How does Florida continue to surprise me? Earlier this spring I visited an exotic wildlife refuge in Arcadia, complete with lions, tigers, a bear, and more.
Lions, Tigers & Bears is Not a Zoo
Gibbons howled, peacocks screeched, and other birds crowed as I arrived at Lions, Tigers & Bears, Inc., in Arcadia. A male peacock strutted up, looked me over, and after meeting his criteria, granted me access into the facility.
Lions, Tigers & Bears is home to about 150 exotic and native wildlife and each has their own story. First and foremost, this is not a zoo. It is a non-profit, 40-acre wildlife refuge. Ms. Lynn Wittmeier and her husband co-founded the facility in 1998.
Animals Gone Wild in the City
She estimates about 95 percent of the animals come from private owners with the rest coming from other sanctuaries or government confiscations. These animals, which include a coyote, a black bear, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and cougars, cannot be released into their native habitat. They do not have the instinctive skills to survive. Others, as servals, tigers, a black bear, a lion, and ring-tailed lemur, were born in captivity and landed at the rescue facility.
Exotic Wildlife Are Not Photo Props
Ms. Wittmeier showed me the property and introduced me to several of the residents, many of which came from what she calls Florida’s “picture trade.” Each state regulates the ownership of dangerous exotic animals, whether for private, commercial, or educational use.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission oversees permitting within the Sunshine State. Under Florida state law, small, young cubs (between the ages of 8 – 12 weeks and less than 25 pounds), can interact with the public which includes being held and/or petted.
In the case of several animals, they were photo props at an attraction. Once the animal is older than 12 weeks and/or heavier than 25 pounds, it can no longer have human interaction. The fortunate ones find permanent homes, like Lions, Tigers & Bears. The unfortunate ones may have their life cut short.
Samson and Delilah, a pair of Siberian tigers, were six weeks old when they arrived at the refuge in 2010. Bred for the “picture trade,” they landed at a sanctuary and then to the care of Ms. Wittmeier. She describes it as a “privilege” to raise them. Samson weighed 2 pounds at birth and today, he’s about 800 pounds while Delilah is about 400 pounds.
Cassie, a Bengal tiger, ended up at the facility in 2000 because of her fur color. She came from a white tiger breeder but was born orange. Walking up to her kennel, which includes a pool like all the other quarters for the tigers, she huffed a “chuff-chuff” sound which indicates happiness.
Roar of a Lion
As I toured the grounds, I had the honor of hearing Alex, a lion, roar, not once, not twice, but four times. The five-year-old arrived at the refuge last year after living in the Tampa Bay area for four years. He began roaring at the age of 4 which proved bothersome in the urban area.
A Gibbon Calls
Sydney, one of two gibbons, was also vocal during my visit. She provided the background music throughout the day with her “whoooo-WHOOO-whooo” which reminded me of an office building fire alarm or London police siren. Sydney was a woman’s pet, however, as explained to me, when these small apes reach maturity, they become aggressive and dangerous.
Watching her playfully swing from bar to hoop to bar inside her quarters, it was difficult imagining how a creature with a gentle face could be so vicious. But then, I saw her fangs (and watched her twerk against her cage wall) and remembered animals, whether wild or domesticated, are unpredictable.
Licked by a Young Buck
John Deer is a resident visitors can interact with. The white-tailed deer is about 13 years old and came from a Florida boys’ camp where about 150 people a day petted him. In addition to his fondness of cozying up to visitors and licking them, what makes him unique are his short, velvet antlers. Apparently, he was neutered in his velvet and will remain that way.
Small Facility But a Mighty Big Heart
In addition to the big cats, the gibbons, and John Deer, Lions, Tigers & Bears is also home to exotic and domestic birds, reptiles such as an 18-foot Burmese python and tortoises, and other mammals.
FWC oversees Lions, Tigers & Bears. Volunteers staff the family-friendly rescue facility. The grounds are lush with green grassy areas, trees for shade, and a covered picnic area which school groups and families utilize.
While providing a caring home, Lions, Tigers & Bears educates visitors. Visit to see big cats and other exotic animals but also learn about each animal, how they ended up there, and the impact of owning exotic pets.
“I would love to see these animals go back to the wild…our ambition is to stop private owners from getting these exotics,” Ms. Wittmeier told me, and added, “Or if they’re going to get them, do something where you’re doing something like we are…teaching people about the exotics, about the environment and how the two of them mix.”
The refuge is not big, but the stories of each resident, including the founders, will fill your heart.
Nuts & Bolts About Lions, Tigers, & Bears, Inc.
Lions, Tigers & Bears, Inc.
9801 N.E. Bahia Ct.
Arcadia, FL 34265
Thursday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Due to summertime temperatures, July, August and September are by appointment only. Call for reservations.
Guided tours are offered every hour. Although it’s a walking tour, a golf cart is available to transport guests with mobility issues. Tours are about a 60 -90 minutes.
Admission: Adults $15 minimum donation
Kids $5 minimum donation
Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring water, insect repellent.
The road to Lions, Tigers, & Bears is next to the Arcadia Stockyard.