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Swimming with a live tiger should be on everyone’s bucket list of ‘things I want to do in my life’.

And Dade City’s Wild Things located in historic Dade City Florida is just the place to make it happen with none other then ‘Tony the Tiger’.  This is also where many specific breeds of animals reside, not just the big cats, in a very neat and clean setting.

Meeting Kathy Stearns who controls the operation of the facility quickly made me realize how passionate she was as to the care of animals.  When asked how she started such an operation she smiled and explained that for several years she was involved in wildlife rescue efforts which quickly resulted  into more and more animals requiring assistance. The facility simply continued to grow into the exciting attraction it is today.

At the facility of the big cats such as tigers, lions , leopards and of course our very own Florida panther.  Kathy is  quick to point out that while we have seen a great decline in tiger populations around the world  from over 100.000 to now less then 5,000 world wide it is not due to poaching, but the world taking away the ability for the big cats to roam and hunt for food. She explained that tigers require large amounts of territory to roam and hunt. When we reduce that, the results are obvious.

Her voice hardened when she stated that she fears that her grandchildren will grow up in an age where tigers no longer exist. However she is doing her part and her best to insure that will not occur.

But while Kathy’s project continues to grow it continues to be a seven day a week job for her.  “Running such an operation is not as exciting as many may think”, she explained. You have food and veterinarian bills for all the animals, safety regulations from both the state and federal governments, making sure safety rules are followed and many other issues. Just locating a veterinarian that is qualified to treat big cats can be difficult she related. You do not find to many vets who want to treat a 500 pound lion or other such large and potentially dangerous big cats.   She hesitated for a moment and explained, “It is not an easy task by any means however we love our animals and that is what is important”.

And loving the animals is evident when the tour which last about two hours begin with an educational lesson and a volunteer who displayed Meg the baby tigress to us.

As Heather McKeown, an avid writer as well and who was attending the tour with her niece Selena explained, “We were taught so much more then expected by a woman who explained to us that,  She loved her job and cannot imagine doing anything else”.

That kind of says it all.

The employees and volunteers were excited and showed their passion when they approached and spoke about the animals. As one volunteer explained, “this is the best part of my day, when I tell those on the tour about our animals”.

A final quick interview  with  McKeown  as she was leaving the facility was very positive.

Heather later explained,  “I was impressed with the love and attention the staff had for the animals and the respect they showed to all of us” she explained.  “It was a great tour”.

Dade City Wild Things has received it’s fair share of publicity in December 2012 with the receiving of  ‘Corneilus’  the ‘Magic Monkey’,  which had  eluded capture by authorities for more then two years on Florida’s west coast.

Corneilus  now has a permanent home on the grounds of Dade City Wild Things and appears to be settling in well.

Soon it was time to board the trolley, yes a trolley  which provided transportation from the main office to where the animals are maintained. A short and enjoyable ride with the opportunity to speak with Makylee Knight, age 11 from Washington State and Donna Forte from Philadelphia, PA,  both on vacation and  who were excited about the ability to swim with a live tiger.

Two experienced animal handlers of big cats who identified themselves only as    Kelsey and Randy,  were informative and  politely informed the two swimmers exactly what to do and what not to do around the tiger prior to the tiger entering the pool area where the anxious swimmers awaited ‘Tony the Tiger.’

As Randy explained, “We teach the tigers from a very young age not to use their claws, not to bite and we use toys they can play with. This will eliminate hopefully any accidents even knowing it would not be intentional. Also when they are grown they will be easier to interact around humans which has been proven”.

To prove his point he pointed out a nearby very large black and white striped tiger which just several months ago was the small tiger cub Kathy Stearns  calmly walked into a Pets Mart in Wesley Chapel, FL,  and was in the same program when he was small.

However now due to his size and not his temperament,  this tiger now cannot move freely among the public. “I could easily interact with him today Randy states, as he is a gentle tiger and that is because we set certain standards for him”.

Randy went on to explain that a change in federal law  prohibits  wild animals  which weigh more then 40 pounds from being displayed openly near the public.   Therefore, when  ‘Tony’ will reach that weight will no longer interact with the public and another tiger will take his place.

‘Swimming with Tigers’  was the brainchild of Kathy and her staff who realized that tigers love water and being small and the public interest in being near a real tiger could be beneficial to all concerned. “It has worked out well for us”, she related. “We have had visitors come here from several foreign countries to participate and with Randy and Kelsey making sure everyone including the tiger has a great time, it was a win win situation for us all”.

Now it was time for Donna Forte and  Makylee Knight both of whom had traveled so far for this experience to meet ‘Tony The Tiger’.

And out he came, full of energy and even on a leash was anxious to meet everyone in the pool area. After a moment of introduction both guests were allowed to feed ‘Tony’ from a large baby bottle filled with milk which he drained in a short period of time and was the only time he stopped moving about. Actually it was difficult to determine who was more excited, the tiger or the two guests who were about to swim with him. Playing with his toys and being the tiger he is, ‘Tony’ moved quickly among the guests and then it was into the water.

Tigers love water, however like all animals they need a little assistance to stay afloat if they stop moving and Randy and Kelsey made sure ‘Tony’ interacted well with those in the pool with him.

But then it was over and after a vigorous rubdown with a towel and a short play  time with his toys Tony was back in his quarters awaiting his next time to thrill the public. After a brief tour of the remainder of the park area it was also time to call it a day and what a day it was.

For those who have children and for those who do not and for persons of all ages the Dade City Wild Things park is highly recommended for all and especially to learn more about animals both large and small .  While swimming in a pool with a small tiger may not be your cup of tea,  the two young ladies who did found it to be a positive experience.

A trip to this location for school children it would seem would be a positive experience and afford them to opportunity to learn more about wild life and what we need to accomplish in order to provide that these animals, both small and large, will be around in the years to come.  Educators, are you listening?

Donna spoke highly of the experience and, “would do it again in a heartbeat”. This was one of her ‘things I always wanted to do’ in life. Now she has.

Makylee  also was excited with the experience and said ‘it was well worth the distance I had to travel to get here. She was all smiles and somewhat at a loss for words but  her intentions were clear when she stated ‘ I want to do it again’.

As we got on the  trolley to leave ‘Randy’  who wears many hats smiled when he reminded us that ‘where else can you find animals you love and  care for that can eat twenty pounds of meat in three minutes’.

At the end of the day perhaps Heather McKeown who was leaving with her niece and a smile on her face said it best.

“Animals are in  danger of extinction in some species as everyone knows,  I am big on enthusiasm and passion is lacking in our workforce these day’s. So when I come across  such a workforce,  a nest of amazing individuals who would not want to do anything else, spend their lunch hours with their favorite animals here and come in seven days a week I feel great hope for our world” .

I agree. While it may not be as large as some amusement parks we have in Florida it was an educational and exciting day. It is difficult to ask for more then that.

“Tony The Tiger” is now 25 pounds and growing.  Better hurry to see him before he will reach that  forty pound limit.

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By Chuck Johnson U S Army MSG (ret)