YULEE -- As officials of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prepared to release a female panther back into the wild on Commissioner Ron Bergeron’s spacious Hendry County ranch last month, they briefly mentioned White Oak as the facility where the cat was rehabilitated after being struck by a vehicle and nursed back to health.
“What’s White Oak?” members of the media throng wanted to know.
Turns out White Oak — a rural, privately owned, 7,400-acre spread that straddles the Florida-Georgia line — has been a key partner in efforts to conserve the endangered Florida panther population and numerous other endangered and threatened species from around the world for more than 30 years.
Owned by the Gilman lumber family since the 1930s and operated as a private retreat, it became a conservation center in 1983 — breeding, raising and caring for as many as 27 species of mammals and birds in open-air enclosures, some as large as multiple football fields. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), White Oak has a staff of about 70 that includes veterinarians, animal care specialists, and groundskeepers.
“Very different from a traditional zoo,” said Brandon Speeg, director of conservation and education at White Oak.
Drive along the dirt roads that crisscross the expansive property and you will encounter herds of zebra, antelope and rhinoceros in what look like giant, fenced farm pastures — grazing, snorting and sometimes galloping around. There are 27 cheetahs, some of which purr and rub against a fence at a visitor’s approach. You can see critically endangered species such as the Addra gazelle native to the Sahara and the mountain bongo from Mount Kenya.
White Oak is particularly proud of its 25-year okapi project — a threatened animal in the giraffe family native only to the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Besides breeding the okapi in captivity, the center helps raise money to conserve its native habitat in Africa.
Other White Oak residents include the maned wolf from Brazil and a large, colorful, fierce and weird-looking bird called the southern cassowary native to northern Australia and New Guinea. Resembling a cross between an ostrich and a peacock, the cassowary has a casque, or protrusion on its head that enables it to plow through dense forest in its hunt for fruit.
On a recent visit to White Oak, the 15-acre panther enclosure — dense with pines and underbrush — was empty, enabling animal collections manager Karen Meeks, a former Miami resident, to clear fallen brush from the adjacent dirt road. During the 10 months that the female cat released at Bergeron’s ranch last month lived here, Meeks closed the road to all vehicular traffic. She sneaked around on foot, dropping off food and refilling a water dish, making sure the panther never saw her. With a goal of minimizing the animal’s exposure to humans, Meeks relied on two strategically placed cameras to follow her guest’s progress.
“I don’t want to see the cat, and I don’t want the cat to see me,” she said.
When the panther had fully recovered from her injuries and had begun to hunt on her own, Meeks and colleagues joined FWC staffers for the five-hour van trip to Green Glades West to release her.
“To see her come in as a pitiful kitten and then see her run out of the crate was pretty exciting,” Meeks said. “It made it all worthwhile.”
Meeks figures the cat is the 13thto be rehabilitated and released from White Oak since the 1980s and the third since early 2013.
Darrell Land, who heads the FWC’s panther restoration project in Naples, says White Oak “has been a huge partner over the decades” and “an impressive facility.”
“I don’t think there’s any other facility in Florida with large pens and the on-site care to raise them in such a way that they can be released into the wild,” Land said. “Those would be doomed to captivity without White Oak.”
Only 30 to 50 Florida panthers roamed the southern part of the peninsula in the mid-1990s because of loss of habitat and vehicle strikes. In 1995, Land and colleagues embarked on a controversial genetic restoration program that brought eight female cougars from Texas to mingle with the natives in the Everglades, Big Cypress and Fakahatchee Strand in order to broaden the gene pool and boost the population.
One of those original females, now age 20, lives at White Oak. Today, panther numbers are estimated at 100 to 160 — and could go higher. Land says radio collar tracking data shows the recently released female has moved west and north of Bergeron’s ranch and “appears to have found a boyfriend.”
Until fairly recently, White Oak remained little-known and largely shielded from public view. Only presidents, bigwigs and A-list celebrities were admitted to its cloistered grounds, which feature a golf course, guest houses, swimming pool, horse stables, banquet hall and a conference center that doubled as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s ballet studio. No public tours were offered until about five years ago.
Last year, White Oak was purchased from the Gilman Foundation by Mark and Kimbra Walter — part owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers — for more than $16 million, according to published reports. The Walters pledged to continue operating it as a conservation center.
Corporations and conservation groups may book White Oak for retreats and conferences, and individual visitors can make reservations to take tram tours two days a week for $100 per person. There are other special events such as “Breakfast with the Beasts” and a sunset safari. New this year is a summer camp for kids.
“A pretty important part of our conservation and education mission,” Speeg said. “It’s not a Disney tour.”
• For more information about White Oak’s conservation and education programs, call 904-225-3396 or visit www.whiteoakwildlife.org.