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Lions, tigers and Elmira's dreams

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lionsStory and photos by MITCH TRAPHAGEN

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WIMAUMA — The bear loves peppermint candy. As she sees the woman walking up to her cage, she knows what is coming and the crinkle of clear cellophane confirms it. A peppermint candy, white with red stripes so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible in bowls on every receptionist’s desk. Elmira the bear sticks her nose into the chainlink fence that forms her home and gently takes the candy from the woman. She crunches down happily for a moment or two and then it is gone. Of course she would like another but doesn’t say anything — her sense of entitlement is limited. She seems happier to see the woman than the peppermint candy.

“She would let me know about it if I didn’t bring one,” said Deb Kaprive of Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary.

Elmira the bear is the namesake of Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Wimauma. She was born in captivity and has known only two homes in her life. Her current home is on the neatly kept grounds of a formerly vacant and long-for-sale lot near the end of a dirt road in Wimauma. Her cage is furnished with a large, galvanized tub of water, a simple concrete shelter and two electrical cable spools (the smaller one for a seat and the larger one as the table on which she eats). A small group of volunteers are her family. Living in a cage is all she has ever known. It is all she has. Perhaps somewhere deep inside her soul or in her dreams at night, she is roaming streams and meadows; and almost certainly in those dreams of freedom and nature is the image of Deb Kaprive beside her, unwrapping a peppermint candy.

Also in that dream are people that she has never met; people who are willing to dig into their pockets to help her and the other animals who live here. Elmira needs help — she needs your help, if you can provide it. It doesn’t matter where or how you live, she needs you in her dreams.

Elmira at BreakfastApproximately 45 exotic animals have found a home in this rural sanctuary. They have come from private collections with owners that could no longer control the once small, cute, fuzzy creatures; or from previous owners who have made no provisions for the animals that depended upon them. They have come from other sanctuaries and from zoos wanting to be rid of animals that weren’t quite perfect enough for the public.

“All of them are beautiful but you’ll see some crossed eyes out there,” Kaprive said as she prepared to introduce the animals.

Recently the staff at Elmira’s was asked to take part in a rescue. Another sanctuary was being closed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and there were large cats that needed a home. Elmira’s couldn’t afford to say “yes”; but their souls wouldn’t allow them to say “no”. The cats were rescued.

None of the animals at Elmira’s can be returned to the wild. All have been born in captivity and have spent their lives depending upon people. Like Elmira the bear, all have names: Albert, Casper, Lexi and Little Al. They will spend the rest of their lives depending on people. It is all they know.

“They aren’t domestic but they aren’t wild,” Kaprive said. “They couldn’t survive in the wild. This is their forever home.”

Albert is a good bear. At least he nodded his head up and down when I asked him if he was. In reality, however, he probably wasn’t responding to my question as much has he was to the sight of Kaprive walking up to his cage. Sitting, he wasn’t much taller than a large dog. He continued nodding and then he reached out to her, placing an enormous paw on the cage as she began to speak to him. She asked if he had enjoyed his breakfast.

Albert doesn’t know anything about recessions or layoffs or foreclosures; but yet the economy has had an impact on his life. Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary depends entirely upon donations; the generosity of others.

elmira“There are no paid employees,” Kaprive said. “Every copper penny donated goes to the feeding and care of the animals and the maintenance of our humble facility.”

The needs are large. The animals must be fed regardless of the donations that come in. Volunteers frequently dip into their own pockets to make up the difference. Kaprive and founder Robin Greenwood, among others, have tailored their lives and their finances around providing the animals their best possible forever home. Like the other volunteers, they take nothing monetarily. Costs to run the sanctuary are around $3,500 per month.

In addition to food, the staff also hopes to build a large, fenced area to give the cats and other animals space to roam and play. To make that happen and to simply meet the normal maintenance needs, they not only need to find the funds for materials, but they also need volunteers. Kaprive currently has a list of approximately 70 people who have offered to help, yet only a handful have followed through.

“People will call to volunteer and then say, ‘I want to hug a cougar,’” Kaprive said. “That’s just not going to happen. But I know there are people who are looking for something to do, who have time. They can really make a difference here.”

A few months ago, Kaprive was working three paying jobs. Today her job at Elmira’s is without a salary.

“We all survive by the Grace of God and I’m at peace that there will be opportunities when the time is right,” she said. “In the meantime there are fundraising events to coordinate, cages to clean and tigers to feed. The resumé is ready and I’m practicing patience. I know everything happens for a reason.”

Elmira’s is a little like the Island of Lost Toys from the classic Christmas animation, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, except these aren’t stuffed, stupid or soulless creatures to be easily discarded by the humans that promised to care for them. They happily recognize the people they love and trust. They clearly experience joy. They clearly show sadness and heartache.

When the sanctuary was forced to move a few years ago due to the death of one of the founders and property owner, the animals were terrified as they were herded into cages and relocated to a place that looked and smelled different. It is not possible to sit down with a bear or a tiger or a serval to explain to them what is happening. As far as they knew, it was the end of the world.

But like all of us going through hard times, they adjusted. Their fears subsided and they have now grown to love their new home. Like us, they have come to know their neighbors. Some are shy; some are loud and boisterous; and some are caretakers for others, such as the tigers in adjoining cages, one licking the head of the other through the chain links. Like humans, familiarity and something as simple as touch goes a long ways towards having a sense of comfort in this life, of being reassured that everything is OK.

Their joys are simple. Like a house cat, Little Al began rubbing his cheeks along the chain link fencing of his cage when he saw Kaprive approach. Little Al, an enormous white tiger, is somewhat inappropriately named, it would seem. As Kaprive reached the fence, he rose (only slightly) on his back legs so their faces could meet with fur touching skin between the links of the fence. Being in the presence of the people they know, hearing familiar and calming voices and, for Elmira, the occasional peppermint candy, are the things that bring them joy.

But that joy is reserved for those who have earned it. Kaprive, Greenwood and a handful of other volunteers have dedicated themselves to earning the trust and love of these animals. Many of them will not automatically trust those they do not know.

“A lot of people expect this to be a petting zoo,” Kaprive said. “We aren’t a petting zoo. We are a sanctuary.”

The economy is slow and there are plenty of people that need help these days. But unlike people, these animals can’t apply for food stamps or unemployment benefits. They can’t seek out even menial or low paying jobs. They only know what they’ve been taught since birth: Humans will take care of them. Now Elmira’s is fulfilling the promises made by others.

But for the generosity and compassion of a land owner providing affordable rent; but for the generosity of people keeping promises to creatures that have nowhere else to go; but for the dedication of a handful of volunteers, Elmira, Albert, Casper and the other animals would not have a home. As the saying goes, “There, but for the Grace of God, go I”.

Elmira may dream from an ancient memory of things she has never known — of streams, meadows and damp woods under a clear blue sky. Perhaps you, too, are in those dreams, standing just out of sight behind a tree hearing the crinkle of cellophane as a woman named Deb unwraps a peppermint candy, watching as the bear gently takes the candy into her mouth and happily crunches down on it. It’s a good dream.

On Saturday, July 31 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Copper Penny Restaurant on U.S. Highway 301 in Sun City Center will donate 25 percent of their proceeds to Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary. The fundraiser is open to the public.

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