Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization, held a gift day during the week of St. Patrick’s Day. The tigers and a young grizzly bear had a wonderful time. For the most part, anyway.
The large, white Bengal tiger instantly awoke from slumber, sensing prey. The cat walked out onto the sun-baked earth, crouched, moving slowly yet with absolute confidence. If lions are the kings of the jungle, this tiger certainly qualified as a queen.
The giraffe stood more than eight feet tall, with ears erect as if hoping to hear the sound of approaching danger. But it didn’t move as the large, lethal cat slowly advanced ever closer. Finally, the tiger stood directly behind the giraffe and slowly raised an enormous paw filled with what could be described as the claws of death.
Ever so slowly, quietly, the tiger’s paw made contact with the giraffe’s left rear flank. And then, suddenly, the giraffe fell over with a clunk! A clunk that only cardboard and cardboard tubes can make. If tigers think in words, this tiger was no doubt thinking: “Whoa, whoa! Wait! That was loud! I’m getting out of here!”
And the frightened tiger quickly ran away, leaving behind the cardboard giraffe. Two of its cardboard-tube legs had fallen off.
For some of the tigers and a young grizzly bear at Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary, the week of St. Patrick’s Day provided an excuse for a gift day. In addition to the cardboard giraffe, burlap bags filled with hay were provided to some of the animals. Another white tiger picked up his bag, dipped it into his large, galvanized pool and then proceeded to proudly carry the now-unimaginably heavy bag around his cage. Two other tigers competed in grabbing the bag and tearing it apart. The young grizzly, named Stanley, played endlessly with his bag; holding it in his mouth and whipping it back and forth; tossing it into and retrieving it from his large, tiled pool. Rather than tear it apart with his fearsome looking claws, he chose to keep it intact as if taking care of his new toy.
Elmira’s is the forever home for a wide variety of exotic animals. Many of the animals, including the tigers, came from other sanctuaries that had closed down or had more animals than they could support. Some even came from private owners. As the years have passed and the sanctuary has gained recognition for its professionalism, as well as licensing under the strict requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for public tours, the animals come in from even wider sources.
Recently, a large turtle was found in a state park. The turtle was not native to Florida and a large piece of its shell had been crushed. With few places to turn, park officials called Elmira’s, who immediately arranged for veterinary care for the turtle, which now sports a fiberglass cover over the crushed part of the shell, thus allowing the turtle to not only survive but apparently to grow a new shell underneath the fiberglass. The turtle, which is expected to grow to more than 100 pounds, has found its forever home. According to Elmira’s founder, Robin Greenwood, plans are in the works to build a habitat for it.
Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary, located off U.S. 301 just south of Sun City Center and just inside Manatee County, is named after Elmira the Bear, the sanctuary’s first resident (appropriately, her home is near the center of the sanctuary). The early years were rough and uncertain, with the all-volunteer staff often reaching into their own pockets to ensure that the animals were fed and received the proper medical care. Some came to the sanctuary with injuries or defects, deemed no longer “good enough” for petting zoos. Others came from private homes in which the owners simply underestimated their ability to care for them. All have been received with open arms.
Through the years Greenwood and her dedicated staff of volunteers kept moving forward, kept finding ways to improve the sanctuary with the resources they have and could find, and the result has been a remarkably wonderful home for animals that simply have nowhere else to go.
People often ask, “Why don’t you set them free?” The answer, of course, is, where could they possibly be set free? Would you release a tiger in Ocala National Forest? And more so, few, if any, of the animals have the skills to survive on their own. Elmira’s is now the only home they know. The volunteers are the humans they know. They simply could not survive in the wild, even if a wild place could be found for them.
And so, with an all-volunteer staff — every penny donated goes towards the care and feeding of the animals, as well as improving the property for the benefit of the animals — the sanctuary has become a remarkable place. A forever home for exotic animals who have only known to depend upon humans for their care. And in landing at Elmira’s, the humans they found are exceptional at providing that care. The animals are respected and they are loved.
Many of the large cat cages surround a huge play area, complete with a pond, trees for shade and platforms for sunning. Fencing that once stood around the former state women’s prison near Balm has been purchased to create another fenced area for other large cats and other animals.
After the giraffe incident, which took place in the large play area, Shadow, the white tiger, after running away, resumed her Queen of the Jungle role by first cooling off with a dip in the pond and then chasing her friend Chuff Chuff the tiger.
Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary exists solely through the generosity of area residents and businesses. For the 50 or more animals in the sanctuary, ranging from bears to servals, lemurs and bobcats to tigers, exotic birds and now to an injured turtle, the sanctuary is not only their forever home, it is also the home of last resort. The dedication of Greenwood and the volunteers works to ensure that forever really does mean forever.
The large cats played much like any house cat would play. I asked Greenwood if it were possible to simply walk into the play area — would the cats attack? Although neither she, nor any staff would ever do that with one or more cats loose, she thought it could well be possible with some of them but if a 500- or 700-pound tiger decides to give you a hug, that could easily be fatal, even if unintentional. The sanctuary has elaborate but efficient means to move the animals to allow for playtime, cage cleaning, or even medical care without risking life and limb or coming into direct contact with any of them.
Like the tigers, Stanley, the young grizzly bear, loved his new toy, the simple burlap bag filled with hay. He carried it in his mouth almost proudly as if to say, “Look what I have!” He dunked it in the water, only to pull it out and use it as a cooling pillow. He would climb into his pool with it, sitting tummy deep on a pool step holding it like a child at Christmas-time. It was the perfect gift.
“And it was cheap,” Greenwood added. Making it even more perfect.
As for the giraffe, Shadow, the large white tiger, apparently wasn’t amused. As Greenwood and I stood outside of the tall, sturdy chain-link fence of the play area, Shadow walked up, turned her rear end toward us and sprayed directly between us; a warning shot, missing us both.
If tigers could talk, I have a feeling she was saying, “Very funny about that giraffe thing.”
And then all was forgiven as she rubbed her beautiful but enormous face along the fence, much like a house cat might do, sat down and looked at us. Just a full-grown tiger and a couple of humans and an afternoon together.
Spending time with a tiger. Elmira’s is magical like that.
Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Every penny donated goes toward the feeding and the care of the animals. The sanctuary offers public tours on Saturdays at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., and on the first Sunday of each month at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Requested tour donations are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and above, and $7 for children up to the age of 12. The sanctuary also holds numerous special events throughout the year. Additionally, Elmira’s offers memberships in a wide range of levels.
For more information, visit www.elmiraswildlife.org.