Gibbons howled, peacocks screeched, and other birds crowed as I arrived at Lions, Tigers & Bears, Inc., in Arcadia. A male peacock strutted up and looked me over. Apparently I met his criteria, as he then allowed me into the facility.
Lions, Tigers & Bears is home to about 150 exotic and native animals, and each has its own story. Founded in 1998, this is not a zoo. It is a nonprofit, 40-acre wildlife refuge. The co-founders, Lynn and Dennis Wittmeier, have been working with wildlife since the 1990s.
Lynn estimates about 95 percent of the animals come from private owners; the rest are from other sanctuaries or government confiscations. These animals, including a black bear, bobcats, white-tailed deer and cougars, cannot be released into their native habitats because they lack the skills to survive. However, the refuge does rehabilitate native wildlife out of public view, and will release them if they are capable of fending for themselves. Most other animals, as servals, tigers and a lion, were born in captivity and found their way to the rescue facility.
Lynn introduced me to several of the residents, many of which came from what she calls Florida’s “picture trade.” Each state regulates the ownership of dangerous exotic and native animals, whether for private, commercial, or educational use.
Here, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission oversees permitting. Under state law, small young cubs (between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks and less than 25 pounds) can interact with the public, including being handled.
Many of the residents here began their lives as photo props at an attraction. Once the animal is older than 12 weeks or heavier than 25 pounds, it can no longer have human interaction. The fortunate ones find permanent homes—like Lions, Tigers & Bears.
Samson and Delilah, a pair of Siberian tigers, landed at the refuge in 2010 when they were 6 weeks old. They were bred for the “picture trade” but found their way to another sanctuary and then to the care of the Wittmeiers. She describes raising them as “privilege.” Samson weighed 2 pounds at birth. Today, he’s about 800 pounds. Delilah weighs about 400 pounds.
Cassie, a Bengal tiger, ended up at the facility in 2000 because of her fur color. She came from a white tiger breeder but was born orange. Walking up to her pen, she huffed a “chuff-chuff” sound, which indicates happiness.
As I toured the grounds, I had the honor of hearing Alex the lion roar. The 5-year-old arrived at the refuge last year after living in the Tampa Bay area. He didn’t begin roaring until he was 4, which proved bothersome in the urban area.
Sydney, one of two gibbons, was also vocal. She provided the background music throughout the day with her “WHOOO-whooo-WHOOO” which reminded me of a police siren. Sydney was a woman’s pet. However, when these small apes reach maturity, they become aggressive and potentially dangerous. She spends her time playfully swinging from bar to hoop to bar and gaining the attention of visitors.
John Deer likes to interact with refuge visitors. The white-tailed deer is about 13 years old and came from a Florida boys’ camp, where he was handled by about 150 children a day. In addition to his fondness of cozying up to visitors, his short, velvety antlers stand out. Apparently, he was neutered while still in velvet and will remain that way.
Besides the big cats, gibbons and John Deer, Lions, Tigers & Bears is also home to exotic and domestic birds, reptiles such as an 18-foot Burmese python and tortoises, and other mammals.
FWC oversees Lions, Tigers & Bears. The rescue facility is staffed by volunteers and is a family-friendly experience. The grounds are lush with green grassy areas, trees for shade, and a covered picnic area which is used by school groups and families.
While providing a caring home, Lions, Tigers & Bears educates visitors. Visit to see big cats and other exotic animals—but also to learn about each animal, how they ended up there, and the impact of owning exotic pets.
“I would love to see these animals go back to the wild … our ambition is to stop private owners from getting these exotics,” Lynn told me, then added, “Or, if they’re going to get them, do something where you’re doing something like we are—teaching people about the animals, about the environment and how the two of them mix.”
The refuge is not big, but the stories of each resident (including the founders) will fill your heart.