LIONS AND TIGERS AND TURKEYS– OH WOW!

The Saint Augustine Wild Reserve

They are heard like a beautiful natural chorus of chuffs, howls, giggles, grunts, and clicks.  It inflames the imagination with the scene of a tent near a campfire in a deep jungle setting in the wilds of an exotic location in Africa.  Yes, it could well be just as we imagine, but this choir can sometimes be heard by residents of an average Saint Augustine, Florida neighborhood if they listen carefully.  Its members are lions, tigers, bears, wolves, hyenas, servals, lynx, ligers, porcupine and even turkeys.  They all live happy, carefree lives at the Saint Augustine Wild Reserve, located in West Saint Augustine near World Golf Village.

It is a cold, wet, and gloomy day, uncharacteristic for Saint Augustine even an afternoon in December, but the spirits of the volunteers are not dampened as they prepare for the tour.  They are loading up the golf cart they use to get around the Reserve with food and equipment, preparing the various diets and meals for the animals and cleaning enclosures.  All the volunteers take on a plethora of tasks and chores, including but not limited to cleaning, diet, meal prep, tour guiding, and training.  It is clear from their actions that the mutual effort comes from the heart.  Volunteer tour guide Karen has been at the Reserve for approximately twelve years and it is obviously a labor of love for her.  She is conducting the tour today while the other volunteers follow along with the golf cart.

The tour members drive over a few winding roads to the entrance of the Reserve.  There is no signage, but no one has a problem finding it.  The Reserve, entrenched between an abundance of venerable oaks, pines, and palms is nestled next to a spring filled lake.  Some lush vegetation lost to recent hurricanes, is coming back. Other than the loss of one of the large enclosures due to a tree falling on it, there was no other significant damage.

Karen is at the gate to receive the tour members.  They exchange pleasantries as they walk down a short, coquina sand path to a table with benches under a large weathered arbor.  The arbor is just outside the approximately 12 feet tall chain link fence, which encloses the entire Reserve.  Waiting by the table is, as Karen introduces them, Linda, Marty, Kathy and Fred, four other volunteers.

The group of twelve tourists gathers at the entrance to the main enclosure.  Karen says in the summer months the numbers jump to ninety to one hundred people on the tour.  There is a mixed demographic of people from elementary children to great-grandparents.

All eyes focus on a gorgeous bright colored Macaw inside the enclosure in its own cage.  The volunteers call her O’Hara and she is just as attention-grabbing as her namesake.  Whatever she is trying to say, as she dances around in her blazing feathered costume, she is adamant about it.  In a large cage next to her is a relatively calm, bright green, blue and red Military Macaw named Max, trying not very successfully, to get a word in.  Military macaws have recently been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Volunteer Linda opens the gate to the main enclosure and directs the group to tour guide, Karen who is standing next to an enclosure just inside the gate.  To some members, it looks like a cute baby deer inside, but Karen corrects them.  It is, a small white-tail deer, called Amira, which they found as a baby.  Amira scrutinizes the group with endearing large brown eyes.

Gathering in and around the group, as if they are members, are a great number of Crested Polish Chickens and Royal Palm Turkeys.  There are also some Vultures who show up wanted or not.  The Crested Polish Chicken is an ancient breed, originating in England in 1565, at about the same time St. Augustine was founded.  Considered an ornamental breed, the hens lay beautiful white eggs that are smaller than other chicken eggs.

The Royal Palm Turkeys are ornamental birds weighing up to twenty-two pounds and are not selected for the meat industry.  There is one following Karen and vocalizing as if to take over the tour.  The turkey’s name is ‘Lucky’ because Deborah saved her egg.  She found an abandoned nest and picked the egg apart to see how developed the chick was. To her surprise, there was a healthy, very much alive turkey chick inside. She extracted it from the shell, kept it on a heating pad and raised it into the adult hen we see today.  Lucky soon becomes a favorite of the group.  As the tour continues Lucky talks to the big cats and the cats seem to like talking back.

One of the group asks if the animals surrendered to the reserve by Michael Jackson are still here.  Karen explains, “Those animals, five Arctic Wolves, and an African Lion, passed away some time ago.”  This is the most well-known acquisition of animals by the reserve, but they have rescued unwanted exotic animals from many sources.  From individuals who get an exotic pet, only to realize that the animal’s wild nature doesn’t fit into their life (or their household) as they expected.  Two wolves rescued when their owner had a fatal auto accident.  Many of the animals are confiscated by wildlife agencies from individuals who held these animals without proper state permits, or who starved their animals, keeping them in inferior conditions.  The Reserve also takes in unwanted exotic animals as an alternative to euthanasia.  There are almost as many stories behind the acquisitions as there are animals.

The tour group is standing before an enclosure where Savuti and Cynzer, African Servals, live.  Karen tells them, “Servals are the only cats with both stripes and spots and have the longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any cat family member.  They can jump 10 feet straight up into a flock of birds.”  Deborah Warrick, the Founder of the Reserve, brought them with her from California, where she did Disney shows with them.

Deborah has worked with exotic animals all her life, having received extensive training at the Los Angeles Zoo.  She has received her AA Degree, and B.S. Degree in Holistic Nutrition to better care for the animals’ nutritional needs.  She earned her B.S. degree in Biology in 2011, graduating Magna Cum Laude.  The Reserve is her labor of love and she has an ongoing relationship with each animal at the Reserve.

It is undeniable that all the volunteers have a similar connection with the animals.  They treat them as their children, playing with them as they feed them.  The work is tedious and dirty, and all the workers are unpaid volunteers.  Yet they come back each day because they have a passion for what they do.

The tour is observing Malyshka, a Siberian Lynx.  Her claws crunch on dried leaves and sticks as she paces back and forth inside her enclosure.  She is not large relative to the other cats, but she looks strong and formidable.  Karen approaches the enclosure and places her hand on the wire.  Malyshka strides over and throws herself against the wire so that Karen can stroke her through the small openings in the chain link.  “Malyshka”, she explains, “means ‘baby girl’ in Russian.”   She was bred as a pet at the request of a buyer.  When she was three months old, the buyer didn’t want her anymore; so, the breeder sent her to the reserve.

The group watches as the volunteers tend to their tasks without complaint.  “Here is Serabi, a beautiful, sweet African Lioness.  She comes from the Barbary Coast and is a very large girl, weighing approximately 5oo pounds”, Karen is saying.  “I call her ‘my baby’.  I have been kissing her on the head since she was just 33 days old and I still do.”  Serabi rubs against the enclosure, where Karen is standing, in an obvious play for attention.

Then the other volunteers approach with the food on the golf cart.  Serabi clearly knows what this means.  She forgets about cuddles and her full attention goes to food.  The chain link door between the main enclosure and the retaining cage rises, and she makes low guttural sounds as she enters.  Pacing back and forth, she waits for dinner to be served.  Volunteers Linda, Cathy and Fred quickly enter the main cage and turn the large metal vessel full of raw chicken and beef onto the top of Serabi’s den, then make a swift exit.  They open the door of the retaining cage, and leave her with it.

This seems to be the pattern as we pass in front of another enclosure housing the Reserve’s first beautiful White Tiger, Angel.  She is a soft creamy white with light grey stripes.  She had an orange sister, Shekhina, who passed away in 2014.  Both Angel and Shekhina were in the same litter.  Breeding two white tigers together results in all white cubs. When you breed two heterozygous tigers together, there is a 50-50 chance of getting white tigers. If you breed a white tiger to a heterozygous tiger, there is a 75-25 chance of getting a white tiger.

Toruk and Eywa two other White Tigers were born to Bindhi, a rescued orange (heterozygous) tiger.  They had little time to construct a cage for Bindhi and her mate, Krishna, who were scheduled for euthanasia by their former owner.  Volunteers built a nice habitat for the pair and began construction of a separate cage for Bindhi since they don’t breed tigers.  They built a cage and moved Bindhi.  One hundred-six days later, she produced two beautiful cubs!  Those cubs were a great and wonderful surprise.

The tour group now stands before the enclosure of Sitarra, a rare Golden Tabby Tiger.  Her name means “Star of India”.  She is one of only about 30 in the world with that color mutation, which is caused by a recessive gene. Like the White Tiger, it is a color form and not a separate species.  When she was with her former owner, she had distemper, a deadly disease in cats, but she survived and is very healthy now.  How fortunate it is to see these beautiful rare animals right here in The Saint Augustine Wild Reserve.

“Here is Seze”, Karen remarks, “one of several large Tigers, weighing in at around 700 pounds.  She loves bubble-gum flavored bubble baths and is leash walked.”  The group is captivated as they watch the volunteers run around the outside of the enclosure playfully encouraging Seze to catch them.  There is no doubt she is loving it.

They continue their four-acre tour when suddenly, Karen howls.  The group exchanges bewildered glances.  Then they catch sight of the enclosures ahead where several wolves of different colors and sizes are emitting a cacophony of howling in return.  Among them are Kashmir, Magic, Aspen, Chaska, and Nakai.  Isis and Saber, the Gray Wolf pair whose bond exceeded the human marital bond, passed away some time ago.  The alpha pair is the most important relationship in a wolf pack.

Wolves howl to bond with their pack mates, to reunite their pack if they become separated, to advertise their territory to other wolf packs, and to rally for a hunt.  Each wolf’s howl is unique to that animal and can be heard from great distances.

As the tour goes on, the group is introduced to Jasmine, the Cougar, Kenya and Eclipse, the Black Leopards, the Spotted Leopard, Nemesis, Lola, the Coati Mundi, Cozy Bear, the American Black Bear, a gorgeous Peacock and so many more.

Everyone is enjoying the tour.  So much so that the end has come before they know it and they all agree, they are sad that it is over.  The volunteers have made everyone feel like a part of the family with this informative and entertaining tour.  Their mission is to provide the best place possible for the animals to live out their days and that is abundantly clear here.

It isn’t possible to relate all the incredible experiences The Saint Augustine Wild Reserve tour provides in the space allotted in this article; but, you can take this remarkable tour, see it for yourself and discover a world of beautiful exotic birds and animals!