Back in the '70s, Vernon Yates did electrical work. Now he goes out in the middle of the night, in search of road kill, and spends the days at home, cleaning cages. In his back yard in Seminole? Dozens of tigers, alligators and crocodiles. Plus lemurs and lions, baboons and bears. Yates, 57, is an animal trapper and director of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, a nonprofit shelter for exotic animals.
How did this all happen?
"I started as a private person who just wanted to take animals in," Yates says. Soon there were so many animals to take care of that it became a full-time job. Yates founded the shelter in 1980 and takes in injured, neglected, orphaned and confiscated animals.
What's a typical day like?
Yates gets up about 5:30 a.m. and goes straight to work: "cleaning and feeding." That's how he spends most of the day. Yates is also on call, any time, day or night, to capture animals on the loose. He often gets calls from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to pick up wild animals roaming in neighborhoods, and from the Florida Highway Patrol to pick up deer killed on the road. There are also calls from law-enforcement agencies to pick up animals that have been confiscated during drug raids or at other crime scenes.
Then there are the perhaps more creative parts of the job: appearances at schools and fairs, to educate people; and even some spots in movies, usually with a tiger.
Once in a while, there's the bizarre gig: "I once got paid $1,000 to stand with a tiger outside a Halloween party," Yates says.
What upsets you most?
"Getting hassled by animal-rights people or neighbors who get freaked out," Yates says. People often tell him that it's not right to keep animals caged and outside their natural habitat. But, Yates says, being held in captivity is much more humane. He compares animals living in the wild to people living on the streets, because they have to always be scrounging for food and shelter. He rattles off statistics, says animals in captivity often live twice as long as their counterparts roaming free. "Why would Timmy be better in the wild?" he asks, pointing to a baboon.
Society isn't fair to exotic animals, he says. "If a woman gets kicked by a horse, who cares? But if a woman gets scratched by a tiger, all the news media will be here."
What advice would you give someone interested in this field?
"Go see a psychologist and have them stop you," Yates says, perhaps only half-joking. The best way to learn, he says, is by doing. But getting much hands-on experience with wild animals is tough, because of liability issues. Yates recommends spending a lot of time searching and begging, until you find a facility that will let you in. You might also consider internships or volunteer opportunities with Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo or Busch Gardens, he says.
What do you like least about the job?
"Not having enough money … having to scrape to repair, to rebuild," he says. "The least stressful times is when there's money in the bank and the freezer is full of food for the cats."
And what do you like most?
"I'm a very wealthy person," he says. "Not in money, but with all the connections with the animals. … I have a good life, a fulfilling life."
On the Web
For more information about Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, go to www.wildliferescueandrehab.org/home.html.