Some South Floridians, wild about big cats, let carnivores roam their home
Licensed owners take on the commitment — and the risks
In Southwest Ranches, a 100-pound Siberian lynx named Sasha roams Steve and Barbara Burk's house like the alpha-male predator he is.
At times the powerful cat paws playfully at a llama, a goat or another critter in the menagerie the Burks invite in to wander the house. At other times Sasha grows bored with the barnyard hoi polloi and retires to his bedroom, furnished with a double bed and a television.
"He is very socialized, very affectionate," said Barbara Burk. "If he wanted to, he probably could kill me. He has never given me any reason to be worried, but I always have to think that possibility is there."
About 30 residents of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties hold licenses from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to keep as pets carnivores that include all wild felines with the exception of lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars.
Many who have exotic medium-sized cats — including cougars, servals, caracals, for example — keep the animals caged outdoors as they would be in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries. But other wild cats have been turned into household pets, let loose in the living room, walked outside on leashes and lavished with the same affection and trust as any dog or domestic cat.
West of Lake Worth, Bob the bobcat also has his own bedroom. There he romps with his owners, Felicia Serpico and David Linde, and likes to dart through a 7-foot polyester tunnel from Ikea.
"He's very loving, very happy," said Serpico, a psychologist with a private practice in Sunrise.
At about 30 pounds, Bob is a third Sasha's weight, but he, too, is a wild cat. Serpico keeps that in mind.
"We can trust that he is a bobcat," said Serpico of Bob. "He has strength, stubbornness, agility and sharp teeth. We read him really well. If he's in a bad mood, we're not playing."
Many wildlife organizations and government agencies oppose keeping wild animals as pets.
Beth Preiss of the Humane Society of the United States, said, "A smaller cat such as a bobcat can be as dangerous to a child as a lion or tiger."
Capt. John West, the commission's wildlife coordinator, said, "Wild animals are not recommended" as pets. "They are not domestic, and you are not going to domesticate them," he said.
Injuries have happened. In November a 16-year-old girl was mauled by a cougar in Miami-Dade County. Earlier in the year, two recently adopted cheetahs attacked Judy Berens during a fundraiser at her Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington.
And in a highly publicized 2004 incident, a wildlife officer shot and killed a 600-pound Bengal tiger named Bobo after it escaped from the Loxahatchee home of former Tarzan actor Steve Sipek.
Still, if properly housed by licensed owners in rooms or cages that must be inspected two times a year, keeping wild animals as personal pets is legal in Florida.
Owners say they know the risks, and they also understand the time and money required. Captive wild animals require special diets of whole animals or raw meat, vitamin supplements and, in Bob's case, $130 a month in medications. Cleaning up is nearly a full-time job.
"This is a lifetime commitment," said Serpico, whose 4-year-old cat has epilepsy and takes drugs to control gran mal seizures.
Explained Barbara Burk about Sasha: "To those people who see him and say, 'I want one, too,' I say, 'You have no idea.'"
In choosing to take in an exotic, Palm Beach County conservation commission investigator Shannon Wiyda said, "Your entire life is dedicated to these animals. It has to be. You can't ask the neighborhood kid to watch your pet lynx or bobcat."
Indeed, the daily schedules of the Burks, Serpico and Linde are designed to accommodate the 24-hour demands of a household pet who may be awake all night, has a tendency to spray urine to mark territory and could be a serious danger to himself or others if allowed to escape. The potential for escapes is a major concern of law enforcement. "Some people like to have these things roaming around their house as a status symbol," said Lt. Pat Reynolds, a wildlife commission inspector in Miami.
But, he added, "Most of our escapes occur when it runs out the front door. That's the number one problem with these small cats."
Serpico and Linde decided to adopt Bob several months ago after meeting the captive-born kitten at Panther Ridge, where they volunteered.
"It is not about having this animal, but helping this animal," said Linde, a software engineer. "If we didn't have the right to keep him in our house, he probably would have to be put down."
Like Bob, Sasha also was born in captivity. The Burks got him at 3 months from a dealer after their beloved 6-foot water monitor died. "I was looking for a challenge," said Burk, 66, once a body builder who finished second in a Mr. USA competition
The Burks moved in 2005 from Miami Beach to the 4-acre Broward County Click here for restaurant inspection reports compound where they board 15 horses and spend nearly every waking hour feeding, mopping up and refereeing inter-species squabbles.
At times, the Burks' 7,500-square-foot house resembles a chaotic Noah's Ark, or a fever-dream movie set for a Doctor Dolittle remake.
On a recent morning, for example, Buddy the llama and two goats were scampering through the living room while Phil, a Sicilian donkey, tempted fate by nipping at Sasha's neck as the cat sprawled languidly on the floor.
With a large, squawking hyacinth macaw named Rio flying around, Barbara Burk sat on a couch — tattered by teeth, hoofs and beaks — and stroked a hedgehog the size of a bread loaf.
In the kitchen, Steve prepared a bountiful salad plate for the Sulcata African tortoise — one day closer to gaining his full-grown weight of 100 pounds — and then tossed a handful of live worms to two bearded dragons.
"We're retired," said Steve. "This is our job."
Mike Clary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 305-810-5007.
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