Jim Jablon leaned over a kiddie-sized picnic table and talked into his cell phone Monday as the lions lounged a few yards away.
Jablon, 46, has spent the last month living in the outdoor lion pen — passing most of the time in an attached enclosure — and the caller wanted to know how he was holding up.
"It's been a long month," he admitted.
But the African lions, Ed and Lea, "have gotten quite used to me."
After he hung up, Jablon couldn't remember the caller's media outlet. Dozens of interviews have blurred together for Jablon since he began the publicity stunt on New Year's Eve to raise money for his nonprofit operation, Wildlife Rehabilitation of Hernando Inc.
A former insurance adjuster, Jablon founded the rehab site in 2002 and started running the sanctuary full time in 2008. When Jablon said last year that he would be spending January with his lions as a fundraiser, media outlets around the world gobbled up the story like so much red meat.
He appeared on Good Morning America and his website, www.wrohflorida.com, crashed under the weight of the increased traffic.
At midnight Monday, Jablon was officially a free man, though in the evening he was planning to stay one more night to lead into a live spot on the Today Show this morning. He hadn't tallied up the donations, but he estimated that he had made it about halfway to his $150,000 goal.
"That's all right," he said. "I had a good time. To those who donated, thank you. It will help, for sure."
That will cover about a year's worth of food for the animals at the 14-acre facility behind his home, just north of County Line Road.
The place is home to Bengal tigers and Siberian tigers, white lions and cougars, spider monkeys, emus and lemurs, among others. They were raised in captivity, Jablon said, and can't be returned to the wild. He also rehabilitates and releases native animals such as raccoons, foxes and deer.
Donors hailed from all over the world. Some used PayPal. Others took the old-fashioned, paper-and-mail approach, and by Monday, Jablon had an envelope full of checks. One young girl sent change from her piggy bank.
A videocamera fed live images and audio to the Web so visitors could interact with Jablon, typing questions and comments. Schoolteachers signed on during class. Jablon answered questions, wrestled with the lions, sang Billy Joel songs.
Though he said he never feared for his life, Jablon didn't escape without a scratch.
At 2 years old, Lea is getting more aggressive, he said, and his arms bear the cuts from playing with both lions. On Monday, he sported a couple of scabs on his nose caused by an errant paw.
When the lions got too frisky, he retreated to the lockout — an enclosure about the size of an office cubicle with a gate leading to the 4,000-square-foot main pen.
Mother Nature turned out to be a more formidable living companion. Remember those freezing temperatures? Jablon huddled in a sleeping bag piled with blankets. The monsoon-like storms? He got drenched, pushing water off the blue tarp that served as his roof. He used a spigot to wash up and a portable toilet when nature called.
Some wildlife advocates have accused Jablon of exploiting the animals and sending the wrong message that big cats can serve as pets. He dismisses the criticism, saying he provides the best life possible for the animals.
"I'd love to put them on a plane and send them back to Africa, but it doesn't work that way," he said.
Brenda Cox of Hudson saw Jablon on Good Morning America. Cox, a 39-year-old counter attendant at Dunkin' Donuts, and her husband, Jim, donated money and helped deliver meals to Jablon.
"I thought he was doing a good thing for the animals," Cox said. "I think if all the critics would watch him, they would see he knows what he's doing."
Once free, Jablon planned to head straight for the shower, take a fresh razor blade to his salt-and-pepper beard, and climb into bed.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or at (352) 848-1431.