CANAVERAL GROVES (FloridaToday.com)- After years of yowling and low-frequency "chuffing" in a residential neighborhood, Central Florida Animal Reserve's tigers, lions, cougars and leopards are moving to the wilds of Osceola County.
CFAR has inked a 50-year lease with the Allen Broussard Conservancy, which owns the 3,200-acre Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida. The plan: Build a $1 million compound for 45 abandoned and unwanted great cats on a 10-acre rural spread off State Road 441, about 8 miles south of Holopaw.
Kevin "Simba" Wiltz, CEO and senior vice president of the all-volunteer organization, said CFAR has to raise roughly $400,000 to complete the project, which will include a visitor center and guided tours. This compound will house 33 tigers (including nine rare white tigers), five lions, four cougars and three leopards.
"Right now, we're in a very serious phase where we're getting ready to fund the enclosures. It's going to really take off from here. It's really going to happen," CFAR President Thomas Blue said.
"We're looking forward to being a community resource in Osceola County. All the cats will be ambassadors for their species," said Blue, a Melbourne dentist.
Site work started a few months ago. Construction crews have relocated gopher tortoises, added about 200 dump trucks of fill dirt, and cleared land to cut two private roads, Blue said. Soon, well water and electrical service will be added.
Blue hopes the facility opens by year's end. But a significant challenge looms: safely transporting aging, 500-pound felines to Osceola.
"We're looking at potentially using moving companies, maybe some semis. But the veterinary support is the part that is of most concern to us," Wiltz said.
"It's going to require anesthesia. Some of these cats have never left their enclosures before and are going to be waking up in a brand-new environment. And some of them don't do well under anesthesia," he said.
"So it's going to be kind of touch and go to make sure that they make it there alive," he said.
Wooser, a male Bengal tiger, and Hocsa Win ("Sunflower Girl" in Lakota), a female white Bengal tiger, are CFAR's youngest feline residents at 7½ years old. The eldest is 17-year-old Cheyenne, a female Western cougar who was rescued from an animal dealer and remains "still as feisty as ever," Wiltz described.
"Guys like Raj, he's going to be a scary situation," he said, standing outside the 15-year-old Bengal tiger's enclosure. Rajah nearly starved to death after a former police officer in Fort Lauderdale abandoned him. The tiger was confiscated by state wildlife officers.
"Raj is one of those cats that doesn't do well under anesthesia. Even under routine care, we've had some trouble. He's one that we're very concerned about, being able to move safely," Wiltz said, watching Raj pace back and forth, rubbing his shaggy head on his cage fencing.
CFAR won a $50,000 second-place prize in a RYOT.org charitable fundraising contest in August and September. That online campaign has netted the group more than $166,000 to date. CFAR also hosted a TigerTracks 5K race in October in Indian Harbour Beach and a motorcycle poker run in November that ended in Grant-Valkaria.
Wiltz said one resident cat - Kukla ("Baby Doll" in Greek), a female Western cougar - may help pinpoint endangered Florida panthers. Only 100 to 160 adults and yearlings remain in the Sunshine State, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists' estimates.
"When she goes into heat, she 'calls.' It is already known that there are Florida panthers somewhere out in that area where we're going," Wiltz said. "She may draw in the Florida panther population from the wild"