Florida Travel

Florida discoveries: 10 days with lions and tigers

A lioness enjoys the afternoon sun at Survival Outreach Sanctuary in Spring Hill.
A lioness enjoys the afternoon sun at Survival Outreach Sanctuary in Spring Hill. TNS

You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Survival Outreach Sanctuary in Spring Hill when the pavement ends and the path becomes decidedly more rustic. A staff member will drive out to buzz you in and you follow in your vehicle to the single cozy guest cabin at this sanctuary for displaced exotic animals. Outfitted with safari-themed artwork and an efficiency kitchen, it’s a relaxing spot to rest in between animal encounters.

Hanging out with these magnificent creatures, nearly close enough to touch a blue-eyed white tiger, is a sacred experience. Having one stare back at you with equal, unwavering curiosity is to experience divinity in its purest form.

Similarly, watching a full-grown lion roar from less than six feet away while you drink your morning coffee is an experience you won’t soon forget. Enjoying a late afternoon beverage a few feet from a Siberian tiger while you relax on an observation bench with an affectionate pygmy goat in your lap is pretty memorable as well.

Watching a full-grown lion roar from less than six feet away while you drink your morning coffee is an experience you won’t soon forget.

Myscha Theriault

Be advised however, the secondary safety barriers are there for a reason. To keep you from taking that extra step or two when you forget just how close you are to the main cage and find yourself wishing these majestic animals were available for public cuddling. They aren’t.

From an outreach perspective, however, this opportunity to peek into the world of the great cats is precisely the point. The need for conservation has reached a critical point, and any opportunity to generate enthusiasm for preservation efforts and stimulate dialogue is worth taking the time to explore.

“People fear what they don’t understand, and what they don’t understand they destroy. That’s where we’re at right now,” said Judy Watson, the sanctuary’s founder.

Cabin rates start at roughly $90 per night including coffee supplies and breakfast items, but extending our original three-night reservation an additional week brought our daily cost down to $71.

Free tours of the sanctuary, about 35 miles north of Tampa, are available to the public on Saturdays, with donations welcome. For groups, catered lunches can be arranged in their outdoor seating space for $25 per person, with a guided tour by an animal specialist.

▪ Survival Outreach Sanctuary, 22005 Bowman Rd., Spring Hill; 352-799-2334; http://soswildlife.org/.

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