There's a tiger nibbling on my shoulder.
"Tell her 'no,' " says Kathy Stearns, owner of Dade City's Wild Things, which offers tours and animal encounters at the Stearns Zoological Rescue & Rehab Center. The 22-acre private, nonprofit zoo houses nearly 200 animals just north of downtown Dade City.
The nibbler is 8-week-old Diamond, a white tiger donated to the zoo from G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. Stearns picked up Diamond when the cub was three weeks old.
"She was the highlight of everybody on the plane that day," Stearns said. The captain heard the commotion and asked Stearns to hold Diamond up to the peep hole at the cockpit, so he could see her. She started to walk away when the pilot called out.
"Wait," he said. "The co-pilot wants to see her, too."
In addition to the regular zoo tour — with bears, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, panthers, cougars, kangaroos, otters, foxes, buffalo, baboons, capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys, lemurs, prairie dogs, pot-bellied pigs, tortoises and Marvin, a rescued emu with a bad leg and a somewhat even temper — guests can opt to have a personal encounter with animals. For an extra cost, they can see Diamond; Mariah, an 18-week-old Florida Panther cub; Jay Jay, a teeny month-old snow macaque; and Roxie, an 8-week old bush baby, one of the smallest primates, as well as some other not-so-cuddly ones, a year-old alligator, a bearded dragon and a ball python. The zoo always offers the encounter experience, where Stearns talks and answers questions about the animals. You can see them fed and pet them and hold them. But it depends on what animals they have and if the animals like to be around people.
"You have to make sure it's okay for them," Stearns said.
Legally, when Diamond hits 40 pounds, which might be in four weeks or so, she won't be allowed to have close encounters with the public. Right now, she's 20 pounds: Short, somewhat coarse fur, bright blue eyes, big soft paws. She's still not sure on her feet, running sideways, tumbling, pouncing on toys, all energy and moxie.
"They have a determined instinct," Stearns says of tigers. When they focus on something, they stay with the target. Diamond's target Tuesday morning was my shoulder. Lightly nuzzling and sweet; playful, like a puppy or kitten. But Stearns knows this baby someday will be 600 pounds — and, at that size, Diamond cannot think it's okay to playfully nip flesh. So Diamond is learning the signals, the hand up, voice saying "no."
"They grow so fast," Stearns said.
For a free not-so-wild encounter, visit the zoo's gift shop at 37245 Meridian Ave., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. In the house live two rescued cats who are both missing a front leg — Sophie lost her left leg, Phoebe, her right. Both run to the front door to greet visitors, flopping down, rolling, meowing to be petted. No biting was witnessed by this reporter.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.