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The FCF believes in the need for a captive gene pool of exotic cats in order to aid in conservation. The mission of the 501 (c) 3 non-profit, according to Culver, is “preserve, protect and propagate.”
“We preserve them in captivity through captive husbandry,” she explains. “We protect them in the wild; we have a conservation grants program. We support researchers and conservation efforts that directly benefit the cats in the wild. And propagate. Certainly we have captive breeding programs.”
If people truly cared about species survival, Culver goes on, "We would have breeding centers that would be largely closed to the public, and then we would have chosen offspring that would be displayed at zoos and the zoos wouldn’t be asked to do both missions.”
As a believer in private ownership and private sector husbandry, Culver also operates a breeding facility, N.O.A.H. Feline Conservation Center, which offers African servals and caracals, southern bobcats, South American Geoffroy cats and Canadian lynx. According to noahfcc.com, they sell “hand-reared offspring to facilities that will enhance the species’ survival or to knowledgeable individuals who will increase the public’s appreciation of these intelligent and loving creatures.” Kittens are currently available.
Culver also has a very personal interest in trying to prevent this legislation from passing; she owns 45 exotic cats, including cougars, servals and caracals. She places the first time she held a big cat — a jaguar in 1985 — above the three-week Hawaiian vacation from which she’d recently returned. It’s a joy she feels the American citizen should be allowed to have.
“It was like, ‘My God, the world is so beautiful.’ Never in my life did I think I would be looking into the soft eyes of this creature from the rain forest,” Culver says.
“When these exhibitors give the general public an opportunity to actually touch a cougar for a fleeting moment, then go back to their cubicle or their jobs or their kids or school, all the crap in their life… for that one moment, they came face to face with a piece of nature that they’ll never see again.”
FCF member Kathy Stearns owns Dade City’s Wild Things, where, in addition to sharing a pool with tiger cubs, guests can also swim with a baby alligator or, if they don’t feel like busting out the big bucks and the bathing suit, schedule private encounters with a tiger cub, monkey, zebra foal, or gator hatchling. Feeding buffalo, monkeys and bears is also on the menu.
Stearns explains that animal encounters are an extension of the zoo’s mission to educate the public.
“I didn’t want it just to be ‘Take a picture and walk away.’ I wanted it to be more educational, more involved,” she says.
She is happy to report that she’s had no issues at her facility other than one complaint of a monkey bite.
Wild Things is on the same spacious plot of land as Stearns’ home. In fact, the swimming pool in her backyard is where the tiger cub swims were first held. Wild Things recently added a fenced enclosure with a smaller, more manageable wading pool. She says she plans to add a zipline attraction to go over a tiger enclosure.
Stearns is currently serving as a mentor to Steve Sipek, a former actor who played Tarzan in a couple of foreign films in the ’70s (under the name Steve Hawkes). He was arrested in February for keeping three big cats — two tigers and a leopard — without a USDA permit. Sipek, a Loxahatchee, Fla. resident, might best be known for a 2004 incident involving one of his tigers, Bobo, who escaped and was fatally shot by Florida Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re getting his permits back. We set up a non-profit for him,” Stearns said. “I’m not part of their sanctuary, I’m just going to be a mentor to keep them legal.”
Stearns breeds tigers for her zoo onsite, and falls in line with other breeder/owners who would be affected by the proposed bill.
“What ban in the United States ever passed that was successful?” Stearns asks. “What it does is create a black market and makes criminals rich.”
Both sides feel the key to victory is arming the public with greater knowledge.
“The planet, as we all know, is under attack,” says Culver, “and species are facing extinction. Probably the greatest thing we can do is educate. We believe that one of the most effective tools for conservation education is the ambassador wildlife animal, in our case, the feline.
“We need quality breeding, we need knowledgeable people, we need real conservation and we need cooperation."
BCR’s Kremer, on the other hand, says that the public needs to be alerted to the potential dangers — both to animals and to people — of the “pay-to-play” model.
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