HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — One recent, sunny day, a group of observers gathered around the newest exhibit at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
The volunteers and visitors wanted to get a glimpse of the majestic, rare young red wolves that were put on public display last month.
What they saw were three timid, long-legged adolescents cowering by the door back into their night quarters. One took a few steps forward, then ran around to hide behind his brothers. All three peered wide-eyed at the small group of humans watching them.
Gradually over the weeks that have followed, the animals have ventured farther, exploring the corners of their spacious exhibit, giving visitors an even better view of an animal they're not likely to see anywhere else.
The lanky wolves are the latest ambassadors in the state park's ongoing mission to educate visitors about the rarest of Florida's creatures. No other Florida state park can boast the same lineup of endangered and protected creatures as those that call Homosassa Springs their home.
In addition to the wolves, the park also recently added its first Florida panther, Don Juan. Among the other park residents representing endangered and threatened species are manatees, key deer, whooping cranes, the American crocodile, wood storks and black bears.
For a park that was an old Florida-style roadside zoo until the state took over in 1989, Homosassa Springs now prides itself with the lessons it teaches thousands of visitors each year about the precious wildlife of Florida that is slipping away.
The wolves are a fine example of that. The red wolf went extinct in the wild by 1980. But the animals were saved because federal wildlife officials had begun a captive breeding program, a program in which the Homosassa Springs park may someday participate.
Now there are more than 100 red wolves in the wild, mostly in North Carolina. But several have also been living on St. Vincent, an island off the coast of Florida's Panhandle.
The new Florida panther is also getting a lot of attention — but then Don Juan always has. He was tracked by wildlife officials for years. The aptly named animal fathered more than 30 panther kittens in the wild.
On a recent day, the 11-year-old cat was poised on the top level of his outside enclosure, eyeing approaching park officials and visitors like a famished diner awaiting a pork chop.
His intense eyes followed every movement, ears inching back and lips curling to a snarl if anyone got too close.
Just behind him in the spacious enclosure that houses the park's panther exhibit, Western cougar Maygar was pacing quickly back and forth, paralleling the park pathway where visitors view the tawny, muscular cats.
Although similar in appearance, the two cats are really quite different. Park staffers see it in their eyes and in their behavior.
"(Don Juan) probably has a more heightened sense of awareness. He's aware of every noise and movement,'' said Susan Lowe, the park's wildlife care supervisor.
"He's on a different plane,'' she said. "Think of it this way: That was survival for him.''
Maygar, who has represented the Florida panther in the display for years, has always been in captivity, and her meals have always come in a food bowl.
Until just a couple of years ago, Don Juan was a wild cat roaming 600 square miles in South Florida, relying on his own stealth and strength to survive. To him, the stare makes it clear that the human bringing his dinner could just as well be his dinner.
A developing taste for domestic animals and his advancing age cost Don Juan his freedom.
For months, the park staff gradually allowed him to get acclimated to his new life. Then they began placing him on rotating public display. The panther and the cougar are never on display together.
Lowe explained that with Don Juan and the young wolves, gradual introduction is preferred so the animals are comfortable with their new lives on display. In the case of Don Juan, "we're taking a truly wild animal and putting him before the public,'' she said. "We want him to be happy."
For the young wolves, the move to Homosassa from the Brevard Zoo was especially traumatic because they bond so closely with their pack and left all that comfort behind, Lowe explained.
The wolves are not yet named. "We're waiting to see what their personalities are,'' she said.
Already, park staffers have noticed that one of the three is in charge, one is very submissive and the third is in the middle somewhere, like siblings.
Lowe said she hopes that visitors who see the rare animals take away an appreciation for Florida's wildlife and become advocates for protecting the wild areas they need.
"I hope they realize how truly magnificent they are and how important it is to allow them to have their corridors so they can move around … saving the habitat they need to support them,'' she said.
Park manager Art Yerian said he is proud that the park has continued to improve and expand its displays with the continuing mission to inform visitors about Florida's wildlife.
"We've come a long way since this was a roadside attraction,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.