At Dade City rescue center, you can feed a tiger or cuddle a kangaroo

Nakita, a 14-week-old female Siberian tiger, is one of the new additions to Dade City’s Wild Things, which is part of the Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Center. For a fee, you can handle her for 10 minutes.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Nakita, a 14-week-old female Siberian tiger, is one of the new additions to Dade City’s Wild Things, which is part of the Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Center. For a fee, you can handle her for 10 minutes.

DADE CITY

The jaguars rolled on their backs like house cats. The lions basked in the sun, and the tigers rubbed their furry cheeks against their cage, practically begging you to pet them.

Now, you can.

At Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Center, a zoo north of downtown, guests can bottle feed Nakita, a 14-week-old tiger cub, or hold Mahina, a 15-pound albino baby wallaby (a "joey" if you want to get technical).

The interactions cost a little extra, last about 10 minutes and are highly supervised.

Handlers keep Nakita on a short leash. They watch her closely as little kids try to angle a baby bottle just so into her mouth. The 30-pound cat's claws are kept short, but the zoo staff warns you may get scratched when she wraps her huge paws around your forearm.

Mahina, on the other hand, is more likely to burrow her small pointed head in your neck. Wrap her up in a warm blanket, and she thinks she's in her mother's pouch. If she gets really comfortable, you may get a kiss.

Both creatures have been equally popular with guests, depending on their preferences.

"You can cuddle (Mahina) like a baby," said zoo owner Kathy Stearns. "The tiger is the more exotic, forbidden thing."

The animals are just two of the 170 she keeps in her 22-acre backyard, which also serves as the zoo's grounds. Some of the cougars, tigers and exotic birds are rescues who could not be returned to the wild. Others were adopted from breeders and zoos.

Stearns opened her backyard to the public in 2007 after several years of offering private tours. She had a few reptiles for guests to touch, but Mahina and Nakita are the first mammals in her petting zoo.

Nakita won't stay there for long.

According to Florida law, the tiger cub can have limited interaction with guests until it weighs 40 pounds, said Gary Morse, public information officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Nakita will hit the weight limit in about a month.

But her interactions with humans over the past few weeks should be a benefit in the years to come. She'll be more equipped to handle the stresses of life in a zoo and will be less likely to bite humans.

"Generally, socialized animals do better in captivity than those that are not," Morse said.

Nakita goes on long walks with her trainers before guests come by. The goal is to wear her out so she's calmer around visitors. But like any young animal, she has tons of energy in reserve.

Earlier this week, Nakita suddenly tensed up while chasing a rubber ball around a kiddy pool. She lowered her striped body in the water and tensed for a strike at keeper April White.

White noticed the stalking tiger and nonchalantly prevented the attack with a firm, "No."

Other commands Nakita had to learn before she could play with the zoo's guests: "down" and "no bite."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Fast facts

If you go

Tours of Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Center leave from Dade City's Wild Things, 37237 Meridian Ave., at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Call (352) 567-9453 for reservations.

The tour lasts about three hours and costs $22.95 for adults, $12.95 for children younger than 12, and free for children 2 and younger.

Time with Nakita or Mahina is an additional $12.50 per person, minimum two people.

Visit dadecityswildthings.com.

At Dade City rescue center, you can feed a tiger or cuddle a kangaroo 02/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 10:33pm]

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