Lions and Lessons: Teaching Kids About Wildlife Conservation

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Going to a zoo is one thing, but teaching kids about wildlife conservation is something else. At two Tampa attractions, Big Cat Rescue and Busch Gardens, kids can interact with the animal kingdom to learn the importance of taking care of Mother Nature.

As our sons get older, watching monkeys at the zoo has become a little less exciting. We have gladly taken on the challenge of finding “cooler” ways to observe exotic wildlife. So when my boys found themselves face-to-face with a 700-pound tiger, they found a whole new definition of “cool”—and mom found a new way to sneak some learning into an afternoon outing.

Big Cat Rescue and Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay, make teaching seem like trickery, as the kids have so much fun they forget they are learning life-long lessons. The two back-to-back animal adventures made the earth move – literally – for my kids as giant tigers playfully pounced on each other four feet away from us and giraffes ran over a grassy plain to eat from our bare hands.

We live less than 10 miles from the Big Cat Rescue (12802 Easy Street, Tampa) yet we never carved out the time to go there – until recently. Heading down Citrus Park Drive, past strip malls and restaurants, it is pretty hard to believe that one quick turn down a dirt path leads to a hidden sanctuary of lions, tigers, bobcats and rare species of the big cat world.

“In a big city zoo, animals are so used to being watched they don’t usually walk up to greet visitors,” said our guide, Matt Ruszczyk, a long-time volunteer for Big Cat Rescue. “The animals here are so happy to see people; they walk over to say 'hi,' which allows for a closer encounter.”

And he isn't kidding when he says “closer encounter.” The views are far enough away for safety concerns, but close enough to lock eyes with these beautiful animals.

With more than 100 exotic cats at the sanctuary, it is tough to imagine that they were not always so content.

Big Cats in the Sunshine State

Big Cat Rescue is a permanent safe haven for 14 species and subspecies of wild cats that have been abandoned, abused or unwanted. Breeders, who make a living from the pet trade, often convince people to buy the cats. A number of them were purchased by drug dealers and confiscated by law enforcement when the owners were arrested. In other cases, performing acts and small roadside zoos abuse the cats and keep them in horrible conditions, only to discard them when they are no longer “useful” to the shows. The number one reason that big cats are abandoned is that the public will pay to see or pet cubs in road-side zoos, malls and neighbors' backyards.

Most of the rescued animals stay sheltered and fed at Big Cat for their lifetimes. When the natural time of death comes, each magnificent animal is honored with a “Forever Remembered” plaque in the sanctuary’s Memorial Garden.

My children spent a good amount of time entranced by the memorial, reading the names of each deceased cat on the beautifully-engraved plaques with names and pictures. The serene environment was a peaceful way to teach them about the cycle of life and death and how animals should not be held captive for the wrong reasons or bred solely for show.

We grabbed flyers to read about the problems facing the cats. We were surprised to learn that the Royal White Bengal Tiger is not really a species, but rather a genetic mutation, the result of severe and hazardous inbreeding. To create the tigers, the parents must have a mutant gene. One in four cubs will be white and of those, 80 percent will be still-born and the survivors will be deformed.

“Zabu,” the white tiger at Big Cat Rescue,was born at a roadside zoo/circus that tried to breed her to a lion to create White Ligers. Like most white tigers, she has genetic flaws: a cleft lip and palate, as well as a missing upper lip. Regardless, she’s fascinating to look at, especially knowing the back-story of how she came to live there after the circus went bankrupt and no exhibitor wanted her.

All in one place, we saw tigers, ocelots, Geoffrey cats, jungle cats, bobcats, cougars, lynx, servals, caracals and lions.  Each cat has his or her own story. Florida’s climate and the open space beneath the giant reinforced cages make the cats feel as if they were right at home.

Safety is always a concern for parents like us. We weren’t worried at Big Cat. Prior to our 1 ½ -hour tour, the guide gave us a speech about staying more than three feet away from the animals' cages. There is even an additional small fence surrounding each cage, which serves as a reminder to keep little fingers away.

“These cages have survived storms with strong, almost-hurricane force winds without much damage,” Ruszczuk informed us, explaining the strength of the barricades and the attention paid to safety concerns.

My boys also enjoyed seeing the swans and peacocks roaming freely on the vast grounds. It was a peaceful, natural habitat. 

“My blood-pressure seemed to drop right when I stepped out of my car for the walking tour,” I told our guide. “It’s hard to believe that you become so captivated by the sounds of the cats that you tune out the buzz of the freeway less than a mile away.”

Day tours are $29 and conducted Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. These tours do not allow children under the age of 10. Kid tours are $29 for adults and $19 for kids under 10, where they can get up-close and learn about the exotic cats. These are conducted on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. The sanctuary is closed to the public on Thursdays.

For $50 there are a number of different excursions tailored to meet your beastly appetite for adventure. The Keeper Tour is an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at the various training sessions and keeper activities.  You can experience the rare opportunity to observe keepers as they feed some of the big cats, including tigers, cougars and leopards.  The sanctuary is also a place where budding or professional artists and photographers can go to sketch portraits or take pictures of the beautiful creatures on a “photo safari”.  These tours are only for those ages 10 and up.

Of course, no attraction would be complete without a gift shop for the kids to browse. Who can pass up a good toy store? I bought some flip books and key chains with stuffed tigers. Parents can’t feel too guilty about giving into kids’ strong-willed pleas for toys at this attraction because the profits go to support the cats.


A Serengeti Safari in Florida

If you plan your trip to Tampa to see the big cats and want even more of the African safari experience, don't skip the 30-minute drive from Big Cat Rescue to Busch Gardens, Tampa, which offers another chance to interact with endangered animals.

With more than 2,000 animals representing 250 species, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is one of the largest zoos in North America and home to more than 30 threatened and endangered species.

The theme park offers several expeditions they call “Up Close Tours” for a sneak peek inside the Serengeti Plains. Busch Gardens was the first zoological park to feature free-roaming herds of animals when it opened the 65-acre Serengeti Plain more than 40 years ago. Since then, the park has worked closely with international conservation agencies to assist with protecting and relocating many endangered species.

With the option of setting reservations day of in the park based on availability or by pre-registering online at www.buschgardens.com, there is a $33.99 per-person fee (with park admission, for guests ages five and up), we hopped aboard an open truck for a 30-minute guided tour of the animals. We completely forgot about the giant roller coasters zooming in the background as we participated in a giraffe feeding frenzy.

"You wouldn't expect the giraffes to be so friendly, but as soon as they saw the safari truck, they knew a good snack was coming," said my husband Lee. Indeed, the giraffes come right up and eat from your bare hands. Being in such close proximity made us realize how small we humans really are in the animal world. These guys are huge, but as gentle as can be. Our kids weren't intimidated at all. They were shooting off question after question to the guide about wildlife on the Serengeti.

(Having a tour guide, of course, is the added bonus for parents. It sure takes the pressure off when a professional who knows all the right answers can satisfy their curious minds.)

Along the way, we observed the behavior of zebra, antelope and ostrich. Another big treat is the herd of white rhinos, three of which were brought to Tampa from Kruger National Park in Africa in 2001. Busch Gardens partnered with the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of rhinos, to help relocate these animals. The move has aided in strengthening the bloodlines and population of rhinos in North American zoological facilities through the Species Survival Plan.

This wasn’t just “cool”. This was like being transported to another continent.

Tampa's Big Cat Rescue and Busch Gardens' Serengeti Plains Safari share the common goals of protecting animals. Watching your kids in wide-eyed awe is great, but knowing that they are learning the importance of animal conservation is a souvenir in itself.


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