June 3, 2020

The Lions and Tigers of Spring Hill, Florida

Rajah the Siberian Tiger up close and personal.

(all photos by the author).

Ever wonder what’s in you very own back yard? We recently journeyed for months around Florida, bouncing from the Atlantic Space Coast back to the Gulf of Mexico side, only to discover that adventure was only ten miles down the road.

And by adventure, we mean a safari-style experience tucked away in central Florida on the edge of the town of Spring Hill. We interned in this very same town for our Earth Science teaching degree back in 2010, and had never heard of the place: the Survival Outreach Sanctuary.

Word of the Sanctuary came to us via a search for a base of operations on Air BnB. When a perusal of the Tampa/Saint Petersburg area turned up naught, I began panning out and searching the map in a lazy spiral, until the Sanctuary came into focus.

This intriguing stay immediately grabbed our interest: a 10 acre property where animals both familiar and exotic outnumbered people. And I have to say, we weren’t disappointed. SOS owner Judy Watson has rescued several cats large and small from terrible situations, and periodically takes in local wildlife such as injured raccoons brought to her by the Fish and Wildlife Department. Watson is tireless in her efforts to care for these animals and provide a public outreach service to the local community, and SOS is run entirely by volunteers.

It was sheer magic, waking up in our tiny camp to the roar of lions each morning. We’ve been to Africa many times and on safari before, and can attest that you would never be able to see large cats up close in the wild. They say you don’t really confront your own humanity until you see it in the eyes of an animal, and such a transcendental experience definitely happened to us in the past week. The only experience similar in my memory was swimming with the manatees at Crystal River in Florida a few years back. We often anthropomorphize animals, projecting on and endowing them with familiar traits… but I’m convinced that they see the world in a way we can only scarcely imagine, that, say, even a goat has a very unique ‘goatness’ about its very own goat perspective on the world.

“They say you are ‘goat’…”

Staying at the Survival Outreach Sanctuary was an education as well, not only in terms of natural science and conservation, but a lesson on the ugly side of human cruelty. The exotic animal industry is full of horror stories, and the animals at the Sanctuary are true survivors and refugees from an ugly business, one that would do such unthinkable things as breed Siberian Tigers for the recessive white tiger gene, all the while starving out and killing the majority of cubs. We heard and were saddened by the individual tales of each animal that had found a respite at the Sanctuary.

And that’s just one of the stories we heard this past week. Such is the cruel reality of a strictly ‘for profit’ world. The Survival Outreach Sanctuary doesn’t breed cats, and gives us hope that the long arc of human morality bends towards empathy and compassion.

A majestic female tiger as the Survival Outreach Sanctuary.

And with that, this week sees us coming back full circle to CENTCOM headquarters and Macdill AFB, where the morning roar of tigers is replaced by the call of reveille. We’re currently at a crossroads, the fate of which should be decided by the sale of our Jeep: do we drive it westward across the country and attempt to sell it in Alaska, or hop a military flight over to Europe once it sells? I know, these are the sorts of problems you want to have… and being stranded in Florida in February in the midst of northern hemisphere winter isn’t the worst thing in the world.

More to come!

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