Jacob Daley had never seen a real lion, he announced with woeful 6-year-old concern. His mom pondered his problem. The Valrico family held a membership at Lowry Park Zoo, but no lions live there. Then on a recent Saturday, Jacob's mom took him and two of his siblings to a place she heard had opened in June. Far south, down a road that turns to dirt when it stretches behind the Hillsborough county line, the Daleys discovered a quiet sanctuary. "It doesn't look like a grass roots, shoestring kinda thing," said mom Nancy Daley, impressed. Another surprise: A low roar that echoed through the 7 acres of Elmira's Wildlife Sanctuary.
Jacob stared at Casper. Finally, he could say he had seen — and heard — a real lion.
And that wasn't all. A tour of Elmira's brought the family past the cages of tigers, bears, wolves, lynxes and lemurs.
The Wimauma attraction, home to 47 exotic animals, began leading tours last month. Every other Saturday, guests can donate $10 to meet an eccentric array of rescued animals. Most of the wildlife are older animals, and all but one were born in captivity, according to the sanctuary's president Robin Greenwood.
Many carry quirks from previous homes.
A brown lemur's cage sits farther back from the walking path, because its inhabitant, Lola, grabs the hair of anyone walking by.
In a cluster of young tigers playing with palm fronds, one requires daily medication to prevent infections in a damaged ear. Taken from their mother at an early age, his sister gnawed at his ear until it was scrunched up and shriveled.
"This is a forever home," volunteer tour guide Brenda Roshaven said — a place, she explained, where animals can grow old and still be cared for no matter their needs.
At Elmira's, there's a bear that likes citrus and a bear that prefers tomatoes. A bear that will trade fish for a cage-mate's veggies. A Moluccan cockatoo that sometimes mimics its previous owners, squawking what a nagging wife used to say to her husband.
"They're not dumb animals by any sense of the word," said Roshaven, a 63-year-old former teacher from Sundance. She also instructs classes at Lowry Park Zoo and wears a small stuffed tiger key chain hanging from her belt.
The animals respond to volunteers' voices, some of them walking to the front of the cage when they hear their names. The big cats rub their sides along the cage. One tiger likes to play hide-and-seek behind her water tub, ears sticking out over it.
"You can't tell the size, the scope of these animals until you're next to them," said Roshaven's 53-year-old brother, Bill Deak, who recently visited the sanctuary for his first tour. "TV can't convey it."
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Smaller than other similar attractions and entirely volunteer-run, Elmira's took more than three years to settle into this leased location off U.S. 301. A house's foundation still stands on the property, burned down long ago before it was fully completed.
The sanctuary had been previously set up farther north in Wimauma, inside Dodge City, an old West replica town owned by fish farmer and Elmira's co-founder David Kitchen.
Kitchen and Greenwood's husband, Ted, started the nonprofit organization by taking in unwanted exotic animals. They named the collection after the bear whose cage claims a marquee spot at the sanctuary: Elmira, raised as a cub by the Greenwoods in their home.
Elmira's moved from Dodge City after Ted Greenwood and Kitchen died in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
"It may not be as pretty, but we're getting there," said Robin Greenwood, a 54-year-old travel agent.
With help from a volunteer crew and donations from local organizations, Greenwood transported the animals and built new fences. She found someone to live in a trailer on the premises, so the site would be supervised at all times. She obtained a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exhibit the wildlife, in addition to several other licenses from Florida Fish and Wildlife.
In its new location, the sanctuary doubled its number of exotic animals.
"This," Greenwood said, "is our own home."
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At the wildlife sanctuary, there is always work to be done. On a recent Saturday, volunteers cleaned cages and fixed a roof to provide better shade for the animals.
Even with a daunting daily to-do list, Greenwood keeps her eye on a long-term wish: A fenced-in play area so the tigers can stretch their legs and run.
Dependent on donations and just breaking even, she knows it's a goal that's a ways away. But with tours growing as word spreads, Elmira's banks a few more bucks each month to expand the sanctuary.
"We want people's hearts to be connected to this place," said Roshaven, the tour guide, at the end of the wildlife walk.
That day, a few little hearts latched onto the golden lion with a full mane. Finding a dirty pink ball abandoned outside the animal area, 6-year-old Jacob Daley runs his hands over the deep slashes in the plastic.
"What do you think made those?" his mother asks him.
"A lion!" Jacob answers with the certainty of a child who has, in fact, seen a lion.
As the Daleys leave, Jacob's brother runs back. Ten-year-old Matthew is timid, but he needs to make sure. He wants to know, he says quietly, if they can please be invited to Casper the lion's birthday party in the fall.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.