Stanley came rushing over hoping for a cookie. When he saw that the human he knew didn’t have one, he rubbed his face against the fence to say “hi” and then dove back into his pool. Stanley loves his pool. He splashes, he plays with large, floating toys, and he climbs out only to dive back in again with an enormous splash. If a grizzly bear can smile, Stanley is grinning from ear to ear. Stanley is home.
But if it weren’t for Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Wimauma, Stanley would likely be dead. One less grizzly bear on the planet. One less spark of life, one less simple joyful dive into a pool. It is a joy that is palatable, by the way. Stanley freely shares it. You can feel it. Come out any Saturday for a tour and you can feel for yourself. It will make you smile. He will soften your heart to the point of melting.
A pessimist could say that the exotic animals at Elmira’s have come to this place to die. Indeed, most of them are older than Stanley. Some, like Elmira the Bear herself, the sanctuary’s namesake, are quite old, aging into their teens and beyond. But the pessimistic view would be wrong. These animals are here to live.
It would be like the Island of Misfit Toys were it not real life, and real life and death. For the four dozen exotic animals that have found their home at Elmira’s, this is their last home, their forever home. It is here they have found their best home; a place they know they are loved and they are safe. And, in return, they provide love. They provide humans with their increasingly rare company and they often rush out to say “hi.”
Well, “hi” along with, perhaps, the hope for a cookie, but they aren’t overly disappointed if there isn’t one. They are home and they are happy.
Elmira’s is a sanctuary, not a sideshow — and the animals are not puppies, kittens and teddy bears. They are wild animals that drew what most might think of as bad cards of fate. They came from petting zoos, other sanctuaries, people who had hoped to profit from them, and from people who, while perhaps well-intentioned, could no longer handle having a full-grown tiger as a house pet. In their hearts and souls, they are wild, but they also clearly have feelings, they love — and that love includes humans. Anyone who has ever had a dog or a cat would not question their capacity to love, to have feelings; it is a given and it is obvious. Just as it is obvious at Elmira’s.
Yet like puppies and kittens, through their draw of the cards of fate, they are completely dependent upon humans for their survival. None can be released into the wild. None could survive, even if there were a wild place left for them. It wasn’t their choice; it is their lot. But they are happy, they love, they have found a safe home. And that home exists only through the hearts and wallets of those who can feel, of those who care.
The pool that Stanley loves so much came from some very generous people, Robin Greenwood said.
“He was at a facility that had no bear license, so they had to find a home for him. So here he is.”
A grizzly bear isn’t the easiest of God’s creatures to place, especially one that has always had to depend upon humans. He merely assumed that promises were forever but then found out they weren’t — at least until he came to Elmira’s, where he found his forever home and where the promises are kept.
“He was being handled when he came to us, but we don’t do that anymore,” she said. “He is so big and strong. We don’t know how big he is going to end up being. He’s a lot of maintenance but he’s a lot of fun.”
She paused to chuckle when Stanley dove back into his pool with an enormous splash. “I can’t help but to laugh every time I see him do that,” she said.
Driving a golf cart down a narrow access path, Greenwood didn’t flinch in the least when a large tiger came rushing out from near a pond to crash against the fence, only inches from her seat in the golf cart.
“He is only coming over to say ‘hi,’” she said, an exciting illustration of her earlier point.
“There is no wild for him anymore, even if he could be taught to live without us,” she said. “Tigers are not native to the U.S. Most of the tiger population has been wiped out in China.”
But they are not endangered inside the more than six acres of this sanctuary. They do, however, seem to enjoy hanging out as a couple of humans talk just on the other side of the fence.
None of these animals were bred here, Greenwood said. “These are all animals that needed homes. They came from facilities that were shut down — quite a few of them came from that. Some of them were bred by people for pictures, some of them are just from stray owners.”
She then told the story of a man who ran a sanctuary up north. One day he let all of the animals free and then committed suicide. The local sheriff had no option — all of the animals were hunted down and shot. Setting such animals free is the equivalent of a death sentence.
Little Al makes you wonder how big a “Big Al” might be. Little Al is a very large white tiger who rubbed his furry cheeks along the fence when he saw Robin walk up. Fingers aren’t allowed inside of the fence. No one gets to hug a tiger, grizzly bear or panther. Elmira’s is not a petting zoo.
“It’s not so much that they would bite you but if they leaned on you, they’d break your fingers,” she said as Little Al again happily rubbed his large cheek against the fence. Then he lay down and closed his eyes, no doubt thinking and being comforted by how nice Robin is as a human.
There is Casper, the 13-year-old lion; there are lemurs, birds, timber wolves and Lexi the tiger, who takes care of her brother who has problems with his hearing and his eyesight. All of them, at least 48 in all, depend upon Robin and a core group of 25 or so volunteers. And they depend upon you, too.
“We survive on the $10, $25, and $50 donations. We have the same bills that a household has — we have a trash bill and an electric bill and a food bill,” Robin said.
The food bill is enormous. If the sanctuary can truly be compared to a household, it would be one with a few hundred hungry teenagers. The Walmart in Wimauma helps with leftover meat, dog food and other needed items, but they still have to buy more. A single tiger can eat 10 pounds of food per day. And there is more than just food — the animals aren’t just here to die, they are here to live.
“We try to make them happy, to enrich their lives,” Robin said. “They have balls and toys and we make piñatas for them. They have boxes and paper bags.”
Which, as most cat owners know, are often more popular than the toys they contain — something the tigers at Elmira’s have also proven. Even something as simple as a watermelon can make a day for a big cat or a bear.
“I think they are as happy as they can be living in captivity,” she continued. “They have no idea what it would be like living in the wild. But there are also benefits — their life spans are close to double here than in the wild.”
Some of the tigers have access to a very large fenced area where they can live out a little of what might exist in their dreams, being wild and free. Robin hopes to find the money to build another area. Generally only one tiger gets to live that dream at a time.
Robin Greenwood is the founder, the grant-writer, the volunteer coordinator, the manager — and she does all of that when she is not raking cages or shoveling up poop. The animals love her, but there is little rest, there are few vacations for her. (“I can’t turn over the keys to just anyone,” she said.)
“I didn’t expect this,” she said. “I expected to be working my old job for a long, long time. But this has been worth it. It’s a labor of love. I don’t have any regrets. I could be in an office in downtown Tampa, but instead I’m sitting here, out here, talking with you.“
Sitting and talking while Little Al, the large white tiger, plays with a gigantic ball or rubs his cheeks on the fence nearby, and Stanley climbs out for another dive into his pool. A short distance away, a panther naps in the afternoon September heat while lemurs grab their tails and try to out-fly each other across their cage, and birds chirp and chatter a few cages down. Down a path, two timber wolves curl up together for a nap and Lexi the tiger keeps a caring eye on her brother.
Sitting here, a place where Elmira the Bear found her second and last forever home, with her simple table and chair made from large cable spools and her wishes of an occasional cookie often answered, along with her wish just to be near the humans she knows and loves. I assure you, stand near her and you can feel that Elmira has feelings; she has love. She is not a misfit toy — she is one of God’s miracles. She is a bear. A real bear — and she is happy.
Sitting here, it is clear that this is a special place. In an increasingly virtual world, this is reality with which computers simply can’t compete. But it’s more than that — it is real life and life saving. It is caring for something far beyond just us.
Stanley tilted his head as he looked over at us. And then he smiled.
• Tours of Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary are held each Saturday and on the first Sunday of each month. There are no paid employees, so all of the funds generated, along with all donations, go entirely to the care of the animals. Elmira’s was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2005 and has had U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for tours since 2011. Donations may be sent to P.O. Box 63, Wimauma, FL, 33598 or via their website at www.elmiraswildlife.org. Tours may be booked on the website or by calling 800-979-3370.
• Writer’s note: I’ve known Robin Greenwood and have visited Elmira’s since she first began the sanctuary on borrowed land many years ago — land that was suddenly and painfully lost upon the death of their benefactor. Greenwood and the many volunteers recovered from that, helped the animals to recover, and with each visit, the sanctuary has improved through sweat, worries, and the labor of love. They do everything they can to help the animals, to keep them safe, happy and loved — something that often involves reaching into their own pockets. I know all too well there are many deserving causes and needs in South Hillsborough, but if you have a little (or a lot) extra for Stanley, Little Al, Lexi and Elmira, my gratitude, and that of everyone at Elmira’s, would be boundless. These animals have nowhere else to go. They have no one else to turn to. Go for a tour and see for yourself what standing in front of a live tiger can do for you and for your spirit. And then, if you can, find out how helping them will do even more. They need us.