By Vanessa Caceres

Imagine: You’re outdoors, looking up at a canopy of tall trees and Spanish moss on a sunny day, and you hear something move in the bushes behind you. You turn around. It’s a fox.

To your left, two raccoons are cuddled in a small hammock. A few steps down the way, you’ve made eye contact with a mellow panther who’s almost napping. A few more steps, and you get so close to a great horned owl, it’s as if you’re sending telepathic messages to each other.

Is this some Florida wilderness adventure? Yes, but not the kind you may think. This is what you can experience at the Hardee County Wildlife Refuge in Zolfo Springs.

That natural, wilderness feel is just what the refuge managers want you to experience. “We try to keep it as natural as we can. We want to allow the animals to do what they want to do,” says manager Carmen Soles.

This hidden gem not far from Wauchula in Central Florida gets you up close and personal with a variety of animals native to Florida -- and the occasional nonnative animal. (That means you, Mr. Ostrich). The animals that live at the refuge were brought there because they were no longer able to live in the wild, said animal keeper Rose Kerth. They have a buck that was hit by a car and was rehabbed at the refuge but is no longer afraid of people -- making it hard for him to live in the wild. The ostrich was originally kept by a vet who donated it to the refuge. The fox was treated for a broken leg by another local vet who then sent the animal to life at the refuge.

Among the 30 or so animals at Hardee County Wildlife Refuge, there also are black bears, alligators, bobcats, cougars, otters, and a tortoise. There are also numerous birds that hang out at the refuge but do not actually live there.

While you may be able to see many of these animals at a zoo, you probably wouldn’t have the up-close, peaceful contact that the Hardee refuge offers at such an affordable price, Kerth says. For under $5 per adult about $2 per child, the refuge takes you along a boardwalk that essentially goes in a circle.

The animals are safely behind fences or glass, but because the refuge isn’t overrun by visitors, you truly get interspecies encounters when you visit. Some of the animals may be oblivious to your observations -- like the black bear munching on watermelon. Others, like the panther and the owl, make eye contact. 

"Joe," is a African spurred tortoise that lives at the Hardee County Wildlife Refuge at Pioneer Park.

- Scott Keeler for VISIT FLORIDA

Although some of the animals naturally hide when they hear people coming, many others are curious. If you catch the ostrich in the right mood, he’ll do a dance and ham it up, surely hoping for food.

The refuge has a few areas for seating and some written information about the creatures that live there, so you can discover a few new facts. Here’s one fact you’ll learn: Great horned owls have 500 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons, compared with only 60 pounds per square inch in the hands of normal human male. At the refuge, you can get a close look at those powerful talons.

Kerth recommends visiting Hardee County Wildlife Refuge around 10 or 11 a.m. or around 3 p.m., because that’s when you’ll find the animals to be most active. Some, like the otters, are eager to be fed around those times.

If you come out to Zolfo Springs to visit, make a day of your visit. The refuge is part of Pioneer Park, which is on the Peace River. Pioneer Park also features camping, picnic pavilions, and a Cracker Trail Museum, giving visitors a glimpse into the pioneer way of life once led in Florida. You can buy a combo ticket to visit both the Cracker Trail Museum and the refuge.



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