A sanctuary worker fell in love with a baby panther in 1996. It changed his life. Today he runs his own 10-acre sanctuary and hopes to open it soon to the public.
By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2002
MASARYKTOWN -- Throughout her pregnancy, Lola the panther would not let anyone but Jim Moore near her.
When the captive cat gave birth to her cubs, she relented and let veterinarians close to the litter.
That same day in 1996, while working at an exotic animal sanctuary in Tampa, Moore held Black Majik in the palm of his hand, and his life was forever changed.
"There was just an instant bond between us," Moore said of the black panther that still depends on him for care and companionship. "It takes an incredible amount of work to build and maintain that relationship, but it's worth it."
Six years later, Moore has a 10-acre sanctuary of his own, just south of Masaryktown, and the first resident was all 140 pounds of Black Majik -- no longer small enough to fit in the palm of Moore's hand, but fitting enough for Moore's dream.
At age 35, Moore is ready to spend the rest of his life caring for endangered animals. After putting in 50 hours a week at a Tampa auto repair shop, he spends evenings and weekends with the animals.
"It's like having a kid for 20 years," he said. "The expenses across the board are unbelievable, and they never become self-sufficient. These cats are always dependent on you for everything -- food, exercise, attention."
But for Moore, the payoff is worth the price.
"There is so much more to them than teeth and claws," he said. "There is an intelligence there and a distinct personality behind every set of eyes."
Born in the Tampa sanctuary where Moore began volunteering in 1995, Majik became the Wildlife Survival Sanctuary's first resident about a year ago.
The black panther spends his days in a cage far larger than dictated by law, his 15-foot-high pen built to incorporate the comfortable sprawl of a large oak. The faint pattern of his rosette markings catch the light in the dappled morning shade.
"The animals who find their way here are very lucky," said Lisa Schafer, 23, co-founder and vice president of the sanctuary. "I've seen what happens when exotic animals are unwanted, and that's why this is so important to me."
Schafer said it was her studies as an animal trainer that prompted her to dedicate her life to providing permanent homes for unwanted animals.
"We want to make sure they have the best of everything, even if that means making sacrifices," said Schafer, who earns a living by doing marketing and sales for a small aviation company.
Each week, the sanctuary's residents go through 1,400 pounds of meat, Schafer said, and dietary supplements for the large cats run $150 a month. Even with two veterinarians donating their services, medical expenses for a sick animal can cost thousands of dollars.
That was the case with Benji, a 17-year-old male Bengal tiger that came to the shelter in September 2001. Benji had already been turned down by several other sanctuaries because of his advanced age and health problems, Moore said.
"He had been lying on a cold, hard, wet surface, and he had some serious nutritional deficiencies," he said. "It's taken a lot of time and money to get him where he is today."
Where he is today is a 3,000-square-foot habitat with trees and a small pool. Though his health will never be what it could have been, the volunteers say they aim to make his life as comfortable as possible.
Dedicated to the ideal of finding a home for any wild animal in need -- regardless of age or physical condition -- Moore said the sanctuary is a far cry from some other wildlife rescue operations that will not accept unhealthy animals and breed the ones they have.
"The biggest problem is that too many people go into this for ego and money," he said.
"When you mix money and animals, the animals are always going to lose."
Several examples of that philosophy roam the sanctuary. Elvis, Einstein and Violet, emus that lost their cachet several years ago when the market for the large birds went south, have come to the sanctuary.
"A few years ago, emus went for $45,000 for a breeding pair," said Schafer. "But emu meat never really took off in the United States, and now people are lucky if they can give them away."
The sanctuary doesn't discriminate, Schafer said, and is also home to a pair of white-tailed deer and a pot-bellied pig named Arnold.
The sanctuary is licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and within the next year, Moore hopes to seek permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would allow the sanctuary to be open to the public.
"There are not that many places around doing what he does," said Dennis Parker, a wildlife inspector for the commission. "Everything's in real good shape. They exceed the regulations and take very good care of the animals. When you have a smaller inventory, you can give more attention."
And that's what Moore and Schafer try to do -- whatever it takes.
"Living with these animals is a lifestyle change," Moore said. "You have to be willing to give up everything you had in your life. If you can't do that, then you're not going to be an adequate owner."