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Wildlife sanctuary opens to the public

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image Photo gallery at end of article. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Only a year ago, Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary was in survival mode.


WIMAUMA — Elmira dances when she sees Deb and Sally walk up. The large bear jumps off her wooden perch, throws herself against the fence, and then jumps back up on her perch making little noises. She is so happy and excited to see them that she can barely contain herself. Elmira’s joy is in the people she loves, and in the people who love her.

Only a year ago, Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary was in survival mode. The staff was focused entirely on the day-to-day needs of feeding the animals in their care and in maintaining the property. They wanted to do things right, they wanted to do right by the animals, and they worked hard to never let the unending stress of financial pressure impact the quality of their care.

Fast forward to this year with the all-volunteer staff succeeding on all accounts. The grounds are immaculately kept, the cages are set up and maintained, and they have been given the blessing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open the facility for public tours. The financial pressure remains, but volunteers, local businesses and a community organization have stepped in to help. All of that has made a difference for the property and the staff, who use money from their own pockets to keep things running, and mostly for the animals. It has made a difference for Elmira the bear.

We live in a strange new world filled with information to the point of overload. Images of virtually anything on earth are available simply by typing a few words into Google. It is a world in which it is easy to forget that something like standing in front of a live tiger is an amazing, awe-inspiring experience. But stop and think for a moment or two to take in the coloring of the fur, the light in the eyes, the spots and stripes, the whiskers, the enormous paws, and the fangs (oh yes, don’t forget the fangs). Take all of that in while letting the overload of the 24-hour news cycle fade away. Make no mistake; standing in front of a live tiger IS an amazing experience.

Now thanks to the dedication of the staff, thanks to the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center, thanks to the benefits hosted by the Copper Penny Restaurant, and thanks to local Walmart stores for providing leftover meat, you can stand in front of a live tiger by making the short drive to the sanctuary located near Wimauma. But don’t come with the wrong expectations. The animals are not exhibits; the sanctuary is not a theme park. For 47 exotic animals, it is their home — their forever home. Instead, come to see them and marvel at their spirits and in their beauty. Come to learn about them. Come to help them.

“It’s not set up to look pretty,” said Elmira’s Volunteer Coordinator Deb Kaprive. “It’s not set up to showcase the animals. More often than not, they will be napping in the afternoon when people come. But it is important that we can invite the public to come here. It’s one thing to say that this is our mission to save these animals, it’s another thing to be able to show people how and what we are doing.”

The USDA has very strict guidelines on how things need to be done, including everything from labeling buckets, cleaning the cages, and ensuring the safety of the public. You won’t be allowed inside the cages to pet a tiger or a lion, but you can revel in their spirits and in their majesty. You can see them, as they will be able to see you. You can decide if you want to help them.

“Everybody that is on this property is a volunteer,” Kaprive continued. “It’s a difficult thing; we have to screen the applicants. Some people just want to come to pet a leopard and that’s not going to happen. Some people think it’s all going to be fun and games, like a petting zoo. It’s dirty work and it’s hard work, but the dirtiest and the hardest chores are the best and the most rewarding because that’s where the animals deal with you. They will see you coming and they will greet you. No one gets paid, but when you see an animal chuffing and rubbing up against the fence when they see you, then you know they just want to see you, well there’s your bonus.”

Some people may visit and think, “I can’t stand to see these animals in cages.”  The animals at Elmira’s, however, were born in captivity and cannot be released into the wild. As one volunteer put it, they would die horrific deaths if returned to the wild. They were taught to depend upon people. It is all they know. And here in their forever home, they will feel the love of those who care for them. They will nap contentedly with full bellies while visitors pass by in the afternoon sunshine. They will spend their lives knowing they are cared for and are safe.

“I hope people come here and see what we are really about, that our mission is to provide and care for these animals for [the rest of] their lives,” Kaprive said. “I know there are animal lovers out there that want to be part of it. It’s very simple to be part of it. It’s easy to be a volunteer even if you don’t want to clean cages. You could throw a [benefit] party and be a volunteer, having a cocktail party saying that instead of bringing wine or flowers, bring $10 for the animals — even if you had 10 people bringing $10, you’d have a good time and $100 is a lot of money to us.”

The sanctuary also offers memberships for as little as $25 per year.

“We call it the ‘bear’ minimum membership,” Kaprive said. “But any amount helps us. It helps us to pay for the food and pay for the rent. Donations go directly to the care and feeding of the animals. There are no paid employees.”

On the tour, you may hear about the bobcat that suffered a head injury and lost sight in one eye. Unable to fend for herself, she found her sanctuary at Elmira’s. However, you might not see her. She is terrified of people, and she is still adjusting to her new home. There are others like her. Here, the needs of the animals come first. While the animal’s needs are being met, the sanctuary’s dreams remain outstanding. When enough money or another grant comes their way, they hope to complete a large, fenced play area for the big cats. The cages were built with back doors to give the cats some freedom to roam. Money and some hard work are all that stand in the way of making it a reality.

The ears of the large white tiger were flat; her eyes were peeking over the galvanized tub filled with water. The bath was a relief from the afternoon heat and in her mind, she was invisible to the approaching strangers. But when she saw volunteer Sally Haase walk up, she leapt out of the tub and began to rub her cheeks against the chain link fence of her cage. Her joy was palpable and infectious. Like Elmira the bear, Shadow the tiger loves her home. She loves Sally the volunteer. It is all she knows and all she has. She is happy.

Public tours of Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary, located at 13910 Seminole Trail in Wimauma, are held on the first and third Saturday of each month at 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for those 17 and under, and children under three admitted at no charge. Anyone under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. All of the money collected goes directly to the care and feeding of the animals.
Donations are accepted and memberships are available by visiting www.elmiraswildlife.org, by calling 813-634-4115 (leave a message, the volunteers are usually out tending to the animals), or by mail sent to:

Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc.
PO Box 63
Wimauma, FL 33598

All members will receive a quarterly newsletter filled with updates about the animals and events and projects at the sanctuary.

Volunteer opportunities run the gamut from working with the animals directly, to office work, to assisting in providing 24/7 coverage of the front gate (someone is on the property at all times to ensure the protection of the animals).
A “Wish List” containing items ranging from watermelons (Elmira loves them) to dog food and Jolly Balls (very hard balls for the cats to play with) is available on their website.

On August 21, Elmira’s will hold an onsite public grand opening celebration entitled Thai One On For The Tigers, that will include an authentic Thai dinner, live music and a tour of the sanctuary.  For information, visit their website.  I will look forward to seeing you there.

Elmira's Wildlife Sanctuary July 2, 2011 - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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