Students spend break rebuilding FL sanctuary’s cougar pens

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A group of Saginaw Valley State University students will usher in 2007 at an exotic animal sanctuary in Florida.

It’s not a vacation. The students, including recent graduate Dan Luce, 22, of Bay City, will help rebuild cougar pens damaged during Hurricane Rita and construct a new living area for sulcata tortoises during a week-long community service trip to Peace River Refuge and Ranch, a nonprofit facility in Zolfo Springs, Fla.

The trip is part of the SVSU Alternative Breaks program, meant to give students an alternative to partying or just lying around over winter and spring break. The group will leave on Saturday and return Jan. 6.

Luce, who graduated on Dec. 15 with a bachelor’s degree in math education, said he volunteered because it sounded “really cool.”

“We’re going to be working six-hour days,” he said. “Until it gets dark, we’re going to be out there doing whatever they want.

“We’re not allowed to touch the animals or see the animals until they’re behind the cage. It can be very dangerous. I’m OK with that.”

The trip costs about $350 per person, for transportation and meals. The volunteers are staying in a cabin for free.

Luce said his group raised about half the money it needs, with donations from Bennigan’s restaurant in Saginaw Township, pumping gas for tips at a 7-Eleven and even selling donated eggs in area neighborhoods.

He said the students had trouble raising money at first, because some people thought a group of college students going to Florida sounded more like a party than volunteer work.

The Alternative Breaks program is drug and alcohol free, said Ashley Verner, a 22-year-old biology senior from Adrian, the student site leader for the trip.

The 90-acre Peace River sanctuary is located in central Florida and accredited by the American Sanctuary Association, according to its Web site. It provides permanent habitats for abused, neglected, confiscated or unwanted exotic animals, many from the pet trade.

The SVSU group has been meeting once a week since September to plan for the trip, learning about cougars and tortoises.

The sulcata tortoise is native to Africa and can grow to be more than two feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds, according to, a reptile Internet site.

Verner said the students plan to volunteer at the Saginaw Children’s Zoo next year, too, as a tie-in to the Florida trip.

Luce said he’s had good experiences with the Alternative Breaks program. He spent the end of last year in New York City helping an organization that makes and delivers hot meals to homebound AIDS patients.

The Florida trip is the second volunteers at SVSU have taken this year through the Alternative Breaks program.

Twelve students left on Dec. 16 for a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., to assist Martha’s Table, a charity that works with the homeless and less fortunate. base/news-8/1167149744182720.xml&coll=4


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