life, or explore a big-cat rescue center

Posted: August 10, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. — Lions, tigers and panthers roam the 45 acres of lush, tropical terrain at the Big Cat Rescue, saved and protected from circus trainers and ignorant pet-owners.

A pair of penguins waddles unguardedly through an excited swarm of school kids at the Florida Aquarium, while close by, a half-dozen more adventurous adult divers go eye-to-snout with live sharks.

Tabaqueros roll cigars in the storefront windows of historic Ybor City. And a sign above the registration desk at the hip Hard Rock Hotel & Casino declares "You Can Check Out Anytime You Like But You Can Never Leave."

Welcome to Tampa Bay, where man meets nature on a daily basis and history survives in a blast of growth. The Tampa Bay area, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater, has grown nearly 35 percent since 1990 to roughly 4 million residents, according to U.S. census figures. Nearly 17 million tourists visited the area last year, according to the Tampa Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Weather has something to do with it. There are more sunny days here each year than in Hawaii. And, of course, there are miles of dazzling beaches, including Fort De Soto, named this year's best U.S. beach by online travel site TripAdvisor.

Here's a sample of what the Tampa Bay area has to offer, whether you're looking for family fun or the perfect mojito.

» Big Cat Rescue

Where: 12802 Easy St., Tampa.

Hours: Guided tours for age 10 and older at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Tours for age 9 and younger at 10 a.m. Saturdays only. Feeding tours, night tours, keeper tours, private tours and photo safaris available by appointment only.

Admission: $25 for guided tours, $10 for kids' tour; costs vary for other tours.

Info: (813) 920-4130,

Why it's special: Big Cat Rescue is one of the world's largest sanctuaries for big cats that have been saved from slaughterhouses and fur farms and retired from zoos, circuses and roadside attractions. More than 150 tigers, leopards, cougars, lions, bobcats, lynx, ocelots and others totaling 16 of the 35 species — many of which are endangered or now extinct in the wild — live in spacious, fenced-in "cat-a-tats."

Access to the sanctuary is by guided tour only. Knowledgeable docents from a staff of more than 100 volunteers take groups of 10 to 15 visitors on a 90-minute tour along a winding, level trail of sand through the various cat habitats. As guests learn facts about each cat and their behaviors in the wild, they get a closer look than they would ever get at most zoos. Every cat housed here has a story, and the guides are eager to tell it — like Nikita, the lioness found living on a concrete slab, chained to a wall by her drug-dealing owner. Or Natasha and Willow, a pair of Siberian lynx rescued from a fur farm where they lived in dirty metal sheds. As much as founder Carole Baskin adores her cats, she'd be happier if her service were never needed.

"Our biggest purpose here is to put ourselves out of business," says Baskin, who established the facility 15 years ago. "What we really want to do is reduce the number of cats that suffer the fate of abandonment and abuse and to encourage protection of habitat and wildlife."

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

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:

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