Strange Bedfellows At Tampa's Wildlife On East Street (source)
April 12,1998 | By: Mary Lou Johnson and Lee Foster
TAMPA — Once the foldout bed was securely set up, the three of us seemed ready to settle in for the night. However, before climbing between the covers, we had to coax our overnight comrade out from under the bed.
Tonga, a member of the African wild cat clan known as servals, was our invited guest for the evening. Although most bed-and-breakfast establishments entice travelers with big beds and designer decor, Wildlife on Easy Street in Tampa is a B&B that allows you to cuddle with the endangered or exotic young cat of your choice. By cat they mean a baby bobcat, cougar, leopard, serval or caracal. (Guests are required to sign a waiver covering any possibility of injury, but no one has ever been hurt by the cats.)
Allowing overnight guests to share quarters with one of these cats is part of this conservation organization's effort to raise consciousness as well as cash. Carole Lewis, who started Wildlife on Easy Street with her husband, Don, insists that close contact with the wild cats helps the public understand the need to protect them. As a non-profit organization, Wildlife on Easy Street depends on donations and B&B rental fees to feed, house and maintain wild cats whose owners couldn't -- or wouldn't -- care for them.
A frisky young serval struck us as a good choice of roommate. With his large eyes, tawny color and lanky build, Tonga resembled a young deer more than a house cat. When he is not sharing a cabin with overnight guests, he roams a sizable enclosed area within the 40-acre facility.
Servals are one of the more unusual African cats because of their long necks and legs, plus their ability to jump. Tonga's forebears survived by leaping into trees to capture birds, among other prey.
Wildlife on Easy Street ranks among the most humane habitats we have come across. In fact, the cats' quarters are quite spacious, filled with grassy areas, trees and shady retreats. By contrast, the rustic cabin where we stayed was rather cramped. The thought of two adults and an energetic serval occupying the cozy cabin was a concern. Don't expect lavish accommodations, but do expect to have a memorable experience.
Tonga is one of dozens of exotic and endangered cat species that now live at this lakefront sanctuary. Wildlife on Easy Street also nurtures exotic species that are in danger of disappearing, such as the snow leopard, in hopes of promoting their survival.
These are healthy, active cats who devour $600 worth of chicken a day. Lewis runs the facility with the help of family members and dedicated volunteers. This is not a huge, endowed institution, such as the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Wildlife on Easy Street is the dream of a couple of Florida conservationists and their followers who want to educate the public on the wondrous evolutionary achievement that is the wild cat.
The lion's share of the financial resources goes to the cats. The animal habitats are lush, but the human pathways are unpaved. The entry road is a bumpy dirt affair.
The place is well managed for guest safety. Visitors and overnight guests are required to make reservations for tours and, for their safety, must be accompanied while walking around the grounds.
The entire facility has been designed and built by people who love wild cats and dedicate their lives to learning more about what is required to keep these creatures healthy, happy and comfortable. Some cats come here to retire in their twilight years. Others are recovering from malnutrition or crippling injuries. They are all displayed in a dignified manner in hopes of raising public awareness about the critical role of the wild cat on this planet.
High metal fences keep the cats separated from humans, but there are no harsh words, loud voices or food deprivation tactics employed to keep them under control.
Prior to turning in for the night, B&B guests are given a two-hour introductory tour of the facility by a volunteer guide. Visitors also have the option of working with animal handlers to photograph or videotape the various feline nuances of different species, such as the Asian bear cat, a creature that few Americans have encountered. The fee for these sessions is $40 per hour or $300 for a full day.
That evening Tonga was delivered to our cabin in a cage. The cage was well stocked with play toys common to many household cats. We elected to put the cage away and give Tonga total freedom for the night. After tiring of his own toys, Tonga tried to add a couple articles of our clothing -- a sock and a bra -- to his collection.
It proved to be a lively night. Despite the cool winter weather, Tonga rolled around on the damp floor of the shower stall before finally joining us in bed. When he settled down, he sprawled across half the bed, leaving little room for the two of us.
Between cat naps, Tonga made sure we weren't bored by leaping up and onto the bathroom sink in the dark, sending toothbrushes and toiletries flying. Tonga proved to be a pouncer, just like our own cat, a black feline named Jazz. Every time a leg or foot moved, Tonga attacked.
Eventually even Tonga had to rest, and his soft purr helped lull us to sleep as well.
IF YOU GO
- THE BASICS
Wildlife on Easy Street is at 12802 Easy St., Tampa, Fla. 33625; 813-920-4130, fax 813/920-5924; Website: www.wildlifeeasyst.com
Cabins accommodate two adults (children are not allowed) and cost $75 per night. Reservations are confirmed upon receipt of a non-refundable $50 deposit. Credit cards are not accepted.
If you don't want the B&B experience here, you can come for a tour, with an advance reservation and a donation.
During our visit, only one cabin was available but others were under construction. Breakfast consists of coffee and doughnuts. The variety and number of cats available for overnight visits will vary. B&B guests are briefed on how to handle the cats.
For more on the Tampa area, contact the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association, 400 N. Tampa St., Suite 1010, Tampa, Fla. 33602; 800-448-2672 or 813-223-1111; Web site: www.gotampa.com