For the first eight years of her life, Gaby lived in a 4-by-6-foot rolling cage within a traveling zoo — far under the legal requirements to house a tiger.
But Gaby was rescued by the Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation in 2011. Now, the striped tan tiger frolics in her 6,500-square-foot enclosure.
The nonprofit foundation is home to more than 100 animals, including about 30 endangered species. Established in 2008, the Gainesville-based foundation rescues and houses exotic animals, aiming to support wildlife conservation and educate the public with weekly tours.
“Our mission isn’t just to house the animals; it’s to educate,” said Barry Janks, co-founder of the foundation.
The foundation hosted one of its select Wild Adventure Open House events Oct. 2 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It welcomed more than 1,200 individuals to visit the animal sanctuary, Janks said. The event raised about 10% of the foundation’s yearly operating expenses from visitors’ donations. Its yearly budget comes from tours, private donors and Janks’s own pockets, he said.
The organization is licensed by Alachua County, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The facility is inspected at least twice a year and has never been cited for violations, he said.
“People come here, and they’re actually shocked at how nice our facility is,” he said.
Rescues like Gaby are brought to the sanctuary from the USDA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, zoos and other animal sanctuaries that have either gone bankrupt or could not provide proper living conditions, he said.
After her past as a show tiger, Gaby was initially timid and reluctant to interact with caretakers.
So, Janks spent the next six months visiting Gaby’s enclosure and talking to her, he said. Now, she comes running toward Janks the moment she spots him.
The foundation began when Janks and his wife, Christine, traveled to South Africa in 2001 to work with the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, an organization dedicated to the conservation of cheetahs and other endangered species.
“Cheetahs in the South African region are particularly endangered because they depend on farmers’ livestock for food and, in turn, farmers kill the cheetahs,” he said.
Janks said the organization focuses on education by offering tours to the public upon reservation, school group tours and opportunities for veterinary students.
During tours, visitors learn the animals’ backstories, how the caretakers care for them daily and why protecting endangered species is vital, he said.
“Everybody who comes here talks to me and tells me this is one of the only places they’ve been to where the animals look happy,” he said. “And that makes me feel so proud.”
The Jankses and Ann van Dyk purchased land in South Africa in 2002, then opened a facility to house cheetahs and leopards until they can be relocated to a safer place. Moved by the success stories of rescues, the Jankses returned to the U.S. to open their own facility in Gainesville at 8528 E County Road 225, he said.
The facility spans 275 acres andhouses a vast variety of exotic animals, including cheetahs, lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas, caracals, lynx and pumas. The animals are provided food, expansive enclosures and proper veterinary care, said Kaitlyn Gvozden, a carnivore caretaker at the foundation.
Gator is a tiger who came from a cub petting facility, where he was starved for the first year of his life to maintain a weight under the legal limit for cub interaction with the public, she said.
“At a year old, a tiger is supposed to weigh around 200 pounds,” Gvozden said. “When 11-month-old Gator was brought to the foundation, he only weighed 70 pounds and was severely emaciated. He wasn’t expected to live.”
The foundation fought for Gator’s life by providing him with proper medical attention and food. Caretakers eventually nurtured Gator back to health, and he now weighs 450 pounds, she said.
Wren Andrews, 25-year-old primary carnivore caretaker, said stories like Gator’s were the reason she was drawn to work for the foundation.
“I’ve heard so many stories of big cats that are used as pets, put in circuses and mistreated,” she said. “Helping them come back to a normal life is really fulfilling.”
The foundation is also home to Henry, the oldest male Indian rhinoceros in the world. The 40-year-old, 4,600-pound rhinoceros was brought to the foundation after he retired as a sire for conservation purposes, Gvozden said.
Kaylee Henley, another wildlife caretaker, said she admires the foundation’s dedication toward educating others about endangered species and the importance of wildlife conservation.
“When it comes to the conservation of endangered animals, it’s important that we act now,” she said. “If we don’t, it will get to the point where we can’t do anything to help the species survive.”
Jenny Rogers is a contributing writer for The Alligator.