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Procat with a clause

Big Cat Rescue is doing a good thing, neighbors say. But an expansion request brings out a litany of concerns from some.

By JACKIE RIPLEY
Published January 18, 2004

CITRUS PARK - A canopy of old oaks shades the private two-lane dirt road that leads to Big Cat Rescue, a 42-acre refuge across the street from a regional shopping mall and flanked by big-box retailers and the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.

It's one of the few spots in burgeoning Citrus Park that's still the way nature intended it, ruts and all.

"And it's going to stay that way," said Jean Carson, a longtime Citrus Park civic activist who not only lives on Easy Street but who has owned the road for 30 years. "The county wants to pave it, but I'm not going to hold still for that."

Therein lies the rub. Big Cat Rescue, which sits at the end of Easy Street, wants to expand. But to do that, the county says the dirt road will have to be paved to accommodate the added traffic.

Carson purchased the road when she bought her property in the early '70s. Eventually, other property owners moved onto Easy Street and agreed that a dirt road was preferable to a paved one, Carson said.

In 1988, the cat sanctuary took over maintenance of the road when some of its heavy equipment caused wear and tear. Big Cat Rescue, formerly called Wildlife on Easy Street, continues to maintain the road.

Carson said she has nothing against the exotic cats but is concerned about how the habitat is disposing of waste from 200 animals, as well as the growing number of workers and visitors coming to the refuge.

"If the (ground) water is being polluted, it's being polluted for all of us," Carson said.

At a public hearing last week, Big Cat Rescue chief executive and founder Carole Lewis asked Hillsborough County for a zoning change that would allow the refuge to expand in order to better care for the roughly 170 big cats in residence there.

The change could eventually quadruple the amount of building space on the property with construction of some new buildings and additions to others. Lewis envisions, over time, a museum, gift shop, snack bar, office, clinic, educational classrooms and additional residences for caretakers.

"We needed larger buildings to do what we're doing," Lewis said.

The zoning change is meant simply to ensure that the cat sanctuary will be able to grow in the future, Lewis said.

"We can't afford to build what we are asking for anyway," she said. But "you ask for everything you would ever need in the next 100 years so that you don't have to come back and go through all the expense again."

The proposed rezoning is set to go before the Hillsborough County Commission on Feb. 24. The county staff has recommended that commissioners approve it, subject to some conditions.

During last week's hearing, some of the habitat's neighbors complained about heavy traffic in and out of the sanctuary, the unpleasant smell and the thought of wild animals nearby.

"I am for these cats, 100 percent," said Vickie Franklin, who lives along Easy Street. "But they need to go to another area, somewhere farther out."

Lewis said a move to a more remote location is out of the question because most of her helpers are volunteers who often come in for only an hour or two before or after work.

"If they had to travel for two hours, we would lose that huge workforce," Lewis said. "I would need the equivalent of 15 paid staff to do what we do."

Lewis, who has owned the exotic cat sanctuary for about a decade, said neighbors' concerns have less to do with traffic and more with a desire to sell their property.

"Developers keep looking at this tract of land and thinking they want to put a development on the land," said Lewis, whose sanctuary takes up roughly two-thirds of the property surrounding Easy Street. "But they're counting on putting the whole package together."

Lewis, a mortgage broker, acquired the land along with her husband, Don Lewis, in the early '90s. Together, they created a refuge for exotic cats.

Don Lewis disappeared in 1997. Police found his van parked at a Pasco County airport. He has not been found, and a court declared him dead two years ago. In the meantime, the sanctuary has evolved. Up to 200 big cats are kept behind fences, but visitors can watch as tigers swim in a lake and run full speed through their 3-acre "cat-a-tat." Bearcats, ocelots and bobcats drape themselves over tree limbs while caracals, servals and jungle cats chase lizards and birds, and lions lounge in desertlike enclosures.

On any given day, Big Cat Rescue is giving guided tours to schoolchildren or to adult visitors, some of whom stay overnight in one of the habitat's cabins.

Proceeds from the tours and other fundraisers help support the cats. Some came from circuses, roadside zoos and fur farms. Most, though, are former pets, abandoned once the owners realized wild animals don't make good house cats.

Such cats can't survive in the wild. Zoos don't need them and circuses breed their own. As a result, many are euthanized or sold to canned hunt operations, where they're often shot in cages. The lucky ones end up in places like Big Cat Rescue.

"We keep taking away from nature, and this is an opportunity to give back," said Dennis Mitchell, who lives near the shelter and spoke in favor of the rezoning. "The educational value is very substantial. I'd really ask you to support this most noble cause."

- Jackie Ripley can be reached at 813 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 17, 2004, 08:44:06]

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