Low growls escaped her as she paced back and forth, only yards away. Her claws crunched the leaves on the ground beneath, and her dark eyes were locked on mine. Her spotted fur was mesmerizing, in a dangerous sort of way. She was not big, but what is size? She looked strong and fast nonetheless. At the very least, I was thankful for the chain-link fence that separated me from this wild animal.
Unfazed by the pacing and growling animal, Karen Malfy, volunteer at the St. Augustine Wildlife Reserve, saw me watching. With a warm voice, exuding pride, she introduced me.
“That is our beautiful Siberian lynx, Malyshka, which is baby girl in Russian. When we got her at three months, we would call her baby girl,” Malfy said.
This baby was fully grown. And watching me.
Malyshka was bred as a pet at the request of a buyer. When she was around 3 months old and it came time for her to be taken home, she had ringworm. The buyer wouldn’t take her. The breeder did not want her either, and so she ended up at the reserve.
The St. Augustine Wildlife Reserve opened in 2000 and is now home to many animals with similar stories as Malyshka. There is a big industry for wild animals bred in captivity. Unfortunately, such an industry creates a population of unwanted or abused animals. Therefore, a need for facilities to take them in is created as well.
“There are a lot of people who just breed primarily to sell as pets or into the animal trades, or use them when they’re cubs in commercials, in parks, people can get their pictures with them. They handle them and when they get too big for that they dispose of them,” Malfy said.
The lucky ones find refuge in facilities like in St. Augustine.
Founder Deborah Warrick moved east from northern California to begin a wolf education and show program at Busch Gardens in Virginia. The new program trained people how to interact with the wolves.
Warrick began rescuing exotic animals before her move from California. However, Virginia would not let her bring carnivores into the state, and so she headed south to Northeast Florida, toting along Genesis, her first tiger who is now nearing 18, Mufusa, a male lion and the symbol of reserve, who is now age 17 as well and Seirra, a now 15-year-old wolf. And that is how the reserve began.
Winding roads lead you to the reserve. And there it sits, nestled between sturdy trees and a spring fed lake, home to two tropical birds, two lions, nine tigers, four of them white, five cougars, five leopards, four African servals, three lynx, two pigmy goats, one deer, eight wolves and many other smaller animals.
Not all of these animals were unwanted. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission seizes animals when people do not have the proper permits to have them as pets. Sometimes it is reported to them or they find out through normal inspections. The commission has no choice but to seize the animals.
“It happens more often then we wish it would. It’s mostly pets. People are very upset when they have to give up their pets. Deborah will often say, look you can come here and you can help, but they don’t do it,” she said.
Yet some people have no choice but to give up their animals. Some are moving, some change their lifestyles and some get too sick or elderly to care for their animals anymore. In these cases, they will contact a facility.
Each animal that comes to them has its own story, its own tragedy. But in arriving at the St. Augustine reserve, they have a fresh start and they begin on their happy endings.
The saddest experience Malfy ever had at the reserve was when Deborah rescued two tigers that were six days away from being euthanized. Bindhi, a female Bengal tiger, age 12, and Krishna, a male white Bengal tiger, age 6, were the victims of years of neglect and abuse. Their owner, a breeder who made a living off bringing them to fairs and shows, had been shut down for gross neglect.
The reserve had no cage for the tigers, and no money to build one. Deborah appealed to Florida Fish and Wildlife to keep the animals at their previous facility for a few weeks until she could raise the money. They gave her the time, and Deborah succeeded.
When Bindhi and Krishna arrived at the reserve, every bone in their bodies could be counted. They had bleeding sores and callouses. Both had tapeworms. The vet drew blood from Bindhi and found that she had a failing pancreas and multiple internal problems. Her previous owner had continuously tried breeding her, but to no avail. She was in horrible condition.
“We almost lost her. One morning we came out, she had gone behind her den box and when we coaxed her out she could barely walk, she was stumbling. Her eyes were glazed, Deb got on the phone immediately with the vet, and drew on her own experience. We stayed here with her that night, and we gave her 34 different pills. Over the next day, we expected that she would die, and she recovered. Just a full recovery,” she said.
Over the next few months Bindhi, the female, put on about 75 pounds. Krishna, the male, put on 125 bringing him to a whopping 700 pounds. They were eating, playing and bathing, entirely in their glory.
“They were beautiful, and healthy and happy for the first time in their lives. At the other facility they only had a concrete pad, no box, no bathing tub, so we left them together happily in their bubble bath,” she said.
After a while, the volunteers noticed that Bindhi was getting aggressive with Krishna. When an extra cage opened up, they separated the two. However, in February of 2010, the reason behind Bindhi’s aggression became apparent. Unbeknownst to the volunteers, she was pregnant, and at old age of 13, gave birth to two live white cubs for the first time in her life. It was just a matter of being healthy and happy.
“We had to raise the cubs by hand from the day they were born because Mom didn’t know what to do. She just dropped them in the cold and walked away. She was old, she just didn’t know what to do. Luckily there were volunteers here who heard the babies crying and picked them up,” she said.
The female cub was born with multiple heart defects. Deborah and the crew tried to make her strong enough for a scheduled surgery but to no avail. She died at five weeks old. The vet said there was nothing they could have done, she just had too many defects.
But baby Toruk, the male tiger cub, was healthy and strong. Another facility donated an orange tiger cub, Seze, born the same month as Toruk, to keep him company. The two have grown up together in the same cage, both surpassing 600 pounds.
“They were raised by us from the beginning. That’s one of the reasons these are two sweetest cats on the planet. They are so gentle,” Malfy said.
While there is a happy ending to that tragedy, not every story is quite so tragic. Malfy said her most exciting rescue was when she got to raise a white baby tiger cub.
This cub was used as an ambassador for her species down in park in southern Florida. She was part of an agenda to educate the public about her species. People could pet her and have their pictures taken with her.
“She got to be about three and a half months old when the breeder or trainer realized that she did not have the temperament for that. She was too active, too feisty. So she was retired here. She was just very active, still is very active,” she said.
When these exotic animals find a home at the reserve, they revel in their care and surroundings. Animals in captivity can live double the life expectancy than those in the wild. That being said, the reserve does not breed animals so as to not add to the wildlife population in captivity.
“These animals are just taken such good care of. We interact with them, those of us who are permitted. There’s so many that we divide up and there’s a few we spend extra time with, make sure they get that one-on-one. Of course the owner is out here every morning extra early,” she said.
Soon after, the owner herself walked over. Warrick introduced herself to me and consulted with Malfy about one of the animals. She had brought Cleocatra, a feisty Egyptian jungle cat, into her house to give her a haircut. Cleo had a contusion on her tail, and so Warrick was keeping her in her house over night.
Malfy shook her head and smiled.
Warrick and her crew have been on a long, tedious but fulfilling journey at the reserve. They have overcome obstacles, shared in miracles and persevered each day. Malfy herself is the longest volunteer at the reserve and going on to her seventh year there.
“It’s a passion for animals. My mother says I was born that way. For those of us who have that fire, it’s a dream. I come out here and hang out with these animals. I couldn’t be happier if I had ten million dollars. It has to be a passion, it’s very hard work. Dirty work. You’re out here in all kinds of weather: heat, cold, rain,” she said.
Through dirty work and all, the workers are unpaid volunteers. To even be able to touch the animals, it takes 1000 hours of volunteering and six months of training to qualify for a license for each class of animal.
There are a couple of volunteers that have been coming out for five or six years now. The rest come and go.
On top of that, the reserve gets no government or public money. They only work off of private donations and sometimes things get tough. The reserve offers a tour of the facility for $25 a person. Malfy herself runs the tour, and in two hours she shows every animal, describes their backgrounds and how they came to the reserve while people watch tigers, wolves, lions and all other animals be fed a mere five feet away.
A big chunk of the donations come from the tours, and lately, business has been picking up.
Malfy says future plans for the reserve are to just keep going. With more money comes the ability to build more cages and therefore, the chance to rescue more animals.
Malfy’s voice thickens with contentment as she talks about the various rescues she has already been a part of. Like raising four 12-day-old wolves, or raising a lion cub from 33-days-old. She says her favorite animal is the one she is with at the moment.
“Animals pick you. There’s no rhyme or reason sometimes why an animal likes one person and not another,” she said.
That made me look over at Malyshka once more, who was still pacing and watching. Malfy told me Siberian Lynx typically prey on rabbits, rodents, foxes and different types of deer. That being said, Malyshka has never actually had to kill for a meal. Fresh meat has always been cut up and put in a bowl for her. She would hardly know live food was in front of her if a deer flounced around a foot away.
In fact, one does. Amira, a white tail deer, has free reign around the animal reserve. When Malyshka is taken for a walk, these natural enemies greet each other with licks and love. A video of this has been but on YouTube and just aired on the National Geographic Channel.
Hearing that, perhaps Malyshka had not been growling after all. Maybe she was purring.