Among the primates living in one rural Florida county, about 11% aren't human.
Just west of Fort Pierce, on a 150-acre tract, some 254 chimpanzees live on 12 man-made islands surrounded by an artificial lagoon. Save the Chimps is the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world. The late Carole Noon and Arcus Foundation founder Jon Stryker, its major funder, founded the sanctuary after Noon sued to obtain 21 chimps retired from Air Force space research. Nearly all the other chimps came from biomedical research. There are no regular public tours except two days a year for supporting members. There's no breeding. Males get vasectomies, and females are given birth control. Chimps live out their lives there — the oldest is 56. The sanctuary employs 60 full time. Volunteers, among other duties, count out the 1,300 bananas a day the chimps consume. Executive Director Molly Polidoroff says the most recent arrival was a 9-year-old female. "We potentially made a commitment to her for 50 more years. Our responsibility to her is lifetime care, for however long that might be." Famed chimp researcher Jane Goodall, whom Polidoroff worked with years ago in Africa, is on its advisory board.
Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife
Curt LoGiudice worked with the Florida Panther Project and was a dog trainer before moving into big cats. He founded his non-profit Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife near Jacksonville in 1985 and opened it to the public in 2004. Last year, it drew 80,000 visitors, including many international guests thanks to a rating as one of Florida's top attractions in a United Kingdom travel guide. He doesn't breed, sell, trade or buy his animals, but nonetheless has had trouble. In 2004, at the St. Johns Agricultural Fair, a declawed 350-pound tiger LoGiudice was escorting on a leash to a cage scratched and frightened a 14-year-old boy. Deputies used Tasers on the tiger, and LoGiudice, who suffered minor injuries, regained control of it. He pleaded no contest to maintaining captive wildlife in an unsafe manner. Catty Shack, according to its 2014 IRS return, had $506,430 in revenue against $252,359 in expenses.
Minding the Keepers
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulate facilities that keep exotic animals.
Animals are categorized into three classes, from "very high risk of human death or injury," or Class I, to "minimal risk," Class III. Until 1980, it was legal to keep Class I dangerous animals such as lions as personal pets in Florida. The state outlawed the practice but let owners keep existing animals. Pet ownership of cougars similarly was banned in 2009.
Over time, pet tigers and komodo dragons have died off, leaving about a dozen people in Florida who own aging pet cougars. Class II animals such as lynxes and ostriches still can be owned as pets. FWC lists 323 holders of licenses for venomous reptiles, 442 holders of licenses to keep under 25 Class I or Class II animals. Another 124 are licensed for 25 or more such animals, and there are 100 licenses to keep Class I or Class II animals as personal pets. The number of people keeping Class III "minimal risk" exotic wildlife as personal pets numbers 600.
Activist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States say Florida didn't go far enough because it still allows owning wolves and some dangerous reptiles as pets.
Florida's other mistake, the Humane Society says, is allowing people to keep dangerous wildlife if engaged in commerce or holding USDA exhibitor licenses. The result, says the society's vice president for wildlife protection, Nicole Paquette, is that some animals are held by people ill-equipped to care for them.
USDA inspection reports, available online (Google "USDA ACIS"), paint a mixed picture of Florida facilities. Some earn clean reports. Others are written up for poor record-keeping, failing to call in a vet, dirty food prep areas, rodent droppings, food in mud, unsafe fences, animals ankle-deep in feces or allowed to attack one another, and euthanasia by firearm rather than according to a program preapproved by a veterinarian.
In 2001, a tiger killed a volunteer repairing a cage at famed animal act trainer and tiger breeder Robert Baudy's Savage Kingdom in Sumter County. In 2006, a 4-year-old girl at a Coral Gables birthday party startled a cougar brought as entertainment and was mauled. In 2014, at Mario Tabraue's Zoological Wildlife in Miami-Dade, a white tiger named Goliath bit off a construction worker's thumb.
Owners of dangerous exotic animals will tell you horses injure people, too. Indeed, Dade City's Wild Things Randy Stearns — quoting a widely cited study — says vending machines kill more people than exotic animals do.
Tigers for Rent
Renee and Mitchel Kalmanson have cattle on a 200-acre farm in Sorrento — and also Russian domestic foxes, a cougar, a spotted leopard, a tiger-lion hybrid and, Renee says, "15 or 16 tigers." Their for-profit Featuring Animals. Com supplies animals for photo-shoots, film and commercial production, private functions and educational displays off site. "We call it a hobby," she says.
Mario Tabraue's for-profit Zoological Wildlife Foundation, formerly Zoological Imports 2000, in Miami-Dade says it has more than 150 animals, though the last federal inspection counted 95, including nine lions. It rates ahead of Zoo Miami on Trip Advisor's list of top things to do in Miami. It costs $85 for a standard tour and $165 for the tour plus "up to 10 minutes" with a cougar cub or play session with a tiger cub. Tabraue has been in the exotic animal business a long time, but it's another business line that animal activists bring up. From 1976 to 1987, according to a federal indictment from 1990, he managed an enterprise that smuggled tons of marijuana and dozens of kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. Tabraue, who declined to be interviewed for this article, served 12 years of a 100-year prison sentence related to drugs.