TAMPA – Florida has long been known as a tropical paradise desired by human retirees. But the state also is a place where exotic animals are spending their final days.
But there’s a big difference: The humans come here by choice. The animals have no choice.
Chimps, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and other jungle-type creatures are filling up animal sanctuaries throughout the state.
In addition, Florida is home to hundreds of places where exotic animals are kept to display, as animal acts and even for breeding.
Every rescued animal has a story, and it’s usually a sad one, says Debbie Cobb of the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, home to more than 70 primates — including an 80-year-old chimp that was in the “Tarzan” movies of the 1940s.
Also in residence are three dancing baboons, survivors of an animal act that outlived its owner.
Suncoast is a former roadside attraction that Cobb says has a new mission: to care for abandoned apes and monkeys and educate the public about saving wildlife.
At the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, owner Carole Baskin and her volunteer crew care for more than 100 exotic felines, including a lion that was found chained to the floor during a raid on a drug house, and a serval — an African wildcat — that had been dumped in an Arizona desert. It was found on the roadside dehydrated and missing a leg.
The Center for Great Apes in rural Hardee County is home to Bubbles, entertainer Michael Jackson’s former pet, as well as chimps that performed in Super Bowl commercials.
But some animal rights activists, including as Baskin, say some so-called sanctuaries — even those with nonprofit status, are exploiting the animals — and in some cases offering inferior care.
More than 400 Florida businesses and individuals have permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allowing a wide range of exotic animals, such as lions, elephants, giraffes, tigers, monkeys, alligators, wolves and more.
“Florida has the largest number of exotic animals in private possession and the number keeps growing,” says Baskin, an outspoken animal-rights advocate. She says there are now more tigers in captivity than in the wild and estimates that there may be as many as 1,400 in Florida alone.
More than 30 places are licensed in the Tampa Bay area to have exotic animals. These range from commercial zoos such as Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens to animal rescue operations such as Big Cat Rescue and the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.
Also licensed in Florida are people who operate animal-related businesses such as petting zoos, circus acts, small animal-themed attractions such as alligator farms. There also are people who have animals that perform or breed — all part of what the World Wildlife Fund estimates is a $2 billion exotic animal trade in America.
Baskin says one of the most problematic mistreatments of animals is taking lion or tiger cubs to malls, flea markets or fairs and charging money to let children pose with them for photos.
“This is allowed under current regulations until the cub gets to a certain size,” Baskin says.
Once the cubs get too big, they often are discarded or euthanized, Baskin says. She would like the practice banned in Florida.
The state doesn’t allow people to keep exotic animals such as lions, panthers and cougars as pets, says Capt. Linda Harrison of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
But that hasn’t stopped people. A breeder in Fort Lauderdale offers marmosets for $2,000, shipped anywhere in the United States.
Harrison says those who meet state requirements can obtain commercial permits to have exotic animals, and others can legally become nonprofit animal sanctuaries.
There are rules that govern cage sizes, areas needed to keep exotic animals, feeding and more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also monitors exotic animals’ care.
A small wild animal habitat in Davenport was shut down two years ago after repeated citations and fines from the Florida Wildlife Commission and the USDA for improper care. Harrison says the commission inspects animal facilities twice a year and investigates complaints and attacks. She says usually reports of attacks involve workers who are bitten.
“Often, it’s from not following proper procedures, and it’s one of the risks in working with these animals,” she says.
Even nonprofit groups make some money off the animals. Big Cat Rescue, for example, opens its doors to the public for admission. Operators of the nonprofit groups say they need the income, as well as donations and proceeds from fundraising events, to cover the cost of the animals’ care.
With the downturn in the economy, some wildlife operations are suffering. It costs several thousand dollars a month to feed large animals such as lions and tigers.
The owner of a Hernando County wildlife habitat recently spent a month inside a cage with two of his lions in an attempt to raise $150,000 to care for his menagerie, which includes Bengal and Siberian tigers, white lions, cougars, spider monkeys, emus, lemurs and other creatures.
Jim Jablon says he raised $75,000, which will help him get by for another year, but he was criticized by some animal rights advocates for a dangerous stunt they say sent the wrong message.
Jablon says he doesn’t care about the critics. “I do this for the animals that I have rescued from horrific conditions,” he says.
Allowing the public in is a way to educate people, Cobb says.