Lions, tigers, no bears! Oh my! But there's plenty of other exotic animals living on a nearly 300-acre spread outside Gainesville.
Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation is a little bit of Africa (and Asia) right here in Florida. And it's a life's dream come true for the couple who own and run it.
Christine and Barry Janks built the sanctuary from the ground up. Taking care of more than a hundred animals is their full-time job and their passion.
One of the newer animals is "Rory," the endangered Rothschild giraffe living behind their house. Janks describes his enclosure:
"It's about two acres. We try to give every animal a large, natural enclosure. There's a section in the back where he can browse on trees."
“Siri,” the Amur leopard, is another endangered species that calls Carson Springs home.
"Less than 40 in the wild. Less than 200 in the world," Janks said.
As affectionate as all the big cats seem when the Janks show up, Christine emphasizes that they don't go in their cages, and they respect their wild nature.
"When the wild switch kicks in, it's just instantaneous, they're in hunt mode,” Christine says. “Their whole demeanor changes instantly. And that's when they're dangerous, particularly dangerous."
Married 29 years, their walk on the wild side began 13 years ago with a visit to a cheetah breeding center in South Africa. That’s where Christine met the founder, Ann Van Dyk.
"She walked me into a cheetah enclosure, sat me down and let me pet a cheetah. And I'm even getting chills now talking about it," she recalls.
Her love affair with cheetahs led to Carson Springs and four cheetahs of her own. "Tami" and "Spirit" are two of the fastest cats on earth, but on a hot summer day, they were content to gnaw on an acorn squash under a shady tree.
Another species at the sanctuary may also be the most fascinating: they have four hyenas, two of which were confiscated by wildlife officials.
They are spotted hyenas, the largest of the species, and they are a matriarchal society with an interesting twist:
"The female has male parts, pseudo parts. So just looking at them, you can't tell the male from the female."
But we also saw proof that there is definitely one of each: two hyena cubs that will start a new line.
"They're going to the Denver Zoo to be founders. Their genetics are not represented in the United States. And most of the zoo hyenas are getting closely related," Christine said.
The Janks acknowledge that keeping exotic animals in captivity can be controversial. They point out that their enclosures are much larger than what's required. She also says they're doing their part for conservation, and sending a portion of every donation to help cheetahs in South Africa.
"We're losing the wildlife. The fact is, no one will donate money, significantly, for any animal they've never seen and that they aren't familiar with, and they haven't been up close to," Christine said.
Staying close to their animals is more than a mission for the Janks. It's a way of life. Says Barry Janks,
"They're family. It's our family," Barry says.
To find out more about Carson Springs Wildlife Education Sanctuary: http://www.carsonspringswildlife.org/
WTTG FOX 5 & myfoxdc
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