tAMPA — I have lived most all my life in Florida. The glorious results of a misspent youth include getting uncomfortably close to panthers and bobcats, black widow spiders and rattlesnakes, bears and crocodiles. One time I grabbed an alligator by the tail just to see how it would react. I may have been a stupid teenager, but I still have all my limbs.
But at the age of 58 — gray hair and achy joints still take me by surprise — I never expected to be stalked by a tiger.
It happened days ago when I sneaked a peek at Jungala, the new Busch Gardens attraction opening Saturday.
My cocky self was standing behind thick glass when the tiger, about 100 feet away, noticed. It immediately crouched, shoulders hunched, ears pinned back — the classic "I'm about to attack" cat behavior.
In my mind, I knew I was safe. In my heart, I felt like food.
The tiger's rear legs inched slowly into "spring" position, the way I've seen a domestic cat prepare to pounce on a toy.
Then it came at me.
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I love Florida tourist attractions, mostly the old ones such as Gatorland, near Orlando, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Both are still wonderful and going strong. My favorite old-timers — the Miami Serpentarium, the Cypress Knee Museum and Ross Allen's Reptile Institute — have vanished. I am pleased that Coral Castle in Miami, and Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, while long in the tooth, at least hang on.
Busch Gardens, an African-themed amusement park, opened in 1959. The following year my family visited from Miami. My parents headed for the beer garden while my brother and I amused ourselves by riding up what had to be the world's tallest escalator while stabbing each other with rubber spears.
I am hardly a corporate theme park kind of guy, but I reserve a place of honor for Busch Gardens in my heart. I have always appreciated the diversity of experience on tap there, from the free beer to the African savannahs and accompanying animals — not to mention those spectacular rides. One day I'm going to treat myself to a trip on the terrifying SheiKra. The hair-raising, 3-minute upside down journey on the newest roller coaster will be worth the three hours of violent nausea that surely will follow.
• • •
Jungala is a theme park within a theme park, a generic jungle with all the trappings. Adults will enjoy it, but I can't wait to return with grandchildren who will love it, mostly for what may be the world's largest jungle gym, the multistory rope tubes in which scrappy kids (and ambitious adults) can climb until their fingertips surrender.
But wasn't I telling you about a tiger?
Jungala features the best display of tigers I have ever seen. A dozen fierce cats wander three large areas that include waterfalls, ponds and cliffs.
I promise you — fragile visitor — that you will gulp at the approach of the first tiger.
Park planners tell me that what happened last December in San Francisco, where a tiger escaped its pen and killed a zoo visitor, cannot happen in Tampa. The walls are high and thick. Escape-proof.
Yet, for moments here and there, you may experience doubt. For me, a Florida boy who values the wild and the untamed, doubt happens to be a plus.
The tiger, a 350-pound male, charged right up to the 1-inch-thick glass and gave me the once over. Its head was enormous, its paws as wide across as a dinner plate. Its spine must have been 40 inches or more above the ground. It was magnificent yet monstrous.
I instinctively giggled and stepped back.
I wondered at that moment, and I wonder still, about which might be the superior being on this planet.
The tiger, held in bondage for the amusement of humanity, seemed absolutely unimpressed with me, a reasonably evolved (but don't ask my wife) member of Homo sapiens.
In another time, in a place favorable to tigers, everything might be different. The tiger might ambush Mister Smarty Pants, bite him fatally on the neck and drag him into the brush for a bloody feast. The tiger would waste not an instant on regret.
Few of us visit amusement parks to experience existential humility.
I will take my lessons where I can get them. A tiger makes a wonderful instructor.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or