With its tall brick wall and electronic iron gate, the entrance of Dade City's Wild Things ecotourism zoo looks as if it could be the front of a wealthy family's estate.
But, a lion's roar from the other side of the wall is a clear clue that a wild adventure awaits beyond that gate.
Close to 400 wild animals live in a lush, botanical garden setting at Wild Things zoo. Residents include a Siberian tiger, bengal tigers, black mane lions, black bears, a Florida panther, leopards, jaguars and ring-tailed lemurs.
Most of the animals were rescued and will spend the rest of their lives at this shaded, 22-acre, non-profit facility. Some came from other parts of the country; others are from Florida including the famous Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, a wandering rhesus macaque who attracted a large fan base while eluding capture for almost four years.
Wild Things is unique compared to many other zoos because visitors can get close to the animals during guided walking tours and animal encounters. The swimming encounters are popular, attracting animal lovers from a host of other countries. Zoo visitors pay a fee to swim with a tiger or gator in the zoo's pool.
"The swim specifically is what draws people from all over the world," said Kelsey Johnson, the zoo's trainer of young animals. "I had a group here from France. We've had film crews from Germany and Japan over here to do TV shows about the Swim with the Tigers. We get people from all over the world because of that."
Johnson says the swims are done in a safe environment. "For any of the animals, at least one of the trainers is with them at all times and we have full control of the animal at all times, so no one is just left alone with one of these guys," she said.
Johnson says there are no age requirements when it comes to swimming with the animals. "Our belief is really that if we can't make it safe for everyone, then it's not really safe for anyone. Which is part of the reason that we will do swims and encounters with any age," she said.
"I've done a swim with a six-month-old baby and I've done a swim with a 102-year-old man."
Don't want to swim with the animals? Other encounters are available. Visitors can feed certain animals, including tigers, and arrange to pet animals, too. Safety precautions are also taken with these encounters.
"We have different rules depending on the animals and their personalities about where people can touch them. For example, the tigers, we ask that they're not petted above their collar on their necks, so no one is allowed to pet on their head or their face," said Johnson.
If a wild animal encounter is not your idea of fun, you can still get close to the animals by taking a walking tour. Guides lead you along manicured paths through an old sinkhole that's been incorporated into the animals' habitats. The guides stop to tell you about each animal as you make your way through the zoo. "Our walking tour is up close and personal. You can be within four feet of a full-grown tiger," said zoo president Randy Stearns, 30, who is also a trainer at the zoo known as Tiger Man.
"What we're trying to do is keep the old Florida theme. The botanical gardens, seeing the animals up close and personal, you know, real Florida, where you get to see the nature and come here and it's kind of like it was decades ago. It's slow paced, you get to relax," he said.
The zoo also offers a guided tram tour that does not travel as close to the animals.
Working with wild animals is a passion for the Wild Thing's three trainers, who've been known to spend their off hours at the zoo. Edward Perry, 43, who is nicknamed Mr. Wild, has worked at Wild Things for two years. He trains coyotes, pigs and smaller wild cats and loves seeing the animals respond to training.
"They understand that, 'Oh, if I do this, I get a reward for this' and then they actually want to start working for you. The initial change in their mentality, their behavior is just amazing for me," said Perry.
The trainers say many visitors return to the zoo. Many have made an emotional connection with the animals and return to see how they're doing.
"We're actually a lifelong facility," said Stearns. "Over 90 percent of our animals actually stay here. So, if they [visitors] do an encounter with an animal, they can come back and see it full grown and they get to see it as it gets older, too."
If you go…
37245 Meridian Ave, Dade City, FL 33525
Mystery Monkey Fan Club