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Take a ‘Walk’ on the wild side

The new “Wildlife Walk” at Homosassa Springs will give animals a much better view of humans - without all those ugly bars in the way.

[Times photo: Steve Hasel]
The next phase of work at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park will include a new cougar viewing area that will allow visitors to see the big cats from above at a safe distance.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


HOMOSASSA SPRINGS -- After several years of earnest fundraising, the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is nearing the start of its next major park improvement, phase two of the "Wildlife Walk."

The project, which may be under construction by later this year, will include extended boardwalks and a new cougar exhibit that will allow visitors to get close to Sheena the western cougar safely and without having to look through bars.

The park set a goal of $150,000 for the work and recently the fund totaled $135,000 with plenty of help from the Friends of the Homosassa Springs State Park. Project design begins by this summer and park manager Tom Linley said this week he hopes by the time the improvement designs have been completed, the total amount will have been raised.

"We're nearing the end of the road," he said.

The centerpiece of the second phase of the Wildlife Walk will be the cougar exhibit. Linley said there will likely be an area above the cougar enclosure where visitors can view the big cat from above at a safe distance. There is also a plan to include special windows in the display similar to ones at Silver Springs and Busch Gardens. Visitors can then view the cougar in close proximity and she can also watch the people.

Sheena is currently the park's only cougar. She came to Homosassa Springs in 1989 and went on display in her current location in the former chimp cage in 1990. Once the new display is done, another cougar may be added, according to Art Yerian, the park's animal care supervisor.

While the state park focuses on teaching people about native Florida wildlife, cougars are not native to Florida. They are closely related to the extremely rare Florida panther, however, and the park uses them to teach people about their endangered cousins.

When done, the enclosure will be one stop along an expanded boardwalk through the park's bird gardens.

Phase one of the Wildlife Walk, which opened in late 1998, replaced half the old gravel paths through the bird display area with a raised boardwalk. Cages housing owls, hawks and other injured raptors were replaced with open air displays that now are as likely to contain their injured permanent residents as they are to have healthy but temporary visits from wild birds.

The park's foxes also got a larger area below the boardwalk so the public could have a better view and a large flight cage simulating a shoreline was added to house roseate spoonbills and other birds. The park's black bear also got a larger area.

The second phase of the project will extend the boardwalk past the cages housing the park's bobcats and fox squirrels and the current cougar cage.

Linley said the park will design the boardwalk to stretch all the way through to where the deer are displayed by the animal encounter building and then as much will be built as can be afforded once the project is under way.

Another part of the park slated for improvement is near the otter display, where an area has been cleared in preparation for construction of a new reptile building. The park also has plans for improved facilities to provide medical treatment for manatees.

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