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It’s early in the day at Dade City Wild Things when we arrive to get an update on ‘Tony’ the tiger who swam with many over the years and to learn more about the two new additions  who will soon take his place in the pool amazing both children and adults alike.

It’s hot in Florida with temperatures in the 90’s and ‘Tony’ the tiger while once a young male tiger, who so many traveled great distances to swim next to him in a large swimming pool and feed him from an oversized baby bottle,  now lies quietly in his enclosure where he will now be observed from afar.

‘Tony’ has reached a size, which at 250 pounds plus,and an age that prohibits him from being near anyone other then his handlers.   While still gentle in nature, state law prohibits him from being near visitors and maintained in an approved enclosure. While adorable when small,  these cats grow quickly,  are powerful and must be treated with respect.

As Kelsey Johnson, the trainer reminds everyone that “tigers are a wild animal and while we may think they are calm, they may be having a bad day.  We have to be aware of that at all times.”  Johnson who started work as a volunteer some months ago at the park was considering a career in finance however fell in love with the animals and now is deeply involved in the training programs of the tigers plus other animals as well.

It was amazing to view ‘Tony’ who is quite large however gentle.  He rubs his large head against the wire enclosure and allows Kelsey who spent so much of her time with him as he grew  matured,  to rub his ears never giving a sign he is a large animal capable of the respect we must provide for safety reasons.  But alas, not all is bad for ‘Tony’ , who has a girlfriend named ‘Bella’ who shares his living quarters.

Training the big cats starts at an early age and is an important ingredient in the parks program.

That advice is echoed by Randy Stearns the head trainer who oversees that program. “From the time they are small we train them not to use their claws,not to bite and play with specific items we provide. You have to get in on the ground floor with big cats however they have bad days as well as adults do. You must be able to read them well and know when to leave them alone. It is simply a matter of respecting the cat.”

Stearns paused for a moment and then stated, “ It’s simple, train them while they are young so a year from now when we have a 300 pound cat we do not have a problem”.   Stearns has been around and training animals the large majority of his life. Growing up he obtained the title of ‘Tiger Man’ due to his involvement with the animal. ‘I would not wish to do anything else’ Stearns related.  His mother Kathy Stearns and his family were always involved in helping animals in distress, therefore this is the same only on a larger scale. “What we need to do is educate the public that we are attempting to allow each species to survive.   I know many do not like to see caged animals, however in many cases if we did not take them they could be destroyed. The animals are well treated here, many have an opportunity to perform in a safe setting, they get exercise and apparently enjoy themselves. If we can provide a safe setting where children can be educated on animals and the problems we face with extinction today, I’ll be pleased”.

It has been almost one year since we wrote on ‘Tony’ and his impression on so many who traveled from considerable distances to just touch and feed him. His ability to charm any person who observed him  was created by his trainer’s who now will turn their talents to two additions at Dade City Wild Things who are named  ‘Remington’ and ‘Thunder’,  both small in size and full of energy.

While ‘Remington’ was more interested in moving about, ‘Thunder’ was more interested in chasing his furry partner and playing a game of ‘got-cha’. While still in training, both tigers should  be ready to meet the public at the end of the summer  allowing many to take a dip in the clear blue pool and ‘Swim With The Tigers’. While Remington was the off spring of parents already at ‘Wild Things’ Thunder came to the park from a park in North Carolina.  Kathy Stearns,  the founder of Dade  City Wild Things again reminded us that the exhibits they have grew from a love and care of  animals which grew and grew in nature.‘We have some pretty elaborate plans for the park this year which will allow us to have all day tours, educational programs in the area of wildlife, programs which are centered on the children and we are hopeful to have a snack shop nearby on the grounds, which combined with a tour of the park it should make for a most exciting day for any family.”  Mrs. Stearns went on to say that cost in several parks where wild animals can be observed has risen to the level where a family is unable to afford a day at a park. ‘Not here’ she stated. ‘We want to make this an affordable park, one which reflects the days of the past here in Florida and one which is educational and anyone can have a great day.’

A quick tour of he park reveals a Florida panther, a zebra who wants to race with the golf cart we ride in, lions,  ‘Tarzan’ a full grown tiger who is ‘Tony’’s’ uncle, birds, monkeys  and many other species of animals who make the tour interesting.

Later, after ‘Remington’ and ‘Thunder’ have been put down for their morning nap, Kelsey and Randy , stopped their hectic morning work schedule to speak on the  situation of  the dwindling tiger population in the world today. ‘It is scary’  Stearns pointed out. In 1913 we had over 100,000 tigers and now that number is reduced greatly.

 That is an amazing number we all need to reflect on.    While many do not think keeping wild animals in public parks is the right thing, what is the alternative.

In their homelands they are being displaced by growth and expansion of farming lands. They need large areas to hunt and roam. If they turn to killing livestock to survive the farmers hunt and destroy them. It’s a bad situation all around and hopefully we can preserve much of the wild species that could be or already is endangered. We should not as a world wait till we no longer have the big cats to learn we made a tragic mistake.”

Thinking of trying to raise such a large animal. Think again.  Randy reminded us that  “These cats eat at east ten pounds of meat on a good day, sometimes a little less in hot weather. You must have, like we do,  a veterinarian available for shots, treatment of medical problems and the like. And never forget, they get large very fast. You would have to have the appropriate permits, secure enclosures and the list go’s on and on. It Is simply best to let those who can handle the cats safely, do it.  Remember, they are wild animals and they can cause damage. It’s best for the animal and best for the safety of the public”.

There is something about holding a three month old actual tiger in your arms or reaching out to pat his head as he growls but does not scratch. They are a magnificent animal. It is a new exciting experience which I am hopeful many will have the opportunity to experience.  We would also be remiss if we did not offer our congratulations to Kelsey and Randy who have announced their engagement to be married.  They both love the big cats and are perfectly suited. Congratulations to you both. The question is ‘What tiger will be the ring bearer’.

Dade City Wild Things. My second visit and just as interesting as the first. For a family who started taking in and caring for a few wild animals, Mrs. Stearns and her family have created an interesting location to spend some time and learn more about ‘wild things’ and how they live.

If you are ready to hear the lions roar or stare a tiger or panther in the eyes,  or meet ‘Remington’ or Thunder’ up close,  you may call (352) 567-WILD(9453) or check on to www.dadecityswildthings.com for more information.

By Chuck Johnson