Very special people caring for very special cats
While in Orlando, I wanted to do something very special (other than visiting Harry Potter, which was also very special). In my travel research I had come upon a number of big cat sanctuaries. This concept was quite unknown to this Australian traveller, as in Australia we really dont have private ownership of exotic animals, and thus the associated issues of caring for these animals out of their appropriate habitats.
A bit of searching on the net found Central Florida Animal Reserve. A scenic 40 minute drive south east of Orlando. This organisation provides sanctuary and care for Big Cats that for various reasons, can not be returned to the wild, and is staffed almost entirely by volunteers. You will certainly never walk in such proximity to tigers, cougars, lions and leopards in any other environment. And your heart will never jump at the sight of such majesty so close, the vibration of a tiger chuff thrilling to the soul.
Our check in was at a tent at the front of the reserve, with a warm welcome from Kelly. The sanctuary runs on a tight budget, and is in the process of building a more official visitor centre. Our small personal group numbering only 7 people in total were were taken on a walking tour by Kelly, as she shared with great knowledge, respect and love the individual histories of particular cats, their personalities, their stories, and the issues facing them. With sadness I heard of one of the cats that had come from a "paid to pet" zoo and had become to large.
Equally sadly, I recalled on a previous trip to Florida just a few years earlier that a Big Cat had been kept as an attraction at a Fuel Station, the news so shocking to me that I could barely look at the advertising sign and I certainly refused to visit. With great relief I heard not long after that a sanctuary had stepped in to rehome him. CFAR take in cats from varying backgrounds that have lived only in captivity and would not survive in the wild. And because of their unknown medical histories, they are unable to go to Zoos that need their medical histories. This is where CFAR and organisations like them step in to play such a vital role in giving these cats some dignity and respect, appropriate housing, food, stimulation and care.
The centre is definitely not a tourist attraction in the traditional sense, and doesnt pretend to be. It is all about the cats, and as such, is the most authentic experience I am certainly ever likely to have.
'At the end of our tour I eagerly purchased a number of photos (which at $20 a piece was an absolute bargain). If I lived in Florida, I would be paying to visit this reserve weekly, so rewarding was the few hours I spent here.
Our 2020 road trip to USA covered 5 states and 5 weeks, and the 2 hours I spent here was without doubt the most memorable and life changing.
I thank the people of Central Florida Animal Reserve for the photos I have used and duly credit them. And please check their instagram and web page, "worthwhile" is much to mild a word. Their motto of Compassion, Conservation, Commitment and their actions under this umbrella provide these cats with the best life possible. Please support them, and do both yourself and the cats a favour, book a tour (or 10!)